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.