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In her years of research and writing about family dynamics, identity, and relationships, Psychologist Terri Apter has become very familiar with the concept of bias, most notably as they start in family relationships. Her latest book, published in 2018, is Passing Judgment: The Power of Praise & Blame in Everyday Life, of which Publisher’s Weekly said, “Readers interested in psychological theory will be compelled by this book, as will all readers who just want to be better versions of themselves.” I spoke with Apter to discuss the concept of bias, blame, and the temptation to silence those we disagree with.

Mary Rose Somarriba: Tell me about how you became interested in the topic of bias through your work.

Terri Apter: I’m a psychologist, and I work on a variety of topics, mostly in families, but I’m also interested in the way we perceive other people and the way biases affect our relationships with other people.

Most of my work the past three decades has been on family dynamics, but what I then came to see was that a lot of our interactions with people who are close to us are based on a number of biases. I then became interested in how teens in particular engage with the internet and the effect of internet use, and in particular social media, on their aspirations and interactions with other people. And I think this combined to highlight how important [a factor bias has become in our interactions]—around the last five to seven years I've noticed—we make assumptions about people, and these assumptions generate emotions and influence our interactions with people. So bias is not just at play when it comes to someone I see on the street or someone applying for a job—though we can see how it works in those cases too; but now it is playing a big role in our interactions with other people.

MRS: Do you think the more we rely on computer use, the more out of range our assumptions of other people can get?

TA: That’s an interesting question and a complex one. Before, the question would have been what are the harms of social media how is it used badly? Since the pandemic, everyone has said thank goodness this didn’t happen ten years ago before we all had smart devices before social media took off because it’s the only thing that’s allowing young people to have the social interactions they crave.

On the other hand, the other things haven’t gone away, and one of the real dangers and damages of social media is it emphasizes other people as types. You typecast people by what beliefs they have and what groups they belong to. Once you highlight that a person belongs to a type or an “out group,” then you have negative bias. It can be in the form of bias against women generally; bias against a religious or racial group; bias against someone who thinks “this” (holds this political party view, likes this political figure, or likes this celebrity). And that’s all you have to have a view as to whether they’re worthwhile or not.

If you classify a person as being in an “out” group, then your brain is given permission to shut down not merely empathy but also interest in their views as views of a full-fledged person. You know there’s a real person behind there; it isn’t that they’re not human to you, in fact that’s why you’re so outraged because you know they are human like you—but you feel like they have squandered any right to respect; you don’t have to listen to them further; you know all you need to know about them to dismiss them. And you can map this into larger and more disturbing issues about racial and ethnic and religious bias in the community.

MRS: What can someone do to identify their bias?

TA: It’s very common nowadays to call bias “unconscious,” and I think that’s wrong. It’s not unconscious; we’re aware of it. It’s either a threat response (“I have associations which make me worried about this person, fearful of this person”), or it’s a response to some supposed injury (say it’s about a woman who’s running for high office, a man might have the mental response, “how dare she presume to step on this turf; somehow she’s insulting me by doing so; I'm outraged”).

We’re aware of these responses, and all of us do have biases; it’s deep in human history that we make associations of certain types of people with certain types of behavior and characteristics. But most of us want to grow out of these, and abolish these biases.

MRS: How do you advise someone combat their biases once they’ve identified them?

TA: What you have to do is learn more about those people. So instead of seeing a “type” and someone belonging to an “out group” and thinking you know everything important about them, and therefore can dismiss them or punish them or exclude them—instead of doing that, you say “I need to get to know their perspective; I need to get to know who they are.”

A lot of people say what you have to do is not see the type; “I’m not a racist because I’m color blind,” for example. And that seems logical, because we can imagine someone thinking, “I see your race, and I make assumptions on the basis of your race; I don’t like you; I'm going to run away from you.” But, in fact, sometimes to see a person you have to understand their background and the group to which they belong, but you also need to focus on their individual traits.

Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult. You have to somehow not ignore the fact that a person belongs to a certain group; whether it’s that they’re Jewish, they’re Black, they’re Hispanic, whatever. That’s an important part of them and you want to understand that and to recognize that, but you also want to see them as individuals and give them a chance as individuals.

It’s easy, I think, to recognize our biases and to see them; it’s much more difficult to overcome them. But I think we have to be accountable and we have to do our best to overcome them. And we can do that more easily when we admit that we have them.

We’re all in this together, and we need help from each other to overcome our biases; we need help from each other and to learn from each other. If we admit everyone has biases, then we do not need to be terrified that I’m going to be cancelled, fired, or have my reputation damaged forever, if I inadvertently express a bias.

MRS: It can almost feel hard to imagine this kind of “in this together” attitude toward bias awareness.

TA: If we look at society, there are some who get comfort from their bias, it’s a reassurance of their status, and maybe more people than I’d like to believe are like that. But in most of us, there are also pockets of desire to be fair to one another and we can build on those. So while there’s this problem, and it’s very entrenched and difficult, it’s also possible to say, let’s all look at areas where we’re trying to get better, and areas where we’ve made huge progress.

MRS: Can you share some examples of good developments in this area?

TA: You can find stories of people who have been trolled, and then they reached out to the person who trolled and said, “look, talk to me, what is the objection, why am I threat to you, why do you resent me, why are you opportunistically using terms of misogyny or racist language when you don’t know me?” There are a couple of high-profile women this has happened to over the past years. It’s a way of getting to know people, and the bias can be defused in that way.

And again you can think of the number of men who are very interested now in understanding more about misogyny, the huge waves of people really wanting to learn more about black experiences, and what they fear may be embedded racism that they share and that they’ve perpetuated; questions that communities are asking together, across race, class, and ethnicity. These are signs of hope.

MRS: How would you recommend someone interact with someone who tries to silence others with different views?

TA: Wanting to silence other people’s views can be an exercise of bias, it can be a way of exercising misogyny, for example: “Who do you think you are, how dare you speak out.” Or not listening, as with the history of women whose complaints in the medical field have not been attended to; or data that shows that when black people speak to a white doctor, often their symptoms are minimized or put down as something other than a medical cause. These are examples of silencing as a big part of bias itself.

Self-defense can be bias. We have a vain brain; we want to protect ourselves. There are people who are so rigid with that defensiveness: “I’m not going to hear anything, I’m not going to be corrected.” Maybe under some circumstances, if they were greatly in love with someone who was a safe person, that person could gradually reassure them that they’re loved and wonderful, but this bias of theirs is problematic. 

For some who are very closed, it may not be worth the effort to try to engage deeply. But most people who are in a safe environment and are shown respect and helped with their understanding and not derided for making these mistakes, for having these misconceptions will open up to have their viewpoint challenged. The way out is to have a genuine conversation and avoid shaming them. Show respect and persistence, and interest in them. “I’m interested in your views, even though I want to challenge them.” It’s a gentle persistent challenge alongside the offer of respect and friendship.

MRS: In the United States I sense a lot of anxiety about partisan views, and one side pitting the other against the other side as threats to the other.

TA: What you’ve done is describe bias.

People will often resist questioning their bias, particularly when each side sees the other as a horrible “out group.” If I think you see me as a horrible out group, why should I reflect on what you have to say? I feel a threat, and instead of reflecting, I'll double down and present myself as ultra strong and ultra sure, and one way I'll do this is I’ll dismiss you.

That’s a problem, and what you have to do is get over the position that we are two totally distinct groups, that one is right and one is wrong. Changing our view is admitting vulnerability and losing. When the paradigm of a conversation is combative, if I make a point then you lose. Within that paradigm you can’t ease bias. It will just be reinforced. So that’s what you have to work at avoiding a partisan point of view.

We have a shared humanity, we have shared interests, and it’s in both our interests to address this. Everyone is capable of, what I call, “channeling bias,” because there are ideas that emerge that we inherit—associations that give rise to bias—we don't use them all the time but sometimes we do. So if you are partisan, and it’s a total divide what do you do? You have to escape the divide in order to address the bias.