Shapes, Shadows, Bias, and Truth–A Thought Exercise

By J. Nielsen

While spending the majority of my life, silently agonizing over the decision to leave the darkness of the LGTBQ closet and risk the consequences of coming out into the light, I have feverishly read and studied everything I could from the legal issues facing our community to understanding how we perceive truth as human beings.

The following is a direct result of me trying to understand these questions as I learned concepts I wish I had learned many years ago. Although I am definitely not a philosopher, I feel that I should share some of them because so much of every person’s identity is inextricably bound around questions of right and wrong, and of truth and untruth.

As a Mormon LGBTQ person, I spent many silent years searching for my own identity. I suffered decades of pain as an active Mormon, feeling deep shame and guilt because I could not change being gay no matter how hard I tried. Mormon LGBTQ persons especially obsess that they are somehow “wrong.” I hope to shine a different light on these thoughts by sharing some simple ideas which have shifted my own life’s paradigm and its course.

As a visual learner myself, I have included a picture below to help illustrate the idea. Each person’s brain is wired for something called confirmation bias which is one of a large number of natural mental biases discovered through research. When it comes to determining right and wrong and understanding truth, confirmation bias plays a large and continuous role. To put it simply, when a person’s brain believes that it knows something is true, an unconscious process automatically begins in which they filter the things which enter their minds and cast away everything that doesn’t look like their version of the truth, and add heightened precedence to the things that reinforce or “confirm” the version of what they believe is true, regardless of its context or perspective.

Here is a simple diagram that helps me understand part of what our brains are doing. There is a cylinder suspended in front of two walls and a single source of light. Depending on where the source of the light is, our brains discern very different characteristics of the cylinder.

image

For example, the cylinder is capable of casting a perfectly circular shadow on the wall. When asked what shape the object is which created the circular shadow, almost every person will answer that the object is a sphere.

From then on, every time our brains see something circular or spherical, we automatically give it precedence because it confirms what we already believe is true. Conversely, our brains will dismiss anything that doesn’t conform to this “circular” truth belief. This is confirmation bias at work. Consequently, we tend to judge and dismiss evidence that the object might not be circular or spherical and even look down on this evidence.

If the light is moved 90 degrees, the cylinder casts a perfectly square shadow on the opposite wall. In this case, almost any observer would believe that the object making the shadow is a cube or square. At this point, confirmation bias again causes their brains to give precedence to anything that supports this “cube” truth and to devalue any evidence that doesn’t confirm this.

The major irony in this example is that both are wrong. Even though the observers believe the shape is either a sphere or a cube, the actual shape of the object making the shadow is a cylinder. In this case, the light source represents the context of the belief. Yet believing the object is a sphere or a cube is a completely valid assumption based on the evidence given.

In my own life, this thought exercise, combined with knowing my brain naturally seeks confirmation of what it believes is true, (or confirmation bias) has helped me analyze my place in this world, meanwhile allowing me to respect different perspectives and conclusions that others may draw.

You see, based only on the projected image, the object could either be a sphere, a cube, or a cylinder and the only way to find out the truth is look is look at it from a variety of perspectives, including those perspectives we might be avoiding. Even a pyramid can cast a perfectly square shadow, with the correct perspective. Meanwhile, we need to be aware that other people are viewing from a different perspective, and so even if their conclusions are different than yours, they are still valid and understandable given their perspective.

We each will naturally hold on to anything that confirms our bias, or our “truth”. Accepting that you just might not know everything, and finding value in diversity, gives you a new perspective on what you believed you knew was “true” and frees you so that you can embrace a larger truth, without threatening what you already believe. Coupling this with the conscious awareness and removal of confirmation bias is the beginning of discovering universal truth and removing unconscious prejudice in your own life, and also finding a peaceful way to live with those that see things differently. It also makes you free to step back and evaluate for yourself where your heart and your truth really are (and maybe even where they should be instead).

It’s okay to be a square, cylinder, triangle, sphere, or other shape without it threatening your self concept. The beauty is that there is room enough for each shape to occupy the same room at once and all be right and wrong together. Once a person understands that their brain naturally is biased, and that bias always results in an us vs. them and/or in a better-than vs. less-than type of thought pattern, only then can a person begin to stop biased thinking when it first starts and begin to eliminate prejudice.

As a result, your life becomes sweeter and more peaceful. Once I realized that I might be a triangle, or some other shape, and that it was okay even if the shadow I cast was misinterpreted, I also realized that there was room for me in the light, and that all our shapes are equal and different, without one being better or worse, just as it was possible for all of us to be right or wrong together, and its okay. Only then, did I begin to find my place and know that I am just fine as God created me. I became a kinder, more tolerant, and understanding person. As I work to remove bias and find real truth instead of perceived truth, my life has much more meaning again and I am quickly losing my hatred of who I am.

The next steps, after removing bias, are learning to recognize real truth and seeking it (but that is a discussion for someone wiser than myself). For today, I encourage you to begin loving and finding value in those shapes all around you, which may have seemed different or wrong, but instead have just been misjudged or misunderstood. And especially what shape you are and finding joy in the fact that you are not wrong and that you belong there as much as any other.

(Biases are as old as humanity itself.  In fact, Confirmation Bias is just one of 162 different recognized human brain biases identified by psychiatric research scientists, with an additional 12 biases being hypothesized and being tested right now.  [Source: Wikipedia;  List of Cognitive Biases.]  So, bias is a natural, normal human brain function in all people.  Power to control your bias(es) lies in first recognizing the Bias and then working to change your thought processes.)

 

The author is a gay Mormon man who has been a church member all of his life. Only recently has he decided to leave the confines of the closet and come to full acceptance of who he is and find joy in it after spending almost two decades of self-hatred while in the church as he wrestled with the decision. He studied English Literature and Creative Writing at University and is a prolific journalizer. He has published a number of minor and amateur articles, poems, editorials and essays, but this is the first he’s felt free to write about the subject dearest to his heart, and that is the equal and fair treatment of his Mormon and extensive LGBTQ family at large. 

2 comments for “Shapes, Shadows, Bias, and Truth–A Thought Exercise

  1. Rebecca S.
    July 24, 2013 at 9:00 am

    As a poet, I’m naturally drawn to metaphor. Yours is a particularly beautiful and evocative one. Thank you for sharing your insights, and I wish you peace and joy in your journey.

  2. Tabitha
    July 24, 2013 at 9:34 am

    Wow- that illustration and explanation of confirmation bias was fantastic, as was this entire post. Thank you so much J. Nielsen. Congratulations on the acceptance and joy you have found – like all human brings, you deserve it. I think the LDS church will be forced into growth as our LGBT brothers and sisters refuse to accept anything less than their own truth and self worth and as their allies support them
    in that. I’m with you on this journey.

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