Tuesday 21 July 2020

How to tackle discomfort when confronting implicit biases

Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic (Photo ©Dorte_Jelstrup)

Today's post is by Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic, who is a postdoc at the Section for Philosophy and Science Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark.

It has become quite trendy to argue that that it is okay (or maybe even required) to make people feel uncomfortable because of their biases or prejudices. In my new paper in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, The Right to Feel Comfortable: Implicit Bias and the Moral Potential of Discomfort, I discuss this new trend by arguing that there are good reasons (from affective neuroscience) for why we should curb our enthusiasm when it comes to the moral potential of discomfort. It certainly can be justified to call people out for their biased behavior and we need not comfort every display of what I call “awareness discomfort”. But in such situations we shouldn’t expect to be changing the receiver’s moral mindset. 

This is the first out of two papers on the feelings of discomfort generated by implicit biases and other subtle forms of discrimination (coming out of my research project funded by the Carlsberg Foundation). In another upcoming paper (Against Comfort: Political Implications of Evading Discomfort) I am more in favor of discomfort and argue that we should be ready to accept more of this kind of bias discomfort if we want to advance social mobility.

From psychologists advising on so-called implicit bias trainings to comedian Hannah Gadsby’s special, Nanette, which challenged conventions of stand-up comedy, speakers are increasingly confronting audiences with their complicity in structural forms of discrimination. Despite widespread scholarly interest in the moral potential of discomfort, there has been surprisingly little discussion of its potential pitfalls. Although discomfort advocates range from killjoys who endorse intentional and direct confrontation to more moderate voices who carve out careful distinctions between productive and unproductive forms discomfort, only a few voices have directly called attention to the aversive effects of discomfort.

Such discomfort skeptics warn that, because people often react negatively to feeling blamed or called-out, the result of confrontational approaches is often counterproductive. To deepen this critique, I draw in the paper on the recent upsurge of research on negative affect and emotions in the affective sciences and philosophy of emotion to argue for a contextual understanding of discomfort that accounts for the complex phenomenology of aversive affect.

My primary aim is to caution against the current wave of discomfort advocacy. Advocates risk overrating the moral potential of discomfort if they underestimates the extent to which context shapes the interpretation of affect and simple, raw feelings. Context in this sense entails two dimensions: (i) the concrete situation of individual agents and (ii) the internal tools and concepts they use to interpret their discomfort. Rudimentary affect like discomfort does not necessarily have a transparent, straightforward intentionality.

Put simply, agents may not know precisely why they feel uncomfortable. Their specific situations and the interpretative tools they use to discern their discomfort are central to how they will understand their discomfort and the motivations they will draw from the experience. Affect—and especially negative affect like discomfort—has an paramount and often unpredictable influence on our judgments, behavior and understanding of the world. From the perspective of the contextual approach, a critical problem for discomfort advocates is that they risk ignoring the multiple kinds of discomfort that may arise in discussions of implicit bias.


  1. This is interesting! As a clinical psychologist at UCLA specializing in treatment of anxiety and mood disorders, my experience is that most patients strive for comfort and are unwilling to become uncomfortable. As a result they engage in strategies such as avoid, distract, habituate - none of which result in new learning. The brain wants to maintain homeostasis or equilibrium as it confronts reality, thereby reducing the prospect that it will encounter prediction error. The main treatment for anxiety disorders is exposure-response prevention, in other words, dismantle whatever it is that the patient is afraid of encountering, and then proceed to encounter it. This creates greater tolerance of uncertainty and interference learning, so the patient becomes less fragile and more flexible. With this comes less reliance on heuristics embedded in learning history, such as implicit bias.

  2. This is a very welcome analysis. There are genuine worries with the "discomfort" approach, including the dangers of moral bullying, along with the instructor's visible self-satisfaction and sense of superiority in occupying the moral high ground. This combination too easily becomes a form of coercion rather than an invitation to mature reflection for students.


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