Want To Overcome Unconscious Bias? Join the Club

Neuroscience research suggests that group affiliations might be helpful in fighting unconscious racial bias—unless those groups fall along racial lines

Groups may help us fight racial bias—as long as they don’t divide us by race. Image Credit: Peter Cade: Getty Images

It was the first day of my first job out of college. I was a platoon leader in the United States Army, assigned to a unit charged to protect a NATO air base during the Cold War. That day, four even lines of soldiers stood at attention before me. I noticed that the first two rows, squads one and two, were all white. The third row appeared to be all Latino. At the back, fourth squad, were all the Black soldiers in my platoon.

After dismissing the soldiers, I turned to my platoon sergeant, a man tasked to train me, the inexperienced lieutenant, in how to do my job. When I asked why our soldiers were segregated by race, I remember he was surprised by my question, and responded that it was their choice and that they worked better that way. My platoon sergeant was probably correct that the soldiers worked better in groups in which they felt a strong affinity, and so it wasn’t surprising that they chose those of the same race as their squad mates.

But there’s a downside to this form of self-selection. Humans love to group things into categories, including ourselves. As I wrote about previously, neuroscience research suggests that humans evolved brain structures that are highly efficient at recognizing those who are part of our group, categorizing items based upon similarities and creating associations between those categories and our experiences. But while these properties of our brain helped us survive and thrive in small groups during prehistoric times, they may make us less empathetic toward those of other races, whether we realize it or not.

In short, neuroscience research shows groups are good for us, that they are useful at helping us fight unconscious racial bias. However, there is also some evidence that groups that fall along racial lines have the opposite effect—that they may reinforce racial biases. At the very least, there is enough evidence that this merits further scientific exploration.

The Power of Unconscious Bias

Imagine eating a bowl of chocolate ice cream and then a bowl of steamed broccoli. Even though these are similar activities, most of us would likely have different brain activity as we thought about eating the ice cream versus the broccoli. Some of that difference in brain activity we would be conscious of, such as knowing that we would enjoy the taste of one versus the other and that one might be healthier for us, but the majority of the brain activity difference would be below the level of consciousness.

The same idea applies to the way the brain perceives race: The timing of the brain’s responses that show a racial bias occurs faster than one’s conscious response. This is not surprising, as cognitive neuroscientists have consistently demonstrated that the majority of our brain activity occurs unconsciously. For example, you are conscious of the words that you are reading, but before you recognize the words and assign meaning to them, roughly a quarter of a second of unconscious brain activity has occurred to allow you to recognize them. Bias is an established brain response too. It simply refers to brain activity being different when processing similar types of stimuli. Say, for instance, that you’re at a party, deep in conversation with a friend, and someone in another group says your name. Even though you haven’t been consciously aware of that other conversation, your brain is biased to the sound of your name, and it unconsciously redirects part of your attention to what the other group is talking about. The key here is that simply eliminating unconscious bias would reduce the subjective quality of our lives—our ability to perceive and discern—which shouldn’t be the goal.

Instead, finding ways to shift our unconscious bias away from using race as a factor in distinguishing people to some other characteristics might be a more reasonable approach. Can unconscious bias be changed? Certainly, most businesses think so. This year, it is projected that worldwide advertising spending will top $700 billion, and the vast majority of that money is spent trying to change or reinforce unconscious bias in how we view spending our money. AT&T, for example, did not hire LeBron James to star in a commercial because it thought he had the necessary expertise to accurately describe differences in cellphone plans. Rather, the company hired him to create an unconscious bias in consumers because he is a great athlete, and its expectation is that that bias would lead more consumers to choose their products versus their competitors’.

From a neuroscience perspective, what companies like AT&T are trying to do is engage in a process called “neuroplasticity,” in which the way one’s neurons respond to input can change with experience. If neurons can change how they respond, then biases can change as well. Following this logic, watching LeBron James repeatedly in commercials would cause some neurons in our brain to communicate differently from how they did before watching those commercials, causing a positive bias in brain activity when thinking of AT&T.

Research shows that a similar tactic might work in dealing with unconscious racial bias. In one neuroscience study, scientists tested racial bias in neural responses when observing others in pain. These subjects, Chinese students who had recently moved to Australia to attend a university, had been raised in an environment with relatively little exposure to Caucasians in their daily interactions growing up, but now found themselves in an environment in which Caucasians were the predominant racial group. The scientists found that those students who now had the most interaction with Caucasians in their daily living (e.g., having them in class and seeing them where they lived) exhibited more empathetic brain activity when viewing Caucasians in pain—with a needle pressed against their cheek.

Interestingly, the scientists did not find an association between forming meaningful relationships between people of different races and lessening of neural racial bias—just the total amount of contact. These results seem to suggest that setting up policies in which people regularly come in contact with individuals of different races in their schools, work and neighborhoods might facilitate a decrease in unconscious racial bias.

One important caveat to keep in mind regarding this study has to do with the power dynamics of the group tested. The subjects were the immigrant minorities in their environment and they were being tested for their bias against the race that is economically, politically and culturally dominant in their country. Why is this important? Consider my previous example of seeing LeBron James in a commercial. AT&T is betting that the cultural strength of a basketball superstar will generate associations in our brains that will create a positive unconscious bias. Similarly, some of the Chinese immigrants may have been influenced by the dominance of Caucasians in Australia and then begun forming positive associations with whites, and that may have been the factor driving those with more interactions to form a reduced bias. A more convincing study would be to look at the reverse effect: Would Caucasians who came in contact more frequently with Chinese immigrants have less of a racial bias than those who didn’t? To date, there’s yet to be a scientific study to test this hypothesis.

How To Overcome Self-Selection? Join a Group

Even though some of the Chinese immigrants had been in Australia for five years, there was still a measurable neural racial bias when they observed Caucasians in pain. Just being at an Australian university was not sufficient to remove that bias. Maybe part of this is due to the observation that just by having diverse populations in proximity to each other, people still separate themselves out by race (in fact, five out of six members of those included in the study reported having formed zero friendships outside of their race). My experience with my first platoon taught a similar lesson: While the platoon was racially diverse, it was segregated completely—and done so by the soldiers’ own choice. Even though this event happened in the 1980s, recent research indicates that how people think about themselves in America is still strongly influenced by race.

So what can we do about the tendency to self-select, to associate primarily with those of our own race? One way to boost the contact we have with one another is to become part of a group—join a club, a band or a bowling league. And indeed, some research indicates that building group affiliations could help with decreasing unconscious racial bias. In one study, subjects who self-identified as fans of a particular sports team had greater brain responses to empathy when viewing others that were fans of the same team, independent of race, suggesting that the shared group activity of rooting for a particular team could overcome racial divisions.

Other studies have tried to use group affiliation with mixed results in dealing with unconscious racial bias. In these research studies, subjects took a survey on some subject on which there can be a difference of opinion—like law and order versus individual liberties, cat versus dog lovers, sport team allegiance and so on. The subjects were individually told that their survey matched with others who share their same values, (dog lovers, unite!) and they were given time to memorize the pictures of these people, who were in reality paid actors—some of whom were the same race and others a different race from the subjects. Later, the subjects had their brains imaged while viewing the actors’ faces being exposed to a painful stimulus—again, like a needle pressed against their cheek. In some studies, this experimental group affiliation led to a decrease in the racial bias in regions of the brain associated with empathy, but in other studies, it did not.

One critique of this line of research is that in order to measure brain responses, scientists have to hook up subjects to elaborate and bulky imaging machines, meaning that every time we collect data, it’s in an artificial laboratory setting, and the subjects are well aware that they are being tested. Brain activity might be very different when one is interacting with the world outside of the laboratory and with no one peeking inside one’s brain. A second critique is that the groups that matter most to us are ones in which we do some form of shared activity and in which multiple personal interactions occur. The groups created in these laboratories were artificial and lacked both of these qualities.

While it’s difficult to replicate real-world group experiences in a laboratory environment, there are some approaches that might provide new insights. For example, subjects could be brought into the laboratory and screened for an initial level of unconscious racial bias and then randomized into three groups. One group would be enrolled in a weekly group activity like an exercise class that would be racially diverse, another group would do the same activity in a racially segregated class and the third group would be given no activity to do. Then after a couple of months, they would be brought back and their brains reimaged to see if the intervention lowered the unconscious racial bias. While studies like this would be expensive to conduct, given the scope of the problem of racism, any definitive answers could pay huge dividends.

Living Out ‘Diversity and Inclusion’

Certainly, racial diversity has been at the heart of debates over where our institutions should be heading—from universities to corporations to media—for decades now. But these debates also have implications for fighting unconscious racial bias—and despite good intentions, these institutions may not be doing the best job on that front.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case to determine the constitutionality of universities’ use of race as one of the factors influencing admission decisions. The universities—Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—argued that having a racially diverse student body would enhance students’ educational experiences, and if they had read neuroscience research, they may have additionally argued that the diverse student body might also decrease unconscious racial bias in those students by increasing the daily contact students have with other races.

But although most universities say they promote and champion diversity, it is not uncommon today to see students walking on campus or hanging out at the student union in single race groups. Universities may even be contributing to this type of segregation by race by promoting academic programs, clubs and theme houses that appeal to a particular race. Universities do so because these are tangible ways of increasing diversity on campus, at least as measured by the total number of students of different races who choose to attend that school.

Those schools that are handling diversity the best are probably ones in which inclusion is an active part of their institutional mission. For example, in 2014, Drew University—where I teach—partnered with INTO, a private company that recruits international students to universities, to increase both international and racial diversity on campus. Drew’s faculty and staff worried that those newly recruited international students would feel isolated on campus, so they created a pathway program to help these students with the transition and to integrate them on campus both in and out of the classroom. Components of this pathway include connecting the international students with domestic students for weekly hour-long conversations and pairing them with families in the local community. Diversity by itself may not be sufficient to create an environment in which racially diverse groups form, and so the goal of these types of deliberate interactions is to increase students’ feelings of community and belonging—the foundations of forming strong group associations that are so important in counteracting unconscious racial bias.

Companies face a number of challenges in dealing with racial bias that universities might not. For example, worker cohesion is often mission-essential, whereas in the university—especially in lecture-based classrooms—student cohesion is helpful but not always necessary. Another factor that is different is the educational diversity in the workplace: While workers may run the gamut from having a secondary education to having a graduate school degree, most classrooms of university students have a fairly narrow range of educational backgrounds based upon the level of the academic course.

In response, some companies are taking the controversial approach of creating racial affinity groups among their employees to examine how racial bias is influencing the workplace. The hope is that this approach will allow facilitators to better educate employees who may not have had as much exposure to racial bias and to give protection to people of color who often are the most vulnerable in the workforce. However, this approach may backfire—it may reinforce forming groups along racial lines, which the scientific data suggest might exacerbate unconscious racial bias. Companies which employ this technique may want to give deliberate thought about designing activities to facilitate group formation that blurs those racial lines.

More Progress To Be Made

Though at the time I had no neuroscience training, my decision on how to handle my segregated platoon fits with the hypothesis that group affiliation might be a viable strategy to reduce unconscious racial bias. In my platoon, I reshuffled the soldiers in squads that were racially diverse, and then started a friendly competition between the squads on their military drills.

I have no way of knowing whether that approach had an impact on their brain activity when considering race, nor do I know whether their behavior improved as a result of that intervention. Could using a similar strategy now by forming group affiliations that are independent of race help with racial bias? Maybe, but in a political climate in which each end of the ideological spectrum seems focused on reinforcing race as a way of establishing our identities and our communities, I feel that we are no closer than we were in the 1980s when I first came in contact with this form of racial discrimination.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t know more than we did back then. The past several decades of neuroscience research has reinforced that neuroplasticity can occur due to learning from our experiences, and that the resulting changing neural responses can lead to different behavior. If, as I hypothesized earlier, our capacity for forming associations is one of the driving forces for creating our unconscious racial bias, then finding ways to create new and positive associations may help. For example, learning positive social information about a racial group has led to at least a temporary decrease in unconscious racial bias. Given differences in how various media outlets report on racial issues, future research should examine how those differences influence that unconscious bias. My guess is that how we get our news, and therefore how we form our perceptions of what is happening in the world, will have a huge impact on both our willingness to engage in inclusion and form meaningful groups that cross racial lines.

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