Defeating biases to build multicultural relationships
July 3, 2018
Author: Jopie de Beer, CEO of JvR Africa Group
The world, as a global village, is becoming progressively more diverse. Whether the movement of people has to do with emigrants fleeing their country of origin, or people who prefer to stay in a new environment – there is no doubt that societies and cultures are becoming more interwoven.
Within a multicultural context, even outside their country of origin, people seem to find it comfortable and easier to socialise with those with whom they share values, history, language, habits, beliefs, and possibly even appearance.
In exceedingly diverse societies, like South Africa, deep divisions between groups may allow for a variety of thinking habits to develop about each other. To achieve the united country, we have been striving for, we must be conscious of these thinking habits and actively work to avoid them.
We all use thinking habits and biases to make decision-making easier. People very seldom have all the facts, nor can they comprehend all the facts, even if they wanted to. Herbert Simon called this our ‘bounded rationality’. We like to think of ourselves as rational, but, everyone one of us must rely on a wide range of assumptions to cope with the overwhelming complexity of day to day decision-making.
The problem comes in when our assumptions are wrong. We often feel so convinced of the truth as we see it, that we literally become blind to evidence that may prove us wrong.
Regardless of our background, gender, race, or beliefs, as human beings our minds tend to work in similar ways. We tend to make similar kinds of systematic decision-making errors, and it is only through education and mindfulness that we can become aware of their effect on our thinking.
Here are some common biases that impact the way we see the world:
- “If many people are saying the same thing – it must be true” – This thinking habit is called the “bandwagon effect”, implying that everybody jumps on the same bandwagon without asking questions. Very few people have the inclination to challenge such commonly held beliefs, and people can become infuriated if such a belief is not upheld.
- “Of course, I can prove my way of thinking!” – called “confirmation bias”, we tend to actively seek proof that our beliefs are true. In this case, people would tend to ignore many pieces of relevant information only to jump on a single event or fact that seems to confirm their original stance. They often unconsciously ignore other relevant information that may indicate their beliefs to be untrue.
- “We need to be so careful – they are against us!” – known as the “hostile attribution bias”, this refers to a tendency of people to interpret the intention of others as aggressive or hostile, even when the behaviour is ambiguous or benign. Instead of working with objective facts the person’s decision-making is influenced by a habit or a mindset that expects others to be negative or aggressive toward them.
- “You cannot believe how bad it was!” – Some people tend to recall events as negative, unacceptable, disastrous or unpleasant. Human memories are highly susceptible to recalling events inaccurately, and this negativity bias adds to the inaccuracy with a negative perception. Some people therefore only remember what went wrong.
- “They are all bad!” – it is quite common for people to base decisions on generalising the actions of one individual as representing the whole community or group.
- “Let me tell you what is good!” – most people feel comfortable with what they are familiar with. This thinking habit suggests that only those that I know are good, or to be trusted.
If any of the above statements seemed familiar to you, you are a human being like the rest of us. We all find relationship building difficult, even in the best of times, and downright painful in the worst of times. Add in some diversity to the mix, and things get even harder.
However, no matter the difficulties, human beings are natural relationship builders. With some basic knowledge of biases, we can overcome many of the obstacles to building strong, diverse relationships – a basic requirement of building our rainbow nation.