The only thing I knew about Oprah Winfrey until recently was that she was a successful media personality and for a long time struggled with her weight.
I know these two things because for 25 years she was ubiquitous with her daytime talk show, magazine, movies, and interviews.
What I didn’t know about Oprah was the extent to which she suffered childhood trauma and how that trauma manifested itself throughout her life.
I recently finished the book she and Dr. Bruce Perry co-authored, What Happened to You? Simply put, it’s a great read. In fact, it’s extremely helpful in understanding adverse childhood experiences, childhood trauma, and the need for positive relationships with people.
It also helped me see that I’ve been wrong in my assessment of Oprah for many years. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there are many topics on which we would disagree, but as I read her stories recounting her childhood, I realized an important truth: my implicit biases and preconceived notions said more about me than it did her.
Frankly, it highlighted how hard it is for me to build trust when I’m not willing to be honest about my own experiences and trauma and practice being open-minded.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at three ideas: implicit bias, trust, and neuroception. The idea to examine these three ideas for a possible thread or connection came to me as I read an article by Rose Eveleth titled, “You’re Probably Not As Open-Minded As You Think. Here’s How To Practice.”
Ms. Eveleth said in her article that most people are not as open to new ideas as they think they are or would like to be. A primary reason is that it “can be hard to reconsider long-held beliefs, and even harder to question things you didn’t even know you believed in the first place.” Amen to that idea.
As we dug deeper and researched these ideas, I believe three significant points stood out:
1. Implicit bias can occur when we hold negative attitudes or feelings towards people who are not part of our “ingroup,” and we are more empathetic towards people in our “ingroup” than we are towards those in an “outgroup.”
2. When it comes to learning to trust others, researchers have determined that people are able to form an impression, positive or negative, of someone as quickly as in 40 milliseconds. In other words, the mind has formed an impression about the person before you are cognizant of your own feelings or impressions.
3. “Neuroception results in the gut feelings, the heart-informed feelings, the implicit feelings that move us along the continuum between safety and survival response” and prompts our bodies to ask each time we meet someone, “Is this person safe and trustworthy?
In their book, Dr. Perry says that our brains start creating “shortcuts.” Based on our prior experiences with people, we compare and “sort” people into various categories.
The problem is our shortcuts aren’t always accurate and can lead to the stereotypes and generalizations that keep us from really getting to know someone and making connections.
For example, what does our experience tell us about teachers, pastors, politicians, or professional athletes? What shortcuts do we take about someone’s trustworthiness based on how we were raised or our prior experiences or how we see people?
Perry further explains that intellectually we may say we are open to different ideas and people, but those ideas are stored in our brain’s highest levels – in the cortex. Those ideas are the ideas we can control, and change based on new information.
Unfortunately, our implicit biases, first impressions of trust, and cues for whether a person is safe or dangerous are stored in the lower part of our brains and play out on a daily basis “in the way you interact with others, the jokes you laugh at, and the things you say.”
I’ll be transparent: I struggle with processing the idea that the lower part of my brain, the part formed in my early childhood, influences how I see people before I even get to know them.
The implications can be troubling. Are the shortcuts in my brain influencing how I see someone based on their race, gender, education, profession, economic status, religion, beliefs, or other outward characteristics?
Do I either discount what they say because they aren’t part of my “ingroup” or give their ideas more weight than they deserve because they are similar to me and I trust them? Do I judge someone to be a danger or immediately conclude they are trustworthy based on how they look or the non-verbal signals I receive?
I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer those questions definitively. What I do know is that Dr. Perry’s charge for how we can overcome implicit bias and build trust with people resonates:
“The long-term solution is to minimize the development of implicit bias. We have to think about ways to raise our children with more opportunities to be exposed to the magnificence of human diversity earlier in their lives. And we have to change the inherently biased elements of so many of our systems.”
If we are going to change what we see as the inequities, inequalities, and ineffectiveness of our society, we are going to need to challenge ourselves and our thinking. We are going to need to recognize that unless we have “been there and done that,” the best we can offer is our opinion on a situation and how we think it can be improved.
I didn’t experience the same trauma as Oprah or Dr. Perry. In fact, I didn’t experience most of the traumas we know exist in our world. However, I’ve taken the time to become educated on many of the issues and I’m comfortable sharing what I’ve learned.
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that we all need and crave human relationships. Yet, we will only build relationships if we are willing to be honest with ourselves, learn to see people for who they are and not the “categories” we place them in, and practice, practice, practice open-mindedness.
I owe Oprah that way of thinking. I owe everyone that way of thinking. I hope you will think so, too.
 Rose Eveleth, “You’re Probably Not As Open-Minded As You Think. Here’s How To Practice,” National Public Radio, May 3, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/04/28/991700784/youre-probably-not-as-open-minded-as-you-think-heres-how-to-practice
 Puma Kommattam, Kai J. Jonas, Agneta H. Fischer, “Perceived to feel less: Intensity bias in interethnic emotion perception,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Volume 84, September 2019, 103809, 1-7. https://psyarxiv.com/ycbm7/
Deb Dana, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2018: pp35-37.
Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry,What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing,New York: Flatiron Books, 2021: 234
 Ibid., p242.