I Have a Dream: an update?

A quick thought, prompted by the coverage last week of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s celebrated ‘I have a dream’ speech. The most quoted sentence is:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

It’s so obviously right, that you can’t really imagine someone calling it into question. And yet … what is ‘the content of [someone’s] character’? We now know (and largely didn’t in MLK’s day) that we humans fall prey to, for example, fundamental attribution error very easily. It shapes how we feel about people and is so well understood you can even buy the t-shirt. In brief: because we don’t recognise the extent to which our own – and others’ – behaviour is context dependent, we tend to over-attribute personality traits to others based on what we notice them doing.

So my suggestion is that we want to be judged by what we do rather than by the ‘content of [our] character’ since, though our perception of events is biased, surely we can get a better handle on the former than the latter.

To illustrate what I mean – what’s more important: that someone identifies discrimination and acts to prevent it (which are behaviours), or that (as a character trait) they are opposed to discrimination? The first, surely.

Further ahead, what I hope will happen is that public understanding of our behavioural and perceptual biases, and of context dependency, increases to the extent that we can all be better at interpreting people. We’d have better relationships. And we’d do politics better.

I’m not going to rewrite King’s speech. It’s beautiful. But I do wonder if, given what we now know, we can have a dream about mass understanding of behavioural insights.

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