Among the not-so-surprising news that came out last week were the most recent results of an annual survey aimed at uncovering burnout and bias among health care professionals. According to this survey, 40 percent of physicians report personal bias toward certain types of patients. Among doctors included in the survey, 62 percent admitted to bias against patients with “emotional problems,” the most common type of bias mentioned. Respondents also acknowledged biases based on weight, intelligence, language differences, insurance coverage, age, income level, race, and attractiveness. Worse, these biases don’t simply exist; they influence the type of care doctors offer their patients.
This is inexcusable, but it should not come as a surprise, for two reasons. First, as Carina Storrs wrote, “A growing amount of research shows that doctors hold prejudices and that these prejudices can influence the kind of care that patients get.” Basically, we already knew this was happening. And people who have been on the unfair end of quick and unfair judgment really know about it.
The second reason we shouldn’t be surprised: doctors are human. And human beings have prejudices.
To some degree, we can’t help forming stereotypes and biases. This process is part of our makeup, and it can help maintain our survival. Scientists have known for a long time that our brains are very efficient, inclined to take shortcuts in reasoning. We quickly judge a person, an object, or a situation based on previous experience or knowledge, applying categories and characteristics that may be entirely false. This is especially true in situations that call for quick decisions, and doctors frequently find themselves in such circumstances. In fact, the group most likely to admit to biases was emergency room physicians, who make quick decisions in a high-stress environment.
There are good reasons for our brains to function this way. Even in regard to people, a quick reaction–to a dangerous person, based on accurate bias–can help us protect ourselves. But when these mental shortcuts are applied to the vast majority of human interactions, they are nothing but destructive. They build walls, reinforce fences, tighten chains, and keep people out in the cold. In our highly populated, pluralistic, and fast-paced culture, I’m guessing our brains are taking an astounding number of shortcuts each day. Simply because our opportunities for shortcuts come so frequently, I wonder if this kind of efficiency is more highly tuned in us than in people at any other place and point in history.
If this is true, it’s interesting to speculate on the mental habits we form by simply engaging in these shortcuts that come so naturally to us. As neuroscientists learn more about our or brains work, we will understand more about just how changeable they are. But we do know now that our thought processes tend to wear “grooves” in our brains, or pathways like carpets in high-traffic areas. The ways we think become habitual, and they can be extremely hard to change. But we also know our brains can change more than we thought possible until recent years. We’ve always known that it’s hard to break a habit; now we have begun to understand why–and why we can break it, despite the challenge.
Bottom line, changing the shortcuts our brains take requires effort. It probably requires a change in our behavior, it requires a more careful thought process, and it requires serious intention. It means we have to stop and think in a way that passes by the shortcut, that we have to take time with people and really look and listen to who they are. It’s an effort worth making, not only for the sake of others but for our own well-being.
I must acknowledge, though, that no amount of effort can change our thinking the way God can. We can work to be better people–but soul-deep transformation is the work of someone outside ourselves. Someone who knows our capabilities and limitations and who is the author of the very grace we need to receive and to give. One of the most significant pieces of evidence that God’s Spirit is changing us is movement in the way we think (Romans 12:2). As we welcome this kind of work in us, our old ways of thinking don’t seem to make the sense they used to, and our thoughts start following new paths in a gradual process of transformation.
We must challenge our own thinking. But we will find the long routes much more effectively if we are constantly receiving grace and love from the one who made us and loves us despite our every thought.
Chrysalis Awardee 2016, Hope and Healing Center & Institute