Your Brain Is Tricking You While You Try to Fight for Justice
And nothing will get better until we change the way we communicate, says one author.
“If a student from your own dorm walked into this class late right now,” said the professor, “you’d assume something held them up on the way to class.”
At my small Christian college, dorms were nearly the equivalent of a fraternity or sorority. There was as much camaraderie, as much competition, and as many stereotypes as in any public school Greek system.
“Maybe the dining commons ran out of coffee,” he continued. “Maybe they had a horrible accident. But your brain will conclude that there must have been some circumstance making life hard for them and if surveyed in the moment. That’s what you would tell the interviewer.
“But if a student from another dorm walks in late, you will assume they are lazy. They overslept. They have a problem with motivation. That’s what this study is telling us. That’s what all the studies confirm.”
He kept describing this phenomenon, which scientists have studied at length, but I couldn’t get past this mundane example. If my brain was tricking me on something so small, so innocuous—where else was it tricking me? Where else might it trick me—on much bigger issues?
I’ve thought of that example hundreds of times over the years, watching politicians, pundits, news editors, voters and commenters interact with each other. We all go to extreme lengths to defend our own decisions, our own groups, our own beliefs. There are no exceptions to this. And when a media organization finds a method that works (to make money) for them, even if it takes advantage of the reader or listeners, they lean in—hard.
Having been a newsreader for the BBC and consultant for global nonprofits, Genelle Aldred has seen it all too. And she has conclusions: in this global news age, a time of near-instantaneous information, the way we discuss complex issues just has not caught up. Our communication methods, our very way of thinking, is too black and white for a world full of nuance.
Aldred has summed it all up in one of the freshest books of the year: Communicate for Change, (SPCK Publishing, 2021). “Think of all the different ways that the stories we hear can be distorted,” she writes. “So many variables go into their presentation. How differently would we see the world if we were offered more complexity and nuance?”
This is a book about ingroups and outgroups, familiarity effect, and (as in the late-for-class example) attribution bias, but without the tricky terms. And the truth is that none of us is ever far from such biases. We all have them. The question is, how often do we bother to bring them up to the surface—to dig out the unconscious, examine it, and bring it to the conscious mind?
After all, that’s exactly what Jesus asks us to do, Aldred points out. He asks us to look inside. (From the preface: “As a result, the people who were about to kill the adulterous woman all dropped their stones and walked away, and her life was spared. As we try to tell others what to do, how much honesty is missing from our communication about our own part in maintaining an unjust world?”)
There’s a maturity that surely comes, maybe during adolescence, with realizing that something can be reframed… that someone could have used different words to tell a story. How stories are chosen and presented—it all matters. This is especially true for audiences and policymakers, but it’s also about more than journalism. After all, we have four gospels, differing in style, intended audience, and sometimes even minor details, that tell the story of Jesus’ life.
And reframing is what must happen, Aldred argues, in the national conversations on race, charity, and privilege. It’s human nature to see things in black & white, us vs. them. Aldred turns our head to the grey area, the both/ands, and holds our gaze there for a while.
The great thing about Aldred’s writing is that while you can tell she has had a religious upbringing and her observations are rooted in the teachings of Jesus, her application works for readers of any race, religion or background because she’s not wagging fingers at any one group. Instead, she focuses on the way we relate and the biases we all hold.
Her language is rich, straightforward, takes some time to marinate. She doesn’t provide a lot of answers—more like a host of new questions. That may bother some readers, but for others, maybe it’s exactly what is needed in order to start a longer, more thorough, and nuanced conversation.
Laura Finch edits the Better Samaritan blog. She has worked previously for C-SPAN, the U.S. House of Representatives and two state legislatures. She has also reviewed books, TV and movies for WORLD Magazine.