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Breathing Our Own Exhaust

February 25, 2011 by Deborah Gilburg

Are we really open to diverse perspectives? And even if we think we’re open, how likely are we to encounter those perspectives within the daily routines of our lives? In our workplaces, communities, professional associations, and social circles? And why might it matter?

The New York Times recently published a story that triggered these questions, entitled Social Scientist Sees Bias Within

The article shares how Dr. Jonathan Haidt, who studies intuitive foundations of morality and ideology, polled a 1000 social scientists at a conference for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and determined that over 90% of social scientists perceive themselves to be liberal or moderate, with only 3 people identifying themselves as conservative—a statistically impossible lack of diversity when national polls indicate 40% of the population considers themselves to be conservative.

Haidt argues, “social psychologists are a ‘tribal-moral community’ united by ‘sacred values’ that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.” This means there is a tendency to embrace the science that supports their sacred (read, liberal) values, and to reject or distort results that may threaten those values. For the record, these are the professionals who research topics like racial prejudice, homophobia, sexism, stereotype threat and unconscious bias against minorities. Important stuff, no doubt, but how might an exclusive bias limit our ability to truly understand and thus effectively address these issues?

Imagine how many other professions, organizations, communities and systems have similar “tribal-moral” qualities (think: Education, Healthcare, Agriculture, Nationalism, Environmentalism, Your Town)? The underlying beliefs, norms and ‘mental models’ that can help us feel part of a group and keep us in our comfort zones, also serve to define perspectives and outcomes that reinforce ‘sacred values.’ We end up “breathing our own exhaust,” blind to what we might be excluding, what might be missing from the picture; thus we fail to recognize important opportunities and embrace needed change. How do we break this vicious cycle? In facing an uncertain future, no one individual, profession or perspective can have all the answers. We desperately need to share knowledge, collaborate, innovate, adapt and transform together to meet the local and global challenges of this era.

What will it take to let in some “fresh air?”