Bias-Laundering and The “Likeability” Trap

If you are someone who has convinced themselves that they are a rational person who always makes reasoned decisions based on facts, I have news for you. You’re not. Unless you are actually not fully human then you come fully equipped with a range of emotions and experiences that have calcified into strong biases that will assert themselves into your decision-making. The research on this is pretty well settled.

Bias is a universal and insidious thing. Our biases reside in the murky depths of our subconscious and are fueled by fears and desires we don’t fully acknowledge, much less understand. They are not so easily identified or eradicated. In fact, it’s a pretty safe bet that if you believe you are bias-free, you are very likely more in its grip than you realize. You can have trained your whole life in disciplines that purport to root out bias — science, law, journalism — and the truth is, these disciplines are as guilty of bias as any other, perhaps more so.

The only honest approach to the presence of bias is to admit that you have it, attempt to understand each and every one, and dismantle their impact as best you can, understanding all the while when it comes to bias, you are like a roach-invested apartment in a city slum. No matter how much you do to get rid of the infestation, more will eventually crawl out of the woodwork. It’s a lifetime of work, and it’s usually thankless. Because just when you think you might have really gotten yourself free and clear, you’ll discover that yet again you’ve stumbled over an opinion or feeling about a person or group that is driven not by reason, but by inchoate, unjustifiably negative feelings you barely know you have. Few people have the stomach for a war you can never win.

We all want to wake up and look in the mirror and see a good person. We all want to be the bright and noble hero of our personal story. And rooting out our biases is exhausting and tiresome. Sometimes we want to find a way to paper them over, to pretend they aren’t really there. There are plenty of mental games we play to take perfectly reprehensible biases and turn them into things that we think we can live with. Like a legal business laundering money for the mafia, we engage in bias-laundering.

Bias-laundering works best when the “front” that serves to validate the bias is something that seems innocuous and reasonable. Something simple-sounding and lacking in actual substance or objectivity. It must be mutable, a moving target that can hold unspeakable things while maintaining a smooth veneer of something no one could find objectionable. It is at once obvious and obtuse.

“Likeability” is in many ways a perfect vehicle for bias-laundering.

Ask a group of pundits about likeability for a candidate for President and there will be lots of nodding and tutting about how important it is for a candidate to be likeable. Lots of fretting about polls and who people “would like to have a beer with.” Pollsters ask people which candidate they find more “likeable” and who they have a favorable opinion of, and the fact that one aggregates these subjective opinions somehow transforms them into objective fact. And so the narrative is canonized, and pundits feel even more justified in their belief that “likeability” is something that may be treated as an actual measure of a candidate.

But once you start pressing people about how a candidate goes about being “likeable” and the specifics of it, you come up dry. People can tell you that they find someone likeable or unlikeable, but they rarely can give you a specific basis for the pronouncement. They make wan statements like “I would like to have a beer with him.” It’s all about a feeling in people’s gut, a vague sensation of comfort or discomfort that is based on everything and nothing. In other words, it draws from that same murky subconscious well where our biases are formed. That is no coincidence.

Thus, under the innocuous guise of “likeability” we can conceal all manner of nasty bias. Feel uncomfortable with women who are smarter than you? You can just call her “unlikeable” and pretend that you’re not actually a misogynist. Does the idea of a black man having power scare you? Saying he’s “unlikeable” sure sounds better than saying you are uncomfortable with his race.

It’s extraordinary, actually, that the front works so well. The media and the pundits and the armchair strategists spend so much time nattering on about the importance of “likeability” that no one dares question whether it should be so. Who cares whether you would like to have a beer with a Presidential candidate? We’re not electing the Social Chair for a fraternity house, we’re electing the person who will lead a nation of 350 million citizens that spans 2.3 billion acres of land, command an army of 1.5 million soldiers, and be responsible for keeping a $17 trillion economy on its feet and humming along. One can make a very rational argument that in fact, whether or not the President of the United States is someone you can imagine yourself having a beer with could not be more immaterial to the job description.

The conversation around “likeability” feeds into a much larger problem that we have in America of treating politics like a reality show, the pinnacle of its expression being the election of a guy who’s biggest claim to fame IS hosting a reality show and who is categorically unfit to execute on anything, even being “likeable.” If you needed more proof that humans will serve their unconscious biases at the expense of rational decision making in their best interest, one need look no further than the current occupant of the Oval Office.

It’s usually not the case that the people who fall into the “likeability” trap are intentionally, consciously bigoted. Intentional bigots make no bones about their prejudice, and often wear it as a badge of honor. Bias-launderers are different. They want to do the right thing and believe that they have been doing the right thing. They’ll tell you that they aren’t biased, and they believe it. It’s not that they are unwilling to admit that bigotry is wrong, or recognize its impact on the world — they do. They’re just in denial about how deep their personal bias rabbit hole goes.

It’s just easier to maintain the fiction that one is “bias free” and rest on fronts like “likeability” instead of doing the unpleasant and hard work of examining your inner self ad nauseum, and continually coming up short. Most of us don’t have an ego that can withstand that kind of brutal honesty, even though there is no real shame in having bias. Because bias is a natural by-product of the human experience. We all have it. And sometimes, more often than we should, we take the easy way out. We’re not bad people. We’re just too lazy to be relentless about our self-awareness.

Living in a free society, however, one where everyone has equal rights, is not for people who are lazy or who want contentment. As it is often said, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. If we’re going to live up to who we want to be as Americans, we need to stop taking bias-laundering as an easy way out of dealing with our own failings. We need to expect more not just from our lawmakers, but from ourselves. Most of all, we need to stop relying on bullshit benchmarks of “likeability” to evaluate Presidential candidates.

A believer in magic and justice and the right to be exactly as you are. Anything passing for wisdom here is likely the product of surviving my own stupidity.