How Your Biases Make You Blind

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We best empathize with people—be they colleagues or customers—that we have some shared experience with.

Published April 16, 2014

A thousand or so years ago, somewhere in the great subcontinent of India, there was a village. Within the village were five elders: men who had traveled wide and studied much.

Sadly, back in those days, it was always men; clearly they couldn’t have been that wise. But though they had explored far, they had never met an elephant. The beast was mythical to them, only a few steps away from a dragon or a phoenix. Then one day an elephant came to town.

The thing about the elders is that they couldn’t see very well. They weren’t blind as a bat, per say; rather, they were as blind as old, proud men. Since they were each very much accustomed to being right and loved nothing more than to tell their friends about something they didn’t know, each sought out the elephant, looking to report back on the nature of the creature.

The first elder came to the elephant and found its trunk. An elephant is a snake, only more playful! he thought to himself. The second elder sauntered up to the elephant and alighted upon its knee. An elephant is rough, round, and strong—like a tree trunk! he decided. The third elder found the elephant’s tusk. An elephant is as sharp as a spear! he understood. The fourth found the ear. An elephant is like a palm frond, so good for shade! The last found the elephant’s rear end. An elephant is very big and very smelly! he admitted.

After each elder made his encounter with the ambiguous pachyderm, each told the other what he had found. They each had a different account of elephantness—to be an elephant is to be thick, to be an elephant is to be thin, to be an elephant is to smell bad. It could be said that each elder accurately reported his own experience, yet it’s obvious that each elder’s reportage was incomplete. How can we describe that incompleteness? It is perspective. It is bias.

Let’s examine how biases manifest themselves.

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