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1. Understanding the concepts of stories, personal lenses and bias

In this session, and throughout the course, we’d like to ask you to open your mind for the stories, assumptions and beliefs that you’ll uncover.

We will begin with exploring the concept of stories and bias. As all other sessions, this session consists of introductory content, an assignment, questions for reflection and material for further exploration.

Introduction

Imagine you were to walk down the street with a friend, and suddenly you see a large dog running towards you. Your friend really loves dogs more than people, so they’d be thrilled and think the dog is the cutest in the world. However, if you had been attacked by a dog in the past, or experienced another unpleasant event at some point in your life, you might find this a really scary moment. So, is the dog cute or scary?

In fact, a dog is just a dog - it’s neither cute nor scary. However, we as human beings, are machines who assign meaning to everything we see, thereby creating our own experience, our own story. Whether we perceive the dog as pleasant or unpleasant, cute or scary, arises from our own experiences.

In other words, we see things through our very personal lenses. The internal narratives we create about the things we witness and experience are all biased by the default setting of our mind; something that we’re not conscious of. And this happens in every sphere of our life, including our activism.

One of the most common biases that shape the stories we create about the events we witness is that of confirmation bias. Imagine you believe that a person driving an SUV cares less about the climate than people taking public transport. Now, whenever you encounter someone driving an SUV who doesn’t care about the climate, you’re likely to place greater emphasis on this ‘evidence’ that supports what you already believe. At the same time, you’re less likely to seek information that challenges your beliefs.

Whether it’s confirmation bias or any other kind, the stories we create are necessarily not impartial. Instead of seeing things as what they are - for example, a dog as a dog or an SUV driver an SUV driver - we assign meaning to all the things we witness. And we do so in a biased way. We create our own stories, ones where the dog is dangerous and the SUV driver is careless.

However, as already pointed out by David Foster Wallace in one of the best-known commencement speeches to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College - entitled ‘This is Water’, we have control and therefore a choice over how to think and perceive things. Rather than adopting the default setting, we can choose to see things differently. This is what we‘ll try in this session.

Assignment

To start this assignment, let’s consider the SUV example once more. Imagine you’re on your way home from work. The roads are packed with SUVs moving slowly in the dense traffic, like a snail. Almost automatically, we start to feel angry about all these people polluting the air and contributing to the climate crisis. We believe that these people in their SUVs don’t care about the environment and climate. We get mad about how spoiled and stupid they all are.

Yet is that really the case? Isn’t it possible that some of these people in SUVs may have experienced a horrible car accident in the past? Perhaps the only way they feel safe enough to drive is to do so in a huge, heavy SUV.

In this exercise, we’d like you to uncover some of the beliefs you hold that can introduce bias into the way you see things and tell a different story.

To start, identify a situation, event or choice you’re facing; a doubt, an uncertainty in your activism - something about which you “don’t know what to think” or “don’t know how to decide”. For example, an article or social media message you want to publish, a political debate about the climate crisis you watched on TV or a news piece you read.

On a piece of paper, write down two separate interpretations of the situation, event or choice, entitled ‘Story #1’ and ‘Story #2’. In both stories, try to answer the following questions.

  • What are the bare facts of the event, situation or choice you have to make (e.g. describe the event from an observer point of view)?

  • What’s your own interpretation of the event, situation or choice (e.g. what does the event mean to you, what’s your personal perspective on it)?

  • What does the story say about yourself?

  • What does the story say about other people that are part of it?

Questions for reflection

Once you finish both stories, take some time to write down what you noticed. You can reflect on this by yourself, with a group of friends or colleagues and/or within the discussion forum of this course.

  • How difficult was it to distinguish facts from interpretations?

  • How difficult was it to write both stories?

  • Which of the two stories was easier to write?

  • Which one did you struggle with, and why?

  • What do you think shapes the biases that impact your stories?

For further exploration

  • The Beauty Of Not Knowing and A Limited View: These podcasts, published by Secular Buddhism, explore the beauty of not recognising and understanding that we have a limited perspective. You can find many inspiring podcasts in this series, including - among others - the episode on Unlearning, check them out.

  • My News Fast: In this short video, Charles Eisenstein explores how our exposure to the news shapes our world view.