We are hardwired to put things in categories. In his book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, cognitive scientist Paul Bloom explains how the ‘exposure effect’ governs how we categorise people around us. “Babies have an adaptive bias to prefer the familiar,” he explains, “they quickly develop a preference for those who look like those around them and a wariness toward those who don’t.”
Our favouritism of the familiar is dangerous when it comes to the workplace. Last year, a study revealed that 23.4% of employees in the UK feel that they’ve been unfairly dismissed on gender grounds, whilst another found that Britons from minority ethnic backgrounds had to send 80% more applications than a white person of British origin to get a positive response. This shows that whilst we might rationally support cultivating diverse work environments, we are still statistically more likely to hire individuals belonging to certain demographics than others.
Unconscious biases are “learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, universal, and able to influence behaviour.” Robert Sapolsky, neuroendocrinologist and author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, explains that our compulsion to divide ourselves into “us” and “them” is due to the hormone oxytocin, promoting trust, generosity and cooperation to the former but hostile behaviour to the latter.
However, Sapolsky emphasises that whilst we compulsively create boundaries between ourselves and others, these boundaries are often arbitrary. “The aversive processing is neither automatic nor inevitable,” he writes. “The brain’s response to race can be overridden by re-categorizing people.”
Previous neuroimaging studies have been used to indicate that our unconscious biases are neurally ingrained. Using fMRI scans, scientists found a positive correlation between showing someone flashes of an emotionally neutral face of a different race and activity in the amygdala, the region of the brain associated with emotional responses (including fear, anxiety, and aggression).
However, subsequent studies have shown that this is not always the case. For example, studies have revealed that amygdala sensitivity to race is not present in childhood but emerges over adolescence. As well as this, greater peer diversity is associated with a reduced amygdala response, meaning that diverse environments reduce the salience of race. In other words, our neural biases to race are not innate. Prejudice is a product of our social contexts.
“If skin colour is socially relevant – if black kids sit at one table and white kids at another – children will pick up on this,” Bloom explains;
“We start off prepared to make distinctions, but it’s our environments that tell us precisely how to do so.”
Whilst we are hardwired to create distinctions between ourselves and others, these categories are easily changeable depending on our environments. In the same way in which we are easily manipulated into forming us/them binaries, we can also change them. Similar brain scan studies revealed that a racial bias can be overcome by something so simple as putting a cap with a favourite sports team’s logo on someone’s head.
Sapolsky provides an example from Christmas 1914 during WWI in Christmas 1914. A brief truce meant that British and German soldiers suspended fighting in order to carry bodies from the trenches and dig graves. Within a short time, men from opposing camps were helping each other; soon they were praying together, playing football together, exchanging addresses so they could meet after the war. The truce kept going until officers arrived, telling the soldiers they would be shot unless they went back to killing each other.
“All it took here was hours for these men to develop a completely new category of “Us”, Sapolsky explains:
“Neurons grow new processes. Circuits disconnect. Everything in the brain changes.”
Diversity at work
Knowing that the distinctions we make between ourselves and others is malleable is the first step in the process, but how can we actively change this? How can we use what we know about social categories and cultural bias to promote equal opportunity?
As outlined in an article in Harvard Business Review, ‘Why Diversity Programs Fail’, “the problem is that we can’t motivate people by forcing them to get with the program and punishing them if they don’t.” It states that voluntary diversity training has been significantly more effective in improving workplace diversity than mandatory training, with many trainers reporting that compulsory courses actively worsens intergroup animosity.
Often, when two individuals feel that their views are very different, it feels almost impossible to get through to one another. This is partially due to psychological reactance, “our brain’s response to a threat to our freedom”. As articulated by communication scientist, Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, “when people feel that their choices are restricted, or that others are telling them what to do, they sometimes rebel and do the opposite.”
One study found that informing participants that “they are free to decide for themselves what is good for them” after being asked to do a specific health behaviour, such as flossing, reduced the effects of reactance (Bessarabova, Fink, & Turner, 2013; Miller et al., 2007). Other studies have demonstrated that inducing empathy or telling the threatened person to adopt the perspective of the person telling them what to do can also help reduce reactance (Shen, 2010; Steindl & Jonas, 2012).
“Reframing the experience so it is no longer a threat to freedom is one way we can try to avoid psychological reactance,” Hall concludes. “We can try to remember that just because someone suggests something to us or asks us to do something, they are not necessarily trying to control us.”
Rather than focusing on where our views diverge from other groups of people, we are more likely to genuinely impact their beliefs by finding common ground. “When you think categorically, you have trouble seeing how similar or different things are,” Sapolsky stresses:
“If you pay lots of attention to where boundaries are, you pay less attention to complete pictures.”
“The evidence is clear,” states Vijay Eswaran in a World Economic Forum article, “companies that take the initiative and actively increase the diversity of their management teams—across all dimensions of diversity and with the right enabling factors in place—perform better.” Viewing things in terms of dialogue and exchange rather than binaries, we are able to overcome the boundaries that categorise us into groups, opening us up to dynamic, fruitful debate and diverse ways of thinking.