20080813-filters

Whammo! You didn’t see that coming, did you?

Why is it that, despite all our planning, we sometimes get caught by surprise, totally unprepared, with our pants down as it were? I mean, we’re smart folks, right? How come sometimes we just don’t see stuff coming?

The answer is, much of the time, that we don’t see everything clearly because we don’t see a lot of things at all. We process the raw stuff of experience through a variety of filters – and we act on the “processed” information, not the world as it is.

Those filters are engrained in us, often from birth, and most of the time they help us to effectively function in our social and physical environments. For example, one very simple filter we have is how to isolate something interesting or important from a cluttered background – think finding your keys among the mess at the bottom of your purse. Or identifying something good to eat – a ripe fruit, perhaps – among the unripe fruits, leaves, and branches of a tree.

That’s a pretty basic filtering ability (though the physiological mechanisms involved are quite complex) that humans everywhere rely on every day to survive, so it’s a good thing. But there are many much more complex filters that we pick up as part of our thinking repertoire, and as helpful as they might sometimes be, they can also get us into a lot of trouble.

Here are some examples:

Language

Language is a powerful force in shaping our behavior. Just ask a sanitation engineer! Employers have long recognized the way that job titles can affect employee performance – which is why there are so few clerks and so many associates at your local retail mega-outlet.

But language can lead us astray, as well. Consider this example drawn from the annals of linguistics: a tanning factory discharges wastes, mostly animal matter, into a pond. The decomposing waste creates flammable gasses. A “pond”, though, is not flammable, right? I mean, right?! A man is working near the pond. Not taking any special precautions – why would you, next to a “pond”? – he ignites a blow-torch. A sheet of flame engulfs the pond and spreads to the nearby factory, destroying it.

The language we use to describe people can strongly influence our behavior towards them. Feminists recognized this when they started insisting on terms like “police officer” rather than “policeman”. Or consider this: numerous studies have shown that people with “ethnic-sounding” names are less likely to get job interviews as similarly-qualified people with “white-sounding” names.

Gender

Gender is a powerful filter in every culture – although the behaviors it shapes can be very different from culture to culture. What is considered men’s work in one society – carrying heavy loads of bricks, for example – might be considered women’s work in another.

Gender leads us astray when it leads us to look at a person’s gender as an index of their abilities. For instance, in the US, it is common to hear people say things like “men are stronger than women”. This is not true. Some men are stronger than most women, a handful of men are stronger than all women, and most men are stronger than some women. But knowing someone’s gender does not tell you anything about how strong they are!

Assumptions about gender extend far beyond physical attributes. With few exceptions, women still are not promoted to top-level corporate positions, despite the number of qualified women in the business world. Men are assumed to have “leadership qualities” that women lack – and women’s leadership qualities tend to be dismissed as signs of “manliness” or “bitchiness”.

Race and Ethnicity

What is true of gender is also true of race and ethnicity. Knowing someone’s race or ethnicity tells us little about that particular person – yet we act as if it told us a lot. Here’s an example: a black student of mine was accused of plagiarism in another class when she handed in an excellent essay. This is a student that added immensely to every classroom discussion she took part in, and who wrote insightfully in every assignment she gave me (including “personal reflection” papers that cannot be plagiarized). The other professor did not have any examples of work that the student had allegedly copied from; it was simply “too good”. Race may not have been the only factor, but it was clearly a factor; I’ve never had a white student of similar quality face a similar accusation.

Here’s another example: Black and other minority athletes, performers, even military leaders and politicians are often described as “articulate”, an adjective rarely applied to their white counterparts. People do not expect articulate speech from non-white persons, and are surprised when they hear intelligent dialogue from black speakers.

Personal Experience

An old joke claims, “All Indians walk single file. At least, the one I saw did.”

Personal experience is a powerful learning tool, but it can lead us astray when we make false assumptions based on generalizations from limited experience. Childhood experience can make for especially powerful filters, as they tend to be imbued with strong emotional resonance, but any experience can lead us to wrong conclusions.

Examining Your Filters

What is insidious about all of these factors is that most of the time they function without us even noticing them. We don’t promote Chad over Wilma because Chad’s a man, but because he seems more “leaderly”, because he has that “certain something”. And maybe he does – or maybe our invisible assumptions about gender make weak signs of “certain somethingness” seem strong, while Wilma’s powerful “certain somethingness” is filtered out.

It’s unlikely that you will catch your filters at work in your day-to-day life, but you can reflect on the way you have interacted with other people and how you’ve handled various situations (perhaps in a weekly review?). You may well be surprised to find that, in many cases, you can’t seem to put your finger on exactly why you acted the way you did – a sure sign of a filter at work. Paying attention to those moments will bring you a long way towards replacing the stock of experience and received wisdom with filters that allow you to more accurately and effectively act.

I’ve listed only a handful of obvious filters here. What are your filters? How could you deal with them?

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