Bias and the Brain

By Plum Cluverius, MA/ABS, PCC. Recent events, including but not limited to the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, have awakened many white Americans to the reality of racism and racial injustice in a way nothing else has. Companies small and large are grappling with how to respond.

If the goal is to learn how to eliminate the slights, inequities and the less than welcoming culture created by unconscious bias and racism, a 2018 article in Fast Company entitled “Here’s How Your Brain Can Learn to Be Less Racist” by Allen Gannett may provide some insight.  It describes how researchers Leslie Zebrowitz and Yi Zhang at Brandeis University used fMRI research (mapping how the brain lights up with certain stimuli) to determine what happens when we are repeatedly exposed to different types of people.

To see how this research connects to biases such as racism, it’s helpful to understand a bit about how the brain works. Our brains have developed an elaborate alert system that functions constantly without our knowing it. That alert system is scanning the environment for potential threats as well as potential opportunities. In as little as seven seconds, we unconsciously size up a person or situation and determine whether they are friend or foe—at least in our mind’s eye.  To do this sorting process, our brains rely on cultural norms, past experiences, our mood in the moment and more, and it isn’t necessarily an accurate process.

A key component of this alert system is the orbitofrontal cortex. One function of the orbitofrontal cortex is to determine whether a person or situation is safe to approach or should be avoided. If the part of the orbitofrontal cortex that assesses safety is stimulated, you feel inclined to approach. If the avoidance reflex is stimulated, it cues your body to run away (literally or figuratively).  The more the orbitofrontal cortex is activated, the stronger the feeling.

Zebrowitz and Zhang first exposed their subjects to pictures of Black and Korean faces as well as Chinese characters and random shapes. Subjects (all of whom were white) were shown the pictures different numbers of times and within different time frames. Subjects were then placed in an fMRI machine and shown 40 new pictures and 20 they had already seen. Researchers were looking to see which parts of the orbitofrontal cortex were stimulated.

What researchers found was that unfamiliar images activated the avoidance reflex – and this was true whether the images were faces or unfamiliar shapes or Chinese characters. Humans have evolved to avoid the unknown because for our early ancestors that often signaled danger. 

Researchers also found that repeated exposure to the images significantly reduced the avoidance reflex for the images subjects had seen and, more importantly for understanding bias, also reduced this unconscious reflex for faces in the same racial category.

The more familiar we are with a racial group, the less afraid we are and the less urgently we avoid a person or situation—even at an unconscious level. In our modern world, avoidance isn’t running away, it’s keeping our distance emotionally and mentally. 

Getting familiar means learning more about the people we work with. It means learning more through reading about the experiences of people not like us. Getting familiar means making sure there is a mix of people in the room when work is done and decisions are made.

Clearly individual and systemic racism won’t be solved with one solution. Bearing in mind how our brains work and using that knowledge to both recognize that our first instinct isn’t necessarily the best one and as a path toward greater awareness is one baby step. For ore, read “Becoming Self Aware of Your Own Biases.”

To learn more about working with others, team development, and organizational change, schedule a consultation with Plum.