The Science of Bias and Disconnection
I am an eternal optimist. I believe people are basically good. I believe 99% of us wake up in the morning with good intentions - to go to work, make a decent living, take care of our families, connect with our friends, and help our communities. I don't believe we wake up intentionally trying to hurt others. But inevitably, we do. Why? Because we don't understand our biases and how our perspectives exclude others.
One of the concepts that people are most resistant to in the field of diversity and inclusion is the idea of bias. It's typically thrown about as an insult and we think of it as a negative thing. We all want to believe that we aren't biased. But here's the reality... we are all biased. It's how our brains work. Research shows that our brains process about 11 million pieces of information at any given time and it can only handle about 40, which still sounds like a lot. Our brain is set up to gather new information in unfamiliar situations and compare it to data that it has gathered in the past. That's what bias is. It's a preference for a particular way of doing things.
It's not the bias that matters. Bias just makes us human. It's what we do with our biases that can positively or negatively impact our businesses and our lives.
Human beings are tribal. We are more comfortable around people who look and act like us. Widening our circle to include people who may be quite different from us takes a conscious effort that makes many of us very uncomfortable.
Never is that more evident than it is right now. In my over 20 years of diversity & inclusion work, I can’t recall a more divisive and polarized time. The social and political turmoil often seems impossible to escape. At every turn, there’s news about people being mistreated, excluded, and harmed. It leaves us feeling stressed out in almost every aspect of our lives, and we carry that stress with us into work every day.
The mental and emotional toll of this turmoil is probably obvious to you, but did you know these events make an impact physically on all of us - victims, perpetrators and observers?
- Victims of discrimination are subject to increased rates of depression, hypertension, certain cancers, and a host of other illnesses and diseases. One study showed that even “perceived discrimination” was associated with increased mortality in older adults. (Interestingly, the effect was greater for older Whites than for older Blacks.)
- In the United States, counties where Whites expressed higher levels of both implicit and explicit bias, both Blacks and White showed increased rates of death from circulatory diseases. (Although both groups were affected, Blacks were more negatively impacted.)
- In communities where high levels of bias exist, people are less likely to trust and bond with each other, leading to a lack of social connectedness. This lack of connection is more detrimental to our health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure.
- Researchers have found that exclusion is processed by the brain as physical pain. When we are rejected socially, our brains release the same opioids into our systems that are released when we experience physical pain. These natural pain killers help ease the mental and emotional pain we feel from such dismissals.
- Simply watching an event triggers a special class of neurons in our brain to engage. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire when not only when we do something, but also when we observe someone else doing the same thing. Have you ever flinched when you saw someone else stub their toe? That’s the mirror neurons in action, reminding you of the pain you felt when you stubbed your toe. It’s these same mirror neurons that fire when we witness traumatic events - like someone being beaten or abused. The neurons fire, and our brain reacts as if we’re being beaten. Cortisol, adrenaline and a flood of other harmful hormones and chemicals are released into our system. The result is not only empathy for the other person, but added stress on our body as well.
I don’t believe we can solve these issues unless we understand what’s happening from a holistic point of view. We are all part of the system, and that means we’re all connected. What affects one person or group of people affects us all. While corrections to systemic and historic issues can take time, there are a few things you can do right now to build more resilience and respond to these situations more effectively:
- First, we can’t fix anything until we become aware of it, so we must understand where our biases lie. A great tool for recognizing biases is the Implicit Association Test. Take a few of the tests (they don’t take long), and then do things to help mitigate your biases. Watch a different news station. Ask someone you don’t usually ask for an opinion. Read a book or watch a movie that targets a demographic different from your own.
- Quit complaining about what’s going on. All the complaining we do about the current situation only serves to embed the negativity further into our brains. When we focus on something and replay it over and over in our heads, the neurons involved create tighter connections, which only makes it easier to continue focusing on the negativity. Our internal situation goes from bad to worse.
- Pay attention to your emotions. Negative emotions have a way of clouding our judgment. Rather than reacting harshly, disengage. Step back and take a deep breath before responding… or walking away.
- Recognize that when you are deep in conflict with another person, you have a very small chance of actually convincing them of your opinion. Rather, try to find a basic place of agreement - “We all want to be respected” or “We all want to be safe” - and then proceed from there. Accept that in some disagreements, the only resolution you have may be the things you have in common.
- Finally, take a break. This may seem obvious, but how many of us actually do it? Turn off the news for a day. Log out of your social media accounts for a week. Use your free time to do something that recharges your inner battery.
Connect with me on social media to let me know how you build your resilience.
Curious about some of the myths around diversity & inclusion? Download our free e-book “The Top 5 Diversity Myths” here.
@2018 daiOne, LLC