The Biasing Effects of Personal Experience

by Benjamin Studebaker

One of the most common assumptions around is the notion that the only way to truly understand something is to be part of it. It is said that the best way to learn about life is to live it. This idea has tremendous influence–it causes method actors to attempt to directly experience what their characters experience, it causes people to go on trips or to do things purely for “the experience”, and most importantly, it has tremendous influence over how people think about politics, both for the left and for the right. The left scolds well-off politicians, who are assumed to have no conception of what it means to be poor and to suffer. The right scolds young people and ivory tower academics for not directly experiencing the welfare systems they praise, or the private systems they denigrate. There is a kernel of truth in both criticisms, but that’s about it.

It is true that sometimes people’s political beliefs are the product of an incorrect understanding of the way the world is. British Chancellor George Osborne thinks the British welfare state is very generous and that it is very easy to live off of a welfare income. As a result, he believes that there is room to cut welfare spending without causing widespread suffering. Suppose he is incorrect about this. One way to potentially change his view would be for him to live for a time on a welfare income, to directly experience what poverty in his country is like. However, while this might be a very easy way of making the point, it may very well not be the best way, and it might only serve to produce a different problem in his thinking.

Personal experience is a blunt instrument. It provides a very powerful anecdotal case, but it carries with it all the potential flaws anecdotal arguments have. Anecdotes provide us with only one perspective, a perspective that is limited and may not apply widely to most cases. When it is our own perspective, it is also very difficult to dispel or counter.

Here’s an example. I have had the personal experience of being a student in the American public education system. I was in that system for over a decade. However, having been a part of that system misleads me when I think about how the American public education system might be improved. I have the tendency to make two big mistakes:

  1. I tend to assume that other students have experienced the American public education system in a similar way.
  2. I tend to assume that the student perspective is disproportionately valuable to understanding the system; I fail to show equal concern for the system’s other participants.

I experienced the American public education system as a gifted kid with active parental participation in a reasonably well-funded suburb. I cannot fathom what it is like to be a kid of below average intelligence with less active parents  in an inner-city school. However, because I was a student, I will still catch myself thinking that I have some kind of privileged knowledge, gained through personal experience, that gives me special insight into how all schools should be run for all students. I have no such privileged knowledge; in reality, my having been a student has skewed my view of how schools should operate. My ideas regarding education are consequently biased toward the perspective of students who are similar to me. I give unequal concern to students who differ, not because I don’t care about them, but because I wrongly overestimate the similarity between my experience and the average student’s.

Not only do I make errors in understanding how other students experience school, but having been a student causes me to privilege student perspectives in general over the perspectives of say, teachers, parents, or administrators. As a result, I only see one piece of what the education system does with any accuracy, yet my having had “personal experience” causes me to believe I understand the system in its totality. Personal experience causes me to have more confidence in my perspective even as it ensures that this perspective will be more flawed.

This is not to say that I have no good ideas about education, or that everything I learned through personal experience was valueless. Nonetheless, it is harder for me to accurately check all of the biases that personal experience produced in my thinking, to prevent them from corrupting my attempts at full understanding. I would be better off if I had learned about how the American public education system works in a different way, if I had not directly experienced it with my limiting perspective.

And of course, it’s not just students who have an incomplete picture of the education system–teachers, parents, and administrators each only have a part, but believe on some level that they have the whole. And of course, it’s not merely the education system in which this happens. All personal experiences bias us in this same way. Doctors, patients, nurses, hospital administrators, and the like, all think they have a privileged understanding of the healthcare system due to personal experience, when in fact, all of these groups are worse off for having been a part of it. Employees and employers both think they understand the businesses they’re involved in better because they have worked in them, but on some level, both are more confused than an outside is.

That said, how else could we learn about systems aside from participation? And surely there is some work that can only be learnt through experience? Yes, the only way to be a good doctor is to gain experience practicing the craft of doctoring, and the only way to be a good teacher is to gain experience practicing the craft of teaching. But while experience of a job may make you better at doing that job, it doesn’t necessarily make you any better at understanding the system that your job is a part of.

We can imagine an ideal way of learning about a system, one that minimizes the bias picked up along the way. Say we could enter into a system with no prior knowledge of that system. We would then begin to accumulate experiences of how that system works by listening to the participants in that system. We would look at data that amalgamates the aggregate experiences of people in the system. We would attempt to understand who is benefiting from the system as it presently operates and who is harmed by it, in what ways, and to what extents. We would need some understanding of what it is to “benefit” and what it is to be “harmed”, so that we would have the ability to sympathize or empathize with the various actors within the system. Most importantly, we would need to show equal concern for the interests of all of the participants. We would not privilege any perspective in our inquiry–we would not pay more attention to what say, administrators say about a system than we would its employees, or the people it serves. In this way we would divorce ourselves and our perspective from the analysis and attempt to conduct it impartially.

Obviously it is impossible ever to achieve the ideal. Left wingers always come into  any dispute between employers and employees assuming on some level that the perspective of the employee is more legitimate, and right wingers always do the same but for the employer. Nonetheless, it is a standard to which we should constantly attempt to meet. We should always try to show equal concern, and to take all perspectives equally seriously when we try to understand how a system works and how we might improve it.

Teachers often complain that politicians analyzing the education system pay too much attention to the claims of administrators or other non-teacher educational “experts”. It is often suggested that politicians are unqualified to determine how the education system ought to work because they do not have the personal experience of teaching. The teachers have identified a real problem–the politicians are showing unequal concern, privileging some perspectives at the expense of the teaching perspective. The answer, however, is not to go the other way, it is not to work only from the teaching perspective, but to attempt to come to a mutually constitutive understanding of all of the perspectives equally, and thereby come to a solution that tackles the whole problem, and not the problem from one point of view.

Right wingers don’t need to experience poverty, and left wingers don’t need to experience what it’s like to run a business. They need merely to acknowledge that what they have experienced has biased them, has caused them not to give equal consideration to the interests of the people their political positions affect, and to attempt constantly to adjust for that, to remedy it. Your average voter doesn’t have the time to go through that exercise. Your average voter votes his perspective, his prejudice. As a result, we have a handful of parties each of which does not attempt to build a good society for the benefit of all, but merely a society that benefits the portion of the population that comprises its voting bloc. For this reason, democracy is doomed to mediocrity and failure.