My skills at ironing were close to non-existent. But I was alone in America for two months before Alison could join me. I needed smart shirts each day, so ironing would have to be done. Surely it couldn’t be difficult.
I was living in temporary housing so owned none of the furniture or household objects. Thankfully there was an iron and ironing board. I got it all set up, and took a shirt from the basket.
Now, Alison could probably watch TV, juggle four balls, drink tea and iron a shirt all at the same time. My ability was in a different league. A much lower league. For understandable but inconvenient reasons, shirts are not flat. They just won’t lie down and stay still on an ironing board, so I was creating creases as fast as I was removing them. It took me an hour to iron that first shirt. Shirt number two fought me as fiercely as its predecessor, but I did better – just 55 minutes for that one. However, a rate of two shirts ironed per movie watched was appalling.
As I was picking up shirt three, I stepped back and looked closely at the ironing board. That’s when I saw my problem. Whoever had lived in this house before me must have been left-handed because they’d bought a left-handed ironing board. Since I’m right-handed that explained why I was crossing my hands, reaching awkwardly, and fighting constantly to apply the iron to uncooperative shirts. But leftie was the only ironing board available, so I kept going, got marginally quicker, and drove my average down to 45 minutes a shirt. It seemed I’d be wrestling with that ironing board for a long time.
Two evenings later I assembled my left-handed ironing board again, ready to restart my inept ironing. Suddenly – iron held over a rumpled shirt – I stopped. I was experiencing an epiphany. Carefully I placed the iron off to the side, put both hands under the ironing board, picked it up, turned it round, and then stepped back and looked.
Now I had a right-handed ironing board!
How on earth had I not realised what was wrong before? Well, the first time I’d taken the ironing board from its cupboard, I’d struggled to assemble it at all. Bits moved in all directions simultaneously, almost worse than an old-fashioned deck chair. But finally I got there. The tricky beast stood in front of me. It never occurred to me that the ironing board was anything other than correct now. But it was the correct only for a left-hander. And I’d concluded that’s how it had been manufactured, as a left-handed ironing board.
Looking back I see my stupidity was a mix of perspective, faulty assumptions, ignorance and inexperience. Any or all of these can cause problems. And they occur with things much more serious than ironing boards.
When we don’t really understand what we’re seeing or what’s happening
Let me explain this with a strange example. I visited friends David and Irene in Sindh Province, Pakistan. They were involved in humanitarian projects in a remote area which, to me, seemed impoverished and lawless. The journey to my friends’ home was across mile after mile of desert, at the mercy of a local driver who didn’t hesitate to steer his car off the far edge of the road in order to complete an overtake. An accident in an isolated area would have been disastrous. Thankfully I arrived safely.
David and Irene had a shelf of family photos, placed prominently so they’d see and remember their loved ones back home. Given the landscape all around, it was impossible to stop sand blowing into their home, so they employed a local lady to clean. With a smile Irene said, ‘something odd happened after the first time our cleaner dusted the shelf with the photos’. Apparently the cleaner had taken all the pictures off, wiped the shelf, and then put the photos back. ‘Except,’ Irene continued, ‘she replaced some upside down, some on their sides, and some the right way up. The problem was our cleaner had no idea what a photo was; the frames they were in were just objects to her, so she had no idea of a right or wrong way up.’
I was astonished. I’d never imagined anyone could be unaware of what a photograph was. But the cleaner was unaware. She’d never used a camera, never had her photo taken, never seen a photo. Therefore, she didn’t recognise these objects as images of people. In any case, people aren’t three or four inches tall. So, all she saw on that shelf were things with flat edges which, after dusting, she could put back any way that was convenient.
Likewise it had never occurred to me that there was a right or wrong way round for an ironing board, so, when using it was awkward, I assumed that board had been made for a left-hander.
We can all be guilty of not realising what we’re seeing, not understanding what’s really going on.
An industry magnate may gaze out across the idyllic beauty of a forest and a gently flowing stream. But what he sees isn’t beauty. Nor is it a pristine environment that must be protected. The only thing he sees is the perfect site for his new car plant. The magnate’s focus is functional, thinking only of what increases his business empire and personal fortune. He’s not concerned with aesthetics or valuable ecosystems. Hence he doesn’t see what he’s not looking for.
Colleagues criticise the woman who arrives late most days, especially because she’s also one of the first to leave when work is over. What they don’t see is her husband at home with advanced cancer. He’s too ill to work, so she must. Every day she rises at 5 a.m., and spends three hours caring for him and making sure he has everything he needs while she’s away. Then she rushes off, and after her job is done for the day, she hurries home to check he’s all right, and then to start on six hours of caring, cooking, washing, cleaning, and everything else. Day after day after day. Her colleagues see none of that and, in their ignorance, they judge her.
There are times when all of us are blind. We can’t be blamed for what we don’t know. But we can be blamed if we’re so focused on our own agenda or own opinions that we never see another point of view or make hasty judgments.
If we care, and take time, we will understand better what we’re seeing.
When we see only what we expect to see
When I unfolded that ironing board, it looked right to me. It was just like every ironing board I’d ever seen. So I assumed all was correct.
An assumption that this thing must be the same as that thing is a form of ‘cognitive bias’. I believed the ironing board I set up was identical to other ironing boards. And it took me two days to realise something fundamental was wrong. It was the wrong way round.
What is a cognitive bias? Fundamentally it’s about a skewed way of seeing things. Exactly what that involves can vary enormously. Those who’ve counted reckon there are over 150 kinds of cognitive bias. Most of them can be summed up by descriptions like these:
- They result in prejudiced judgments – we have slanted views of things
- They’re usually unconscious – we’re not aware of our bias
- When we try to avoid bias, we become convinced that our perspective now is the correct one – the ‘I think it, therefore it’s true’ effect.
- Some cognitive biases are useful – such as for those living on the grasslands of tropical Africa who can’t afford the luxury of taking time to examine whether the movement behind a bush is a pig or a lion – they must respond to their gut instinct and flee.
Almost no-one doubts the existence of cognitive biases, but many think bias doesn’t affect them. The way they see things, that’s how they are. Unfortunately pride is far from an infallible guide to reality. Here are two examples about seeing what we expect to see.
Mississippi My first visit to America began with two weeks in Mississippi. I stayed in three different houses. None were mega-mansions but very pleasant and comfortable middle-class homes. Less than a mile away African-American people lived in very different houses. We drove through those ‘black’ neighbourhoods, and I was shocked. Almost every home was the simplest of wooden structures – small, often leaning, some needing repair, children playing out front in the dirt. I saw proud people beside their homes, but my heart went out to them. The contrast between where I was staying for two weeks and where they’d spend their whole lives was stark. One of my hosts didn’t share my feelings. He said: ‘The black people are lazy. That’s why they live like this.’ Again I was shocked. I disputed those statements as much as a guest in someone else’s culture can. My host was unmoved. That’s how he saw them. He didn’t seem to consider the legacy of slavery, the laws that still disadvantaged black people, the inferior schools their children attended, the lack of opportunities for even the brightest, and so on. ‘They’re lazy.’ That’s how he saw them.
Edinburgh I studied theology at the University of Edinburgh. That worried my Christian friends, because they considered the university’s ‘divinity school’ to be liberal in its theological positions. But it was a great experience for me. I heard mind-stretching lectures and engaged in challenging conversations. One of those conversations happened in a seminar group gathered to discuss ‘the problem of evil’ – how can a God who is almighty and all-loving allow suffering? Far from an easy subject. There were about 12 of us, and I was in a minority of one coming from an evangelical perspective. But I argued my case, and they argued theirs. We both listened and learned. Afterwards, two or three came to me privately and thanked me for what I’d said. Then each of them added a sentence like this: ‘You’re the first evangelical I’ve met who had reasons for his faith’. They thought evangelicals, faced with difficult questions, simply resorted to blind faith – ‘I don’t know why this is true, but I believe it anyway’. No thought. No evidence. Apparently I’d been different. But they were wrong, hopefully not about me but certainly about many other evangelicals. There were and are many evangelical scholars, preachers and ordinary believers who have studied and thought deeply about their faith, and then put forward sound arguments in favour of evangelical views. But my divinity school fellow-students had, at least until that day, dismissed evangelicals as people who never thought things through.
I can’t teach anyone how to rid themselves of their cognitive biases. If they’re unconscious, you can’t even identify they exist. And many a cognitive bias is comforting, reassuring, it props up our way of seeing the world and justifies the way we live in it.
But I can ask you to be open to the possibility of cognitive bias in your thinking. I suspect all of us have biases – could be about religion, or politics, or sport, or women in the workplace, or people of colour, or those with alternative lifestyles. For example, a few years ago I met people who identified with goth subculture. Initially, I found it hard to get past their strange looks, dress, ideas, but eventually I got to know them. And discovered they were people who were kind, thoughtful, and really worth knowing. Biases can be unseen barriers to good people, good ideas, and good experiences.
So, this blog has taught you how to turn a left-handed ironing board into a right-handed ironing board (or right into left). About 0.0001% of the population needed to know that.
Beyond that, hopefully there’s been something here that helps you ‘see’ and therefore understand our world more completely. Nothing should be frightening about getting a truer perspective on the world. We’re better people for that. And ironing might become a bit easier.
This blog is posted the day after a new year dawned. Today is just one day more than yesterday, but psychologically most of us flip a switch – ‘off’ for the year gone by, and ‘on’ for the year ahead. It feels like a fresh start.
May this new beginning be the best it can be for you, with far more about which to be thankful than regretful. My warmest wishes.
And, if you would like to read a blog specifically for a new year, my first blog one year ago was about ‘resolutions’. You’ll find it here: https://occasionallywise.com/2021/01/ (It’s dated January 2, 2021, therefore at the beginning of last January’s list.)
 I once told this story of my ‘left-handed ironing board’ to an audience in America. Thankfully they laughed. Afterwards, several women said to me ‘You iron? I’m impressed.’ I’m not sure now if they were surprised a man did ironing, or surprised that anyone in the household did ironing. Certainly some never did – either they only bought ‘non-iron’ clothes, or they sent out their laundry to a cleaner where it was washed, dried, ironed, and then delivered back to home.
 On the whole the label ‘liberal’ wasn’t wrong. But, as I told my friends, the school was so liberal that I was never marked down for my views providing I gave academically credible arguments. Besides, if we mix only with people who think exactly like us, we don’t learn much.
 If goth subculture is as unknown to you as it once was for me, this may help: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goth_subculture