Unpacking cognitive biases by exploring unknown places

I remember a defining moment in my life was going to Cebu, in the Philippines, when I was about eight years old. In the midst of a short holiday away from Singapore where my Mum was working, she took me out to a rural area so I could see first-hand how people in poverty lived. She wanted me to see that there is a depth of human experience, and that a lot of kind and good people were trapped in circumstances beyond their control. This was one of the main triggers, I think, for my lifelong interest in global inequality.

Though to many people I sound quite international, as I come from a mixed ethnic background, was born in the United States and spent a fair chunk of my young-childhood years in Asia, I still grew up with a pretty limited view of the world. As a kid in Western Australia (where I have spent the vast majority of my life) I had limited access to global information, and so did most people around me. I’m young enough to barely remember a time before the internet was everywhere, but this didn’t seem to do much to improve our stereotyping of foreign cultures.

Little me, when I lived in Japan.

Growing up, I heard a lot of ignorant and hateful comments about foreign places and people, and as an adolescent who believed I was empathetic and politically aware, I sought to negate those at any opportunity. As just one example, after hearing Islamaphobic comments in my early teen years, I became a student of Arabic so that I could then read the Qur’an and understand it myself. Though I’m not religious, I’ve now read it cover-to-cover four times in the decade and a bit since, and try to be an ally for Muslim people by combatting hate with knowledge. And yet — my own subconscious, cognitive biases were (and likely still are) still incredibly powerful, and I have only discovered and overcome some of these by throwing myself head first into unfamiliar situations.

When I was 17, I signed up to spend a few months teaching in Malawi, a small country in Southeastern Africa. As a young person in Australia, I’d seen and heard a lot of simplistic, sometimes hateful, things about Africa (many an erasure of the immense religious, cultural and linguistic diversity of the massive continent), and I wanted to understand some of this for myself. That said, I was unbelievably ignorant at the time. As an anthropology student, I’d been learning about hunter-gatherers and complex (but mostly non-Western) cultures, and expected to find this where I went. I basically expected to be living in a mud hut while smiling children ran around, grateful for my presence, and to come back feeling worldly and good about myself. I ended up teaching advanced maths, chemistry and physics to high school students in a private boarding school, where everyone had mobile phones, drank Coca-Cola and listened to American hip-hop. The complex globalised society I lived in was not the ‘Africa’ I had imagined — but luckily my simplistic stereotypes were smashed when I was still relatively young. I pretty quickly realised the value in going out and actually spending time in places you think you have some idea about, but I’m still learning every day.

18-year-old me, sitting on the shores of Lake Malawi at a big music festival and possibly reflecting on what an ignorant ass I’d been (more likely, just thinking about food).

Recently, I was offered the opportunity to travel to Ukraine with a group of passionate young people from around the world, and decided to go along. I have never been educated, really, on the history of the Soviet Union, and my current understanding of the Eastern European region is at best mediocre. When I conjured images of Ukraine in my mind (based on a lifetime of media impressions I suppose) they were bleak. I had only heard about war and violence in the nation, and I had pictured lifeless Soviet housing blocks, grey landscapes, and harsh people. In spite of this, I decided to go along with an open heart and mind.

Over the four days I spent in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, I was blown away by breathtaking architecture, excellent food and coffee, ancient historical sites, a passionate social impact scene, a thriving tech economy and an abundant supply of hip bars and back-alley speakeasies. I felt 100% safe walking a kilometre back to my flat downtown at 3am (something that I can’t say about most other cities), and I can easily say that the Ukrainian people are the friendliest and most hospitable I’ve ever met.

It is heart-wrenching to know that the Maidan we spent so much time admiring was the site of a violent revolution and the loss of many lives just a few years ago. It is also hard to Imagine Kyiv as the capital of a country at war, given its warmth, creativity, passion and light. I have left Ukraine with a strong belief in its youth, their devotion to the nation, and their ability to help its light shine even brighter. I am now planning to return to Ukraine again, and have been singing its praises to everyone I see. It’s ridiculous to think I would never have discovered what is probably my favourite city in the world, Kyiv, had I trusted any of the impressions I had of the country.

I can only hope I continue to say yes to new opportunities, meet new people and discover new places, and I recommend anyone else who has the opportunity to do the same. The world can only become a better, more inclusive place, if we each actively try to uncover and deal with these false impressions we carry around with us in the depths of our minds.

Like what you read? Give Keeya-Lee Ayre a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.