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Black and white cowboy hats

Black & White Cowboy Hats

In westerns you can tell the difference between the hero and villain in a nanosecond.   The hero is wearing the white hat.  The villain is wearing the black hat.  A glimpse at the screen and this symbolism immediately identifies and contrasts the “righteous” and “wicked.”

Your Need To Fill In The Blanks

Your mind is wired to automatically give meaning to whatever is before your eyes.  You see two men standing across from each other wearing gun belts and your brain attempts to decipher, categorize and answer countless questions such as:

  • How did they get here?
  • What will happen next?
  • Who is the good guy and who is the bad guy?

You are constantly making up a stories about everything you encounter.  You immediately put people into previously invented categories that make up your brain’s mental filing cabinet.  This organizational system is the product of our life experience and natural predispositions.  Where you file something, is a reflection of your world views on the subject matter you’re attempting to give meaning.

Your Mental Filing Cabinet

This is true both before and after the person standing before you has put their symbolic hat on.  The hat’s and its color triggers a preexisting cognitive shortcut in your mind.  It ignites a series unconscious mental mechanics determining what section of your mental organizer to file the person in.  Wearing a black cues you to put the man into one of your many “bad guy” drawers.

This process is unavoidable. While there are benefits to having a “gut instinct” or “natural tendencies,” they also have downside.  Bias often causes us to put the wrong information into the wrong mental drawer. Bias has been responsible for many life’s incorrect judgments. This fundamental truth has been exploited by advertiser well before the first episode of Mad Men.

Putting The Wrong Stuff In The Wrong Drawer

A bias is simply a tendency affecting your decision making.  Cognitive bias is when we make inferences about people and situations in an illogical manner which results in our own subjective (and more desirable) reality.
While this process is irrational, it is also real.  Mitigating bias requires recognition and introspection. Understanding that we have blind spots and their impact is a step in the direction of truth.

  • Am I accepting this as true, simply because the other people in the room also believed it is true?
  • Is it possible that I am leaning towards a guilty verdict because it confirmed what I immediately thought when I walked into the courtroom?
  • Was it just easier to vote the way I did, because it reflects the way I want things to be?

“Know Thy Bias”

Following the aphorism “know thyself” or more specifically “know thy bias” opens the the door to the possibility of critically assessing a situation as clearly as you can.

A jury trial is fertile ground for our bias.  Most people want to believe the police got it right when they arrested the person on trial. Most of us want to live in a place were we can trust everyone in the government to do the right thing, all the time.  Accordingly, the dangers exists that we evaluate evidence and vote in conformity with this desire – bias.

Identifying a bias in potential juror only take a nanosecond. Just ask her: which color hat do you picture me wearing?  Their immediate choice is their bias.

Digging Deeper

  • “If you chose the black hat, was it because you wanted it to be true? or;
  • “Did you chose the black hat because that’s what you thought others would chose?”

Contemplating such questions is introspection. Answering the questions reveals your blind spots and engages the wisdom of “know thyself.”  Go watch a few westerns and ask your yourself what story you told yourself about the man in the white hat when he first appears.  Go watch True Grit and think about what blink conclusion did you jump to about the man (Rooster) wearing the black?

The answer is your bias. Go identify it.

Thank you to attorney Mark Beradoni for first coming with the ideas 
and concepts for this post.