Action: How We Engage & Initiate Change Via Writing
As academic writers, we often write for change, but inspiring an audience to modify their minds and behaviors is not an easy task. To be successful in our goal of persuasion, before we ever sit down to draft, we must first look inward, investigating our own beliefs, motivations, and biases. To become culturally responsible writers requires us to consider diverse audiences, acknowledging and honoring their experiences. From there we look at our relationship with information: where we receive it and how we process it. To be an honest researcher and writer we cannot be idle or passive in the information we ingest daily. We must intentionally work at being active participants in society, seeking legitimate, relevant, reliable, and varied perspectives.
A recent study from Cornell University concluded that people often think they are innocent of bias but believe others are guilty of it (Wang and Jeon). It seems it is easy for us to see the culpability in others but cling to our own perceived innocence. Our egos can be sensitive, and we might be resistant to begin the real work of self-reflection and analysis. There are concrete benefits to self-awareness, especially in our academic lives as researchers and writers. The first step is admitting to bias, and tools like the Harvard Implicit Association Test can lend a hand in uncovering our shortcomings. If we have never been asked to challenge our perceptions, this might be uncomfortable.
To build a strong foundation when starting a writing project, a writer needs to reflect and admit to their own potential “myside” bias. “Myside bias is a common type of cognitive bias where people process information in a manner biased toward their own prior beliefs, opinions, and attitudes” (Wang and Jeon). Writers are often guilty of myside bias when they begin a project. Instead of pursuing truth, they pursue validation. To be aware of and therefore resist myside bias, we need to first unpack our perceptions and investigate where our beliefs originated.
We all have a unique cultural eye that continues to form daily based on our environment and experiences. While each moment we experience shapes us, some of the most profound likely have to do with our race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, gender identity, sexuality, health, ability, impairments, religious and political beliefs. These are just a few of the many diverse lenses we have learned to interpret the world through.
To understand our own beliefs and ideas, we move through our history, taking the required time to establish why we believe and think the way we do. Each individual is unique and although we might be like our peers in some ways, we can be dramatically different in others. When we want to persuade an audience, out of necessity we must understand perspectives that are not our own. To honor the cultural eye of others, we do this by asking questions and being curious about their experience.
No one is without culpability when it comes to bias. While it takes effort, the more we discover about bias, the easier it will be to identify when our mind goes from being curious to being judgmental. There are over one hundred cognitive biases that affect how we interact with the world. Let’s cover just a few.
Confirmation bias is much like myside bias. In short: we do not seek the truth; we seek our truth. We search for things like, “why are so many homeless people addicted to drugs?” instead of “what is the correlation between drug addiction and homelessness.” One is assuming a relationship, the other is questioning if there is one. Even though we might make assumptions that can prove to be true, to research with integrity we need to avoid assuming and allow the data to inform us.
In-group favoritism is when we identify as being part of a specific group and believe people within that group are better than others because of their affiliation. This might be as harmless as thinking our state football team is the best, to more harmful beliefs about our political affiliation being superior to others.
Declinism is the belief that society is declining. We romanticize the past, willfully ignoring the injustices and horrors of history. “Make America Great Again” was an empowering slogan for some in America, but it was a deeply hurtful one to others, especially to people of color and queer people who have been fighting against injustice in their communities for hundreds of years.
Anchoring is when we make decisions informed by the first source of information we receive, rather than collecting a full, analytical picture. Perhaps we watch a powerful Ted Talk. We decide, as the speaker professed, that obesity in teens is worse than it’s ever been. Later we realize the speech was over a decade old and data has changed. If we would have assembled a more accurate and relevant portrayal, we would have figured that out sooner.
Availability bias is when we rely on what we already know to inform our opinions and beliefs about issues, rather than seeking additional knowledge to accurately educate us. Because of demanding schedules, students often limit their opportunity for academic growth in availability bias. Instead of doing the needed foundational research to legitimize their ideas, they start with their formed assumptions.
What do all these cognitive biases have in common? They obstruct our ability to research responsibly. When we aren’t responsible researchers, no matter how innocent we might be to our inherent bias, we invalidate our work. To write for change we have to identify the varied communities issues affect.
Once we identify and scrutinize our cultural lenses and biases, we can look at where and how we ingest information to determine what changes may be needed. For example, 86% of Americans say they get their news from a smartphone, computer, or tablet, and 53% of people admit they get their news from social media platforms (Shearer). Because so many of us rely on our devices for information, it’s important to accept how we are interacting with news sites and social media platforms.
In early adulthood, our groups of family and friends may seem diverse, but they can also be homogeneous. If our peers look, act, and believe the same or similar ideas, it may be difficult to observe what different perspectives are held by others. We know that in-group favoritism affects us cognitively by holding our personal groups in higher esteem than other groups we are not a part of. To ensure we are being critical thinkers and researchers, we need to evaluate where we obtain our information. If we tend to get our information from the same sites, what other more reliable sources may be out there? Media bias charts from sites like Ad Fontes or All Sides Media can help give you a sense of the political leanings and reliability of where you get your information. “Media bias charts … offer well-researched appraisals on the bias of certain sources. But to best inform yourself, you need a full toolbox. Check out Poynter’s MediaWise project for more media literacy tools” (Sheridan). Also, as you start to collect your data, consider using fact-checking websites and Mike Caulfield’s Four Moves to assist your research process.
We can all find ways of improving how we interact with information daily, and it always requires frequent maintenance. Our scrolling habits take attention to revise, but with intentional change will come rewarding benefits in our ability to research and ― therefore ― in our ability to write.
When we fail to examine our behavior, we may be standing directly in the way of change and equality, without realizing that we are the impediment to someone else’s quality of life. To write material that is relevant to all of society, material that can tangibly change our communities, we must first identify and acknowledge our bias. To do this we need to analyze where our own perceptions and beliefs come from, what cognitive biases influence us, and then take the needed responsibility and proactive steps to keep ourselves aware, honest, and as objective as possible. Then we identify our blinders when it comes to how we consume information.
Once we have done this, we can become reliable academic researchers and writers who can successfully persuade our diverse audiences. Verna Myers, the VP of Strategy and Inclusion at Netflix, says when we become more aware, we can approach this knowledge with “low guilt, but high responsibility.” She goes on to say, “Once you know these biases are wrong, what do you want to do about it?” Spending the time to become conscious of our beliefs and motivations can be uncomfortable, but it ultimately sets us free to be critical thinkers. Through empathy for ourselves and others, we can truly write with purpose and write for change.
Ha, Thu-Huong. “The End of Racism Starts with Each of Us: Q&A with Vernā Myers.” Ideas.ted.com, 8 June 2020, ideas.ted.com/little-by-little-we-can-end-the-war-of-racism-inside-ourselves-qa-with-verna-myers/.
Shearer, Elisa. “86% Of Americans Get News Online from Smartphone, Computer or Tablet.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 12 Jan. 2021, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/01/12/more-than-eight-in-ten-americans-get-news-from-digital-devices/.
Sheridan, Jake. “Should You Trust Media Bias Charts?” Poynter, 3 Feb. 2021, www.poynter.org/fact-checking/media-literacy/2021/should-you-trust-media-bias-charts/.
Wang, Qi, and Hee Jin Jeon. “Bias in Bias Recognition: People View Others but Not Themselves as Biased by Preexisting Beliefs and Social Stigmas.” PLoS ONE, vol. 15, no. 10, Oct. 2020, pp. 1–18.