Underneath my yellow skin

Tag Archives: confirmation bias

Living in an echo chamber

think again.
Not this way.

I was talking to my brother about electric cars because he’s a Tesla fanboy*, and we are both in agreement that moving away from gas cars and towards electric cars is a good thing. However, he said something about moving towards having only electric cars, and I said, “Let’s work on making hybrid cars mainstream first, then we can talk about electric cars.” My brother said hybrids were mainstream, that they had been around for a long time. I said, yes, they had been around for some time, but they certainly weren’t mainstream. We went back and forth about this for a while, and I said mainstream as in at least half of the cars were hybrid (which I was pretty sure wasn’t the case). He said he thought it was near that, and, of course, I pulled out my phone and Googled it. In 2016, hybrids were 2% of new cars sold. 2%.  I was startled by that, honestly. I thought it would be 10% – 20%, but no. 2%. My brother was stunned. He said, “Everywhere I go, I see hybrids and electrics. Most of my clients** have hybrid/electric cars. I said, “It’s because you’re steeped in the culture. You have that you’re green on your website, so your clients are self-selecting. In addition, you hang out with people with similar values, so of course you’re going to see more hybrids/electric cars.”

My point in bringing this up isn’t because I was right (although I will not hesitate to point that out), but because it’s a good example of how our unconscious biases are reinforced without us even noticing (because, unconscious, duh). My brother truly believed that hybrids were mainstream 40%-50% of new cars bought. I truly believed it wasn’t so. Obviously, one of us was wrong, and it could have as easily been me (but, it wasn’t, as I noted before). I’ve had instances before when I really believed something to be true and later found out it wasn’t. To my brother’s credit, he accepted what I told him without too much argument, which is more than some people would do. Like me, he incorporates new information into what he currently believes, even if it takes some time to adjust.

I remember during the 2012 elections, I would go around asking people in real life about a hot-button topic on Twitter. Most of the time, the real-life person would stare at me blankly, not knowing what the hell I was saying. These are people who are well-informed when it comes to politics, too. They just didn’t wade in the weeds the way political junkies on social media did. It helped me realize the dangers of social media for those of us who are heavy users. It’s way too easy to envelop yourself in a cozy bubble of yes-people and be an amen-corner for things you already believe. It’s only natural to congregate with people with similar ideas, and it’s frighteningly easy to do online. I see it happen far too often where someone who is even slightly Twitter famous quickly starts blocking people hwo disagree with them. On the one hand, I can understand. Getting hundreds/thousands of people telling you how wrong you are, most of them in very impolite words, will grind down even the most stalwart of people. On the other hand, it shuts down debate and leaves the original tweeter with only acolytes. I’ve realized that many people if not most don’t want a real debate online (including me at times) and merely want to bleat their opinions unchecked.

This bleeds over into the real world when social media users use the same jargon they do online in their real lives. Using rough metrics, there are approximately 68 million Twitter users in America. That’s a lot of users, don’t get me wrong. However, there are 326 million people in America, so roughly 1 in 5.6 people use Twitter. Honestly, that’s more than I thought it would be (displaying my own unconscious biases), but it’s still a sizable minority. So even when something is hot on Twitter, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s just as important in real life. To further extrapolate, let’s say you’re passion is electric cars (yes, using that example again), and that’s all you tweet about. All your followers and the people you follow are way into electric cars as well. If that’s all you tweet about, and they’re all, “ELECTRIC CARS ALL THE TIME”, then, yeah, you’re going to think it’s the norm.

I think by now it’s common knowledge that confirmation bias is a thing. Liberals like to point at Republicans and giggle and snort over it, but we do it as well. I’ve seen it happen more and more in the past five years or so, and I firmly believe it’s because of the echo chamber effect. As I said above, one of my saving graces is that when I’m faced with evidence that my idea is wrong, I incorporate it into my way of thinking (after a lot of research, obviously). Many people don’t seem capable of doing that, instead, contorting themselves into a pretzel in order to explain away something that threatens a deeply-held belief.

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Modeling Your Minorities

Back in the Stone Ages, I attended grad school for Writing & Consciousness at a schoool that was several years afterwards stripped of their accreditation*. It had its positive and negatives, and the best thing it did for me was made me write every day. Prolifically. Anyhow, I wrote a short story (more like a novellla) about a young woman who was sickened by all the serial murders and rapists (how apropos) who weren’t prosecuted for their crimes for one reason or another. She decided she was to be the avenging angel, and she tortured and murdered several of them (all men) in particularly brutal ways. She mimicked their behaviors to torture them, and I’ve never written anything like it. It was so brutal, I had a hard time reading it myself.

My adviser, who was Mexican himself and was well aware of racism in America, suggested I make the protagonist white so that people wouldn’t get hung up on the fact that she was Asian. Which she was. Did I forget to mention that? I make most of my protagonists Asian queer women for obvious reasons, and this one was no exception. I’m not sure I made her queer, but she definitely was Asian. He said that if I made the character Asian, that was all people would talk about, and the meat of my story would be lost.

I get that. He’s not wrong, and it’s still a pervasive idea that if you have a minority as a character, you need to highlight all the differences over and over again. Recently, Leonard Chang, a mystery writer (whom I’ve met in real life once back in the same Stone Ages) discussed how he had’s had editors in the past who’ve told him to Chink it up with his characters (my words, not his). One editor wrote in rejecting Chang’s novel, The Lockpicker (which has since been published):

What fails for me is that it [that] virtually nothing is made of the fact that these guys are Koreans. I suppose in the alleged melting pot of America that might be a good thing, but for the book it doesn’t lend anything even lightly exotic to the narrative or the characters.

Emphasis mine. The implied thinking is that why one earth would we want a novel with Korean characters if they’re not going to act Korean? They might as well be white guys, amirite? From the same link, which, by the way is Teen Vogue. They’re doing great things socially and politically, and how I wish they existed back when I was a teen. Anyway, Chang also said a different editor had this to say about his characters:

The characters, especially the main character, just do not seem Asian enough. They act like everyone else. They don’t eat Korean food, they don’t speak Korean, and you have to think about ways to make these characters more ’ethnic,’ more different. We get too much of the minutiae of [the characters’] lives and none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us. For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes, or how she thinks of her Asianness.

Again, emphasis mine. The first part is the same as the other, but the bolded part adds yet another wrinkle to the othering grossness. Because being Asian is foreign to them, it’s of utmost interest. For those of us who are Asian, it is but one aspect of our personalities. I can guarantee you that I don’t stare in the mirror, pondering my ‘slanted’ eyes** and think about how Asian I am. It actually reminds me of a quote I saw about how if you read a book and all the women are talking/thinking about their boobs, it’s probably written by a guy. Same principle. Those of us who have grown up having boobs for most of our lives, it really isn’t a day-to-day topic burning the forefront of my mind.

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