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Our Biased Brains

This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Change Agent.

“Implicit bias” has become a buzzword in the national discourse around race. We may have heard the phrase linked to explanations for why police officers may shoot black suspects more quickly, why doctors fail to diagnose heart disease in women at the same rate as men, and why teachers may underestimate the capacities of Latino students. Yet it isn’t obvious what implicit bias means for communications strategy.

Understanding implicit bias is crucial to those of us working to inspire action around the systemic failures of particular institutions such as criminal justice, education, and healthcare. Frequently, our attempts to engage people around harms affecting marginalized groups are met with resistance. Instead of responding to accounts of structural inequalities with empathy, people often form judgments, usually rooted in a set of assumptions. For example, many assume, contrary to the data, that students of color who are disciplined at higher rates must be acting violently or using drugs— the same stereotypes triggered by incarceration disparities— or that health outcomes are simply a result of poor choices people made about diet or exercise. How our brains process information explains why we make these associations.

Most of our mental processing occurs without our conscious awareness. Our brains create schemas, or categories, for most of the sights and sounds we encounter. These schema include categorizing different people and associating particular groups with traits or stereotypes. These stereotypes are useful when they allow us automatically to distinguish between a child and an adult, but they are risky when they involve categories such as race, gender, or ethnicity. When a particular category becomes associated with negative stereotypes in the culture, our brain automatically associates these stereotypes with anyone who fits the category. Once these stereotypes are lodged into our minds, they are automatically triggered. Scientists call this process implicit bias.

Our brains do not rely solely on implicit biases to judge people – they also interpret information about people through narratives. We are conditioned from birth to learn from stories. Narrative mode treats experiences as unique historical events containing intentions, actions, and outcomes that allow us to understand and interpret human behavior. Our experiences hearing and telling stories create the capacity for us to engage in building perspective, empathy, critical thinking, and nuanced ways of understanding the world.

The combination of implicit biases about people and dominant narratives about how the world operates forms the lens through which we filter new stories, data, and communication seeking to move us to do good. As a result, depending upon our biases and the narratives we believe, we can interpret identical information in completely different ways.

Dominant narratives often drive stereotypes. Among the most powerful and prevalent are “the power of the individual,” the “melting pot,” the “American origin story,” and the aspiration toward “colorblindness.” Meta narratives derive from actual stories, which then translate into new stories. For example, the Horatio Alger story – in which a poor lad lifts himself from poverty to affluence by his bootstraps – is repeated in the story of Oprah. The classic American individualist narrative is used as a bludgeon against us when we call for public policies linked to redistributive justice or a social safety net. The “melting pot” narrative dictates that cultural identities should be subsumed under the “American” identity—which means that any ethnic group that seeks to maintain the integrity of its language or cultural traditions is somehow “un-American.” The still-celebrated Columbus discovery story flattens the many different Tribes and peoples into a single category and renders invisible the rich history of indigenous communities. The story of Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech undergirds the “color-blind” narrative telling us that race shouldn’t matter. And if race doesn’t matter, then policies seeking to address racial inequities, people who identify race as salient, and any racial group’s desire to retain a distinct racial identity are considered “racist” or “playing the race card.”

Our task then is to understand that we are communicating in the shadow of these narratives. We need ways to undermine narratives that tell us poor people, people of different races and ethnicities, and other vulnerable populations should simply lift themselves by hard work and without complaining. The best way to counter these narratives is by sharing stories of the many who are now and have always been working hard, but have faced structural obstacles and bias. People need to be humanized with authentic portrayals – not simply data points, which can easily be ignored.

Based upon this cognitive science we suggest the following:

Don’t lead with disparities:

Any communication strategy that leads with disparities in outcomes involving marginalized groups runs the risk of reifying stereotypes and biases. Consider the dramatically different response we are seeing to the opioid epidemic that ravages white communities versus the response to earlier drug crises that were seen as largely affecting communities of color.

Along with failing to inspire empathy and action by the dominant group, leading with and emphasizing disparities is also likely to be dispiriting for the group at issue. While we may assume that hearing about disparities will trigger action among those affected, research suggests that when people are told about disparities involving their group, they often feel a sense of helplessness or despair rather than agency and empowerment.

Focus on strengths and possibilities:

The strength and resilience of those in communities that experience structural inequalities are often ignored. For example, as Dr. Ivory Toldson has observed, why don’t we hear more about the more than 1.4 million Black men in college? If we only hear about Black men who are in prison or unemployed, our brains normalize these images. This is not to say we don’t want to challenge over-incarceration. But we have to do so without perpetuating the negative stereotype associating criminality with Black men. Native communities are often similarly pathologized when they are portrayed in the media or news stories—assuming they are portrayed at all. Modern images of Native Americans are rare, usually linked to casinos or poverty and despair. As a result, our brains continue to access pernicious stereotypes from earlier eras when we think about Native Americans. We need multi-faceted portrayals of individuals and communities to replace the caricatures

Respond to blatant stereotypes with positive narratives:

It is crucial that we don’t leave unanswered the constant negative stereotyping used for political ends. But instead of simply calling out the messengers, we need to offer counter-narratives.

Share the successful responses to perceived intractable challenges:

Empathy fatigue often results from the perception that certain problems – like police-involved shootings – are intractable. To re-energize people toward moving forward, we need to promote examples of groups coming together to solve our nation’s problems. Phillip Atiba Goff’s work with the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) is illustrative. CPE is a group of law enforcement professionals and social scientists who collaborate to promote police transparency and accountability. Work like CPE’s points to the successes that are possible when we join forces to solve the ongoing problem of racial inequity in America.

Tell stories instead of relying solely upon data and policy prescriptions:

Shawna doesn’t always let her classmates know it, but she loves math. When she was little, she counted everything. But in grade school, her teachers sometimes made mistakes in math. When Shawna started middle school, math seemed too easy and she started getting bored. Then one of her teachers signed her up for an afterschool program, Mathnasium, walking distance from her house in the Bronx. Mathnasium and similar afterschool math programs are places for kids like Shawna to be challenged in math and to develop to their potential.

This short narrative challenges the stereotype of girls from the Bronx as uninterested in academic topics – but it also alludes to perennial problems like teachers who are not expert in STEM areas and the quality of schools in poor neighborhoods. The narrative highlights policy prescriptions – enrichment and afterschool programs. Beginning with a narrative that challenges common stereotypes can make people more receptive to the policy prescriptions than simply talking about the importance of STEM and afterschool programs.  

To communicate effectively in order to supersede our biased brains and create support for initiatives addressing racial inequity, we need to understand the entrenched stereotypes and narratives. The challenge is to counter those stereotypes and inspire empathy and aspiration rather than judgment and inevitability.


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