What influences your decisions? Are you sure you know?
Have you ever watched a cat trying to make a decision? He’ll crouch there, trying to decide whether to jump up on the sofa, his tiny little brain balanced on a knife-edge of choice for a surprisingly long moment. And anything that happens during that moment will visibly tip his decision one way or the other. If the human on the sofa shifts their weight, if another cat enters the room, even if there’s just a soft sound in the distance, that is what makes the cat’s decision for him, whether to leap up on the couch or run off and hide. Cat owners, naturally, learn to manipulate this effect for their own entertainment.
This process is so visible in cats because the operating system their brains are running is so simple. Humans have a much more complex operating system, but we’re subject to the same effects. Indeed, because we’re so complex, ours are much weirder and more subtle.
Take, for example, a recent study at Ohio State University resolved an old conundrum in surveys of campus sexual behavior. For a long time, such surveys have turned up a mathematical problem: women consistently reported a significantly lower number of past sexual partners than men, to the point where the math tended to look rather fishy. The recent study added one factor that had been previously omitted: some participants were hooked up to what they believed was a lie detector. In that test group, the discrepancy between male and female reporting vanished, mostly due to women’s number of partners rising.
That’s interesting, not just because of the data in the new study, but because of what it tells us about the old studies. All those women, knowing perfectly well that the survey was anonymous, knowing that the data was being collected for useful scientific purposes–but still, in that moment of decision where they wrote down a simple number, something consistently swayed them, made them round it down by a partner or two. In that moment, over and over across a statistically significant sample, they’d remember a nasty joke from sixth grade or something their grandma said once, some little thing that made them change their minds.
This effect shows up across a lot of things. It’s even got its own name: stereotype threat. Short version: people will behave like they think they’re expected to behave, in subtle but consistent ways. Remind black students that black people are assumed to be dumb, and they’ll do worse on tests. Remind Asian students that Asians are supposed to be good at math, and they’ll do better at math. Hell, you can make white or black people better or worse at golf just by picking which stereotype they’re afraid of. None of those examples are made up.
We have the data on this: people’s decisions can be tweaked by small assumptions and stimuli. (If you don’t believe that, watch this video.) So where do these assumptions and ideas come from?
The usual answer is microaggressions. All the ways that one’s identity, and one’s status, is reflected back over the course of a day. All the ways we’re made to feel less, all the ways we’re reminded of who we’re supposed to be, all the ways we’re put in our place, whatever that place may be. For men, it tends to be little hints that you’re only valued for your money and success, little digs at your masculinity, little reminders that you’re supposed to be in competition with all the other men, and you have to always win. For women, it’s little insinuations that you’re not attractive enough, little assumptions about how your looks are your primary form of value, little jokes structured around the idea that you’re not quite a whole person, you’re just a woman. Any one of these isn’t so bad by itself, but they add up, and up, and up.
Microaggressions tend to give rise to microinequities, all the million little unfairnesses, the ways one gets the short end of the stick. As Jackie Summers wrote, you never know when prejudice is making someone else’s decision for them. You don’t get told at the interview “I would never hire you because of my deep-seated prejudices,” you just wait for the phone to ring and it doesn’t.
Microinequities arise from tiny decisions people make based on prejudices they don’t even know they have. The problem isn’t the people who say outright “I sure do distrust black folks,” it’s the ones who vaguely recall stuff they’ve seen on TV and things their peer group sort of takes for granted. Those people would say, and believe, that they have no problem with black people, but somehow when it comes time to make a decision about what to say or who to say it to, that decision gets tipped the wrong way.
We can’t control the factors that stack up in our minds. We can’t control the stereotypes we got taught from the cradle on. We can’t control the pressure of what we think other people expect us to be. We can mitigate it, we can correct for it, we can try to unlearn our bad habits and wrong impressions. But we’re all fallible, and our brains are all running Human OS, and we know that that OS is buggy as hell.
So we need to learn to forgive ourselves. Our choices are not made in a vacuum, and that means they are not and can never be wholly our own choices. We tell the lies we’re trained to tell. We make the mistakes people expect us to make. We fall into the patterns that have been built for us. Recognizing those patterns will help us fall into them less, but nothing can totally free us from a lifetime’s training.
Harder still, we need to forgive others. Their choices may be obnoxious, may be stupid, may be downright ridiculous, but they’re not wholly their own either. We must encourage people to work against their worst impulses, and hold people accountable when they don’t even make an effort to break their toxic patterns, but ultimately, we must be as merciful to others as to ourselves.
That idiot who just did something completely asinine is trapped in what people expect of him, what he thinks he’s supposed to be. Cut the poor guy at least a little slack. After all, you’re only judging him so harshly because you were raised that way.