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  • Reverend James Squire

The Street Light: Observational Bias: It’s Not Where You Think It Is

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

There is observational bias that occurs when people only search for something where it is easiest to look, I would add, where prejudice takes them to their first thoughts. This looking for where it is the easiest place to go to is found in a joke, sometimes called the drunkard’s search.

“A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, this is where the light is.” (Wikipedia)

I think that joke applies to us and how we see others and our own observational biases when we look at the pandemic and Black Lives Matter.

During the pandemic people looked for the easier way o the simple solution. That is where the light of the easier solution is focused on many easier approaches…no masks, no social distancing with lots of parties on the beach as well are closed areas. That is where the light is for them. They also have the quick fix of a magical pill. “Back in the park” where the real search needs to be done masks, social distancing, and hand washing will eventual lead our search to find what we are looking for, a reduction in cases and deaths from this deadly virus.” It is easy to do as science shines on our solution.

Police think that a black person has a gun when he really has something such as a camera. Malcom Gladwell in this book “Brink” does an exhaustive study of observational biases based in our preconceived notions of others. In fact his book begins with police shooting someone who is unarmed and not a drug dealer but as he stands talking with someone on his front porch they think a drug heal is in process. Perception of people and their actions is a huge responsibility. If you a protester or aligned with their goals, you see the police as power hungry violent people. If you are a police officer or aligned with their approach, you see the protesters as people who are disrespectful, violent and out of control. Observational biases are resolved by conversations and meaningful dialogue. Do I dare say word, love, is the key. That is the ultimate light where we will find what we want. Think John Lewis. It is a place where religion may be a way to achieve this goal and to break down barriers. Certainly John Lewis felt this way.

We all have observational biases. We are formed by each and every person we have met and hence they become part of who we are.

Jesse Jackson shares an interesting perspective on bias. He stated, “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps, then turn around and see somebody white, and feel relieved.

Let’s search for finding a cure for the Covid 19 virus or search for better community relations by looking in the right place under the right light

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