Yesterday, Starbucks closed roughly 8,000 stores to provide anti-bias training to approximately 175,000 employees. The move came largely in response to the April arrest of Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, who were arrested after refusing to leave a Philadelphia store as they waited for a business meeting. So we have to ask: How in the world do biases take hold in us, anyway? More importantly, how do we throw them in the trash so that everyone has a fair shot? Is this type of training really going to do the trick?
Say hello to your amygdala
Inside the temporal lobes of your brain are two small masses of gray matter known collectively as your amygdalae. Each amygdala has a section shaped like an almond, so some psychologists and therapists–particularly those who work with kids–affectionately call the amygdala your “nut brain”. This area takes in input from all of your sensory organs. It plays big roles in arousal and attention, but it’s usually seen as the emotional center of the brain. It helps you form both positive and negative memories and, from the evolutionary sense, is meant to help you figure out what could be a potential threat.
As you go about your day, you might consciously make some decisions about what’s awesome versus what’s scary. But because your conscious brain simply can’t interpret all the sensory information that’s bombarding you, most of the interpretation happens in your subconscious brain, in the–you guessed it–amygdala. It is constantly categorizing incoming data and forming associations for you.
How biases take root
Now, sometimes, our amygdala interprets an experience as negative. For example, suppose a white parent pulls their child away from a drinking fountain an African American uses. The child might not get an explicit explanation of why they can’t use the same fountain, but their amygdala gets the message that the African American somehow is different and compromises their safety. Later, when that child encounters another African American, their brain, seeking efficiency, lumps them in with the first African American from the fountain, applying the initial categorization and interpretation from the amygdala. Subsequently, the child feels uneasy, even though they probably can’t even pinpoint why. In this scenario, the amygdala is only trying to keep the kid closer to what’s “normal” and therefore probably less dangerous, and to warn the kid of what could be another bad experience. But instead, it’s creating a huge barrier to social connection. New negative experiences can reaffirm the biases that the amygdala develops.
Undoing the damage
Understanding the above, bias is based in experience. You cannot just suppress it or will it away. This doesn’t mean that diversity training such as Starbucks implemented can’t be helpful. In fact, research shows that voluntary participation in programs that emphasize the appreciation of group differences can reduce both implicit and explicit bias. But it does suggest that the best way to combat bias is to learn a new stereotype, as promoted by Dr. Kathy A. Bobula in her 2011 lecture at Clark College.
We can do this first and foremost through mental imagery. This means that, every time you encounter a situation that triggers your bias, you use a very specific new word or phrase that counters your old feelings and beliefs, or that redefines something or someone in your environment. For instance, if you were to encounter little 4’8″ me on the street, you might tell yourself “capable” or “experienced” rather than “childish” or “weak”. The more often and consistently you go through this retraining, the more you build new neural pathways in the brain, and the easier it becomes to access your new truth.
Secondly, immerse yourself in new situations. Diversify the people you associate with. The idea here is to find good examples that contrast your bias. As with mental imagery, you have to do this often. Otherwise, you might just see the person or situation as atypical, and the attempt to remove the bias won’t be effective.
Third, watch your body language. As Bobula explains, the evidence of our bias is often in nonverbal cues. For example, you might blink more or make less eye contact. Because mirror neurons in the brain allow us to pick up on these cues, others can get the impression of bias and uncomfortableness even if you don’t say a word. If you learn to be aware of these gestures and control them better, it’s much more likely that you’ll have a positive experience that counters the bias.
Lastly, do what you can to relax. We tend to default to our biases more easily when we are stressed out, because the emotional memories from our amygdala fire faster than logic, and because it takes energy to rationalize to new, non-biased conclusions on the fly. As an example here, instead of surrounding yourself with 10 people from the group you’re biased about, maybe just have coffee with one of them so you’re not overwhelmed.
Starbucks’ gesture isn’t going to hurt, and it’s forcing business leaders to have a much-needed conversation about prejudices. But ultimately, bias is something that takes much longer than a single afternoon to correct. It’s something we all suffer from–we even can prove this now with MRI scans. Go to training if asked, but then accept your personal responsibility for change and keep working on it tomorrow, the next day and the next. We’re all in this for the long haul.