The division in society is intense right now, to say the least. With polarizing perspectives on the election, managing COVID-19, and how to pursue racial reconciliation, we seem quick to judge and slow to listen.
Unfortunately, our brains often contribute to the division. From a neuroscience perspective, the human brain makes sense of the world by categorizing things. It uses previous knowledge and experience to inform new decisions. And it does this rapidly, without our conscious awareness.
This categorizing functionality extends to exchanges with each other. In nearly every human interaction, our brains automatically and unconsciously categorize the other person as like us or not like us; with us or against us; familiar or unfamiliar; in-group or out-group.
Let’s see if we can experience, at a slightly more conscious level, this automatic in-group versus out-group categorizing in action. Read the prompts below and pay attention to your physiological, emotional, and mental reactions.
How do you feel about people who…
Drive below the speed limit?
Own a handgun?
Don’t believe in marriage?
Like to sleep in?
Vote for the other candidate?
Don’t eat meat?
Load the dishwasher in a disorganized manner?
(The last one goes out to the biggest point of contention in my household.)
Can you feel your brain sorting people? Them versus us? With me or against me?
I know I can feel it.
What’s even more interesting—and honestly, somewhat disheartening—is the reality that we subconsciously engage with people differently based on how our brains have categorized them.
|With in-group members:||With out-group members:|
|We process their words and ideas deeply and comfortably, giving them more thought and weight.||We only lightly process information from them at a shallow level and feel protective against it.|
|Our brain’s pain neural networks light up when they share struggles or concerns, enabling us to feel almost automatic empathy.||We struggle to feel empathy for them.|
|We’re motivated to see them win and communicate this through affirming non-verbal cues (i.e., head nods, smiles, positive tone, etc.).||We don’t want their position to win, so we engage with reserved non-verbal cues (i.e., crossed arms, furrowed brows, etc.).|
But there’s good news—our brains can recategorize people as in-group, even when strong differences exist.
I was on a phone call with a new acquaintance recently and it felt a bit clunky. We had opposite communication styles, worked in dissimilar industries, and came from different backgrounds. The conversation did not flow easily or smoothly at first. But then, we discovered a shared love for running…and from that moment forward, we clicked. Finding just one thing in common created an in-group bond and made collaboration easier.
Research conducted by Jay Van Bavel, a social neuroscientist at New York University, supports this further. We know that the brain interprets race as a categorizable factor; but when Jay and his colleagues assigned people to two mixed-race teams, brain scans suggested that the importance of race decreased in their minds. Participants recategorized teammates as in-group members simply because of their shared team identity and, when this happened, they automatically paid less attention to racial differences.
So how can we use this awareness to create more inclusive, healthy workplaces? I’ll start with what we can’t do—we can’t eliminate bias in individuals. Our brains will continue to take mental shortcuts and categorize things no matter how much training we receive on it. Regardless, awareness is important, but action is even more important. Here are three simple, proactive actions you can take:
1. Find common ground. When engaging with someone who seems different from you, actively seek to find something in common—trivial or significant. Bonus points if the common ground found is a shared desired outcome.
2. Listen to understand. Spend time with people different from you with a singular goal of learning about their experiences, what they believe and why. Remember, it’s an exercise in understanding, not one of proving points or changing minds. You don’t have to agree with their perspective and they don’t have to agree with yours, but increased understanding will broaden your ability to empathize.
3. Focus on creating shared goals as a team. Shared goals and identity unify even the most diverse group of individuals. If your team doesn’t have clear goals, hold a meeting this week to set 4Q objectives and ensure each individual understands their role in accomplishing them. Bonus points for identifying a shared team reward for accomplishing the goals.
Our brains are a powerful force. Understanding how they function can help us leverage the force for good. Let’s be intentional as we seek to build healthy workplaces with cohesive teams that foster belonging and purpose for every employee.
ARE YOU A DOG PERSON OR CAT PERSON?
Even the most trivial differences cause in-group versus out-group categorizing. Disclaimer: I am 100% a dog person and working hard to curb my bias against cat lovers. Posting a cute kitten picture was a very challenging, but intentional step in the right direction.
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