Mind Matters — The Underlying Bias of Our Perceptions

Did you know that holding a gun in your hand makes you more prone to think that others are holding a gun also?

Did you know that our belief in a just world may bias us to ignore the injustices in it?

These two points are related in terms of how we form perceptions about the world. Regarding guns, psychologist James Brockmole of the University of Notre Dame, performed research that showed that wielding a gun produces a bias of perception: when you hold a gun in your hand, you are more likely to think you “see” a gun in another’s hand, no matter what they may be holding. In these studies, subjects held either a toy gun or a neutral object such as a foam ball. When the subjects held the toy gun, their reports were overwhelmingly “gun present” to the various computer images of individuals displayed on the screen, no matter what race or what garb warn (including ski mask, but perhaps also a “hoodie”). Simply by holding gun in hand, a person’s perception becomes biased to see a gun and therefore might more readily engage in “threat-induced behavior, perhaps even to the point of shooting.” (See al.nd.edu/news/29722.)

Professor Brockmole notes, “Beliefs, expectations, and emotions can all influence an observer’s ability to detect and to categorize objects as guns. … A person’s ability to act in certain ways can bias their recognition of objects as well, and in dramatic ways. It seems that people have a hard time separating their thoughts about what they perceive and their thoughts about how they can or should act.”

But our biases of perception do not end with gun in hand. We also appear to hold on to the notion that justice prevails—even when it clearly does not. Professor of Psychology, Danny Oppenheimer says that “people are strongly motivated to believe that the world is just—that people get what they deserve. … So people want to believe that a victim deserved it, or brought it on him/herself.” (Also see the literature about the Just World Hypothesis—for example, www.theatlantic.com/daily-dish/archive/2009/09/a-just-world/196991/.)

Perhaps we victimize the victim to separate ourselves from the possibility of an injustice happening to us. “He wore a hoodie,” “Well, she wore a mini-skirt.” When we put down the victim in this way, we maintain the illusion of a just world by rationalizing that the victim was somehow to blame.

I remember my aunt tsk-tsk-ing when I was a young teen (early sixties) and the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to make the news: A white woman, mother of five children was hunted down and killed on the road because of her activism. My aunt’s reaction wasn’t horror at the killers, but damning of the woman for being there in the first place.

In the grief group I facilitate, one parent told the story of how mean comments appeared on the internet when her son died. Her son was bicycling and was hit by a motorist. The commentators blamed the parents for allowing their twelve-year-old to ride his bike, etc., etc. Another case of blaming the victim.

In lieu of compassion, when we rationalize a way to make a tragedy a “just and deserved” event, we suffer the bias of misperception just as much as we can delude ourselves that another holds a gun simply because we do.

Breaking News: Just as I think I have finished this column, I hear on NPR that the Supreme Court, 5-4, has allowed for strip searches when persons enter jails, even for minor violations, such as breaking a leash law. Consider this: next time, upon hearing a person was unnecessarily strip-searched, will you assume the “just world hypothesis” and brush away this affront to an individual as he or she must have “deserved” it?