Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Obstacle of Bias

Because humans are individuals with separate identities and consciousness, it is inevitable that each of us must begin our exploration of the world from a subjective viewpoint. The real struggle is to continually push past our own perspectives and to challenge them. In interactions with other people, the ability to see things from their point of view is called theory of mind. Autistic people are said to be deficient or completely lacking in theory of mind (Zimbardo 2008).

Although my culture, age, and gender undoubtedly do color my perception of the world around me, I believe that these pale beside the potential for bias provided by AS (Asperger’s Syndrome). For years, I did not know that I had AS. I thought everyone else was strange and lacking in color. They didn’t seem to appreciate the things that so enthralled me, such as the intricate patterns of warm air meeting cold, or incense smoke curling into the air, or the perfection in the smallest part of plant life. They also seemed anosmic unless smells were virtually shouting to them, which meant of course that when someone wore a scent they could smell, it was shouting at me. They seemed to think little and to speak much, and to get angry if I couldn’t immediately process their words into a visual picture, formulate a reply, and verbalize it within seconds. By the time I spoke to them, the subject would have changed or they would be walking away. Along with being touched unexpectedly, the eye contact they were so insistent upon was excruciating. It felt like having my soul invaded and raped.

I perceived the world as being inundated with incredibly annoying people with nothing interesting to say (my own interests were rather narrow and intense). At other times I was dismayed to feel disliked and couldn’t understand why, but I enjoyed my solitude anyway. People often said that I was weird, lazy, off in my own little world, and that with effort I could be like them. Naturally, I was not thrilled by that thought! It wasn’t until I met another person on the autism spectrum and observed behavior similar to my own through outside eyes that I realized how I must look to others. I began quizzing the neurotypical people I met, to compare notes on our mental processes. I was shocked to discover that they tended not to think in pictures (or not complicated pictures anyway), that they did not have to turn words into pictures to comprehend the verbal sounds, that they did not associate people with colors or numbers, never experienced dissociation, and were unbothered by sensory stimuli which were unbearable for me. Finally, they could no more imagine the world from my point of view than I could from theirs.

So while theory of mind may be a particular obstacle to autistics, I think that on a wider scale, everyone experiences it to some degree, and in most cases, are unaware of it. This can be a contributing factor to prejudice and bias.

For example, consider the opinion that autism “sufferers” (this word alone denotes bias, as it would if applied to homosexuals or minorities) who do not speak cannot have advanced verbal abilities (Zimbardo, 2008). While facilitated communication was obviously a misbegotten fiasco, there are many non-verbal autistics who communicate extremely well through writing. Amanda Baggs communicates more articulately through writing than speaking people do even though she is a non-verbal autistic (Baggs). The spoken language is so important to humans that it is common to assume retardation when a person is difficult to understand (ask anyone who has cerebral palsy). Deaf people were assumed to lack cognition by Aristotle, a mentality that is still echoed today in the term “deaf and dumb” (NAD). These are all examples of representativeness bias (Zimbardo, 2008).

Bias as a starting point may be natural and automatic, but it can be overcome through the same methods used elsewhere in science; skepticism (challenging one’s own views), case studies (meeting and getting to know people that you would usually be biased against), careful observation, and review and questioning of factual data (Zimbardo, 2008).


Baggs, Amanda. ballastexistenz

National Association of the Deaf

Zimbardo, Philip G. Psychology Core Concepts, 2008. Page 5, 29, 30, 152, 317, 511.

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