Sock it to Cultural Bias

Our personal experiences color our perspective and interpretations. This is well known and it is often referred to as bias. Bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this concept, but rather an acknowledgement that we apply our own perspective to most everything in our lives. Bias usual comes from a cultural context and shapes our thinking.

I recently encountered a clear example of cultural bias, based on of all things … a pair of socks. Actually, it was many pairs of socks.

Why socks?

Preparing for some upcoming meetings with other MS advocates, I wanted to make something special to take to everyone. I thought finding something orange, for our favorite MS color, would be easy. Wrong! I couldn’t find scarves or socks or anything at a price point that I could justify buying, so I decided to make my own gift.

I found these 100% cotton men’s white socks online and ordered 4 dozen pairs. I also ordered the orange fabric dye and planned to make custom socks. The white socks arrived and I was surprised to find a small embroidered logo on the sides of the socks, but I though no big deal. After I dyed the socks the emblem would blend into the orange background.

The dye is set

I set up my space to tackle this project in the basement laundry room and went to work on my creation. I hadn’t felt this creative burst of energy in a long time. When the socks were done in their orange bath. I carefully rinsed them and put them through the laundry process and I discovered I was wrong, again! The embroidered logo did not absorb any of bath dye and remained a stark white in contrast to the new orange hue.

I thought it was no big deal, and I now had a basket full of orange socks – the little logo is small, and not a problem.

Different perspectives

I decided to gift a pair of socks to my two MS neurologists in the past week. The first doctor opened the gift bag and immediately noted the rams on the socks. He commented that it was appropriate because “we want to ram MS with everything we’ve got, right?” A few days later at the next appointment I gave another gift bag of socks to my female neurologist and her immediate reaction was unanticipated, as she exclaimed ‘where did you get socks with a uterus and fallopian tubes on them?” Sure enough, if you flip that ram upside down, it looks like female reproductive parts.

Got it now?

It can be difficult to explain cultural bias in simple terms – but two very smart people I know gave this personal demonstration without any prompting from me. They had the same pair of socks but applied their own experiences to interpret what they saw. When we talk about engaging with research, one of the first items we work hard to eliminate is bias in all forms, but it is ingrained in us and tough to beat completely. I hope you appreciate this illustrated lesson on bias and think about ways experiences shape your thinking.

In the meantime, as I give out these gifts to my fellow MS advocates, I will be sure to ask if they would prefer a pair of male or female socks.

wishing you well,


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