Do Meetings Right: The Neuroscience of Great Meetings

By Manie Bosman

Strategic Leadership InstituteA while ago I was facilitating a workshop for the leadership group of a large automotive manufacturer’s senior marketing team when their General Manager suddenly slammed the table in front of him and shouted “Ahhh, now it makes sense!” We had been discussing some basic principles of neuroleadership and I had just explained how our brains perceive and process social threats and rewards in much the same way and through the same neural networks as physical threats and rewards (see Your Caveman Brain: Running from Predators at Work).

Puzzled by his obvious excitement I asked him to share what had clearly been some kind of an ‘ah-ha’ moment. He explained that they had more than a hundred dealerships all over Southern Africa but that one of these had consistently been outperforming the rest. Each month this dealership sold more new cars than any of the others in spite of the fact that it wasn’t located in a particularly affluent area and it had the same product range as everyone else. Eager to understand what the key to their success was, he had set up a meeting with the dealership’s Dealer Principle and asked him if he could name just one thing which they did differently from everyone else and that could account for their success.

Keeping it Positive

“I expected some smart strategy or new marketing approach but the guy just smiled and said ‘it’s simple – we don’t allow any negativity during meetings’”, the General Manager recalled.

Strategic Leadership InstituteIt turned out that what this Dealer Principle had done was to change meetings into predominantly “positive” events. He took great care to make sure that whatever issues had to be discussed – be it day-to-day stuff or more complicated sessions – it was always handled in a constructive manner. He deliberately looked for achievements and positive behaviours and used team meetings as opportunities to acknowledge, affirm and celebrate these. Negative issues such as conflict or undesirable behaviour are dealt with during separate sessions in which only those who are directly involved, participate.

I am not sure if the particular Dealer Principle was aware of this or not, but what he had been doing was applying neuroleadership. By changing meetings (and I could imagine other social exchanges too) into mostly positive interactions he was minimizing “threat” responses and maximizing “engage” responses in the brains of his team members (see Neuroleadership: How Your Brain Fights for Social Survival in the Workplace). This enabled them to perform at optimum levels, hence their good results. The General Manager’s “ah-ha” moment came when he understood from a brain science perspective how the Dealer Principle’s leadership style could literally account for his team’s superior performance.

Common Meeting Monsters

Strategic Leadership InstituteThis meeting experience is very different from that of most employees I talk to about meetings. Typical negative meeting connotations include fear of being “put on the spot” and not able to produce an appropriate answer in time; embarrassment when belittled in front of their peers; feeling insignificant when not being listened to; frustration when there is no clear agenda or purpose; aggravation when being bullied into decisions; feeling manipulated during power struggles; humiliation after public rebukes; and sheer boredom and irritation at being forced to sit through never-ending sessions in which they have no direct interest and which often end with no clear solutions.

David Rock, author and organizational development consultant, devised the SCARF-Model of social needs by using research from social neuroscience to identifying how “threats” and “rewards” are typically triggered in our brains. He concluded that social “threats” are triggered when our status (position in the “pecking order”) is being compromised; when facing uncertainty; when we experience a lack of autonomy (feeling that you have no control); being rejected or excluded from the group (a threat to our need for relatedness); and being treated in an unfair manner. It is no wonder then that so many people experience a “fight or flight” response even when just thinking about the next meeting!

Strategic Leadership InstituteThe negative impact of participating in meetings in this condition could be massive if considered that according to several studies, the average employee spends about a third of their working time in meetings. In corporate America alone, an estimated 25 million meetings takes place each day. Long and boring meetings would have the opposite effect of the “fight or flight” and see participants’ brains go into a “slumber mode” which would of course also mean they’re not functioning at their optimum level (in one study 91% of participants admitted to daydreaming and 39% said they have dozed off during meetings). However, being in a “fight or flight” condition may at least to some extend explain the results of a Microsoft survey involving 38 000 participants in 200 countries which found 69 percent of all meetings to be ineffective.

Applying Neuroleadership to Get it Right

As with so many other aspects of organization or group success, effective leadership is the key to effective meetings. By using the SCARF Model to avoid triggering social threats and conduct meetings in a way that would activate social “rewards” in stead, leaders and managers could help optimize their followers’ performance and meeting experience. If you’re ready to start doing meetings better, here are ten suggestions from a neuroleadership perspective (with the relevant SCARF social needs in brackets):

  • Create an open meeting culture: It is important for all participants to feel that their contributions will be appreciated and not used to judge or belittle them. A culture that encourages the free exchange of ideas and equal participation, opens the door to creativity, trust and increased motivation (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness)
  • Prepare participants: If participants know what will be expected of them during the meeting, they will be able to prepare and contribute more sensibly. (Certainty, Autonomy)
  • Clarify the purpose: Not having a clear purpose is one of the most common reasons for meetings to fail. Participants need to know if the purpose is to do planning; solve a problem; make a decision; be informed of a decision; receive updates; etc.. (Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness)
  • Set the ‘Big Picture’: When possible, help participants to see how the current discussion or activity contributes to the larger vision, mission and strategies of the group. People are motivated when they can see that what they’re doing has meaning and that something positive will come from investing their time and energy in the meeting. (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness)
  • Facilitate engagement: With a few exceptions the purpose of meetings is to get individuals to contribute their ideas, expertise, and insight. Structure your meetings to be open dialogues and minimize one-way information dumping. (Status, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness)
  • Embrace diversity: Get to know your team members’ strengths and unique personalities. Then facilitate meetings in a way to enable everyone – from introverted analysts to extroverted optimists – to contribute. This will help to avoid “groupthink” and stimulate creative thinking. (Status, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness)
  • Clarify how each decision will be made: As a leader you will make some decisions on your own and involve your team members in the making of others. The key here is to know when which option would be the best and to let your team members know what decision making process they can expect. If you aim to achieve ownership of and commitment to decisions, here are three decision making styles to consider (ranging from the least to the most effective):
    1. Directive: Make a decision and announce it or announce a decision made by senior management. (Certainty)Strategic Leadership Institute
    2. Participative: Make a decision, announce it, and challenge participants to change your view. (Status, Autonomy, Relatedness)
    3. Collaborative: Team members work together to select the best possible solution from all available options. Everyone participates in the process and agrees to support the final decision. (Status, Autonomy, Relatedness)
      NOTE: In some cases democratic decision making, where a final decision is made by voting, can also be considered . However, be careful for uninformed “mob-decisions” as a democratic process only works when all voters have access to all the relevant information.
  • Give recognition and celebrate wins: Receiving recognition in front of our peers is very motivational and helps to build trust in the leader. Find reasons to publicly give credit to participants and to celebrate team wins – even the small ones. (Status, Relatedness, Fairness)
  • Schedule time for social interaction: Yes I’m serious. This doesn’t mean spending hours chatting about your dog, but as social beings we all have a need for regular social interaction and meetings can help fulfill this need. Show genuine interest in people’s lives and allow some sharing of personal issues or views – this will help build team unity and trust. (Status, Relatedness)
  • Manage disruptive behavior: Disruptive behaviour by an individual or group can derail a meeting. However, be extremely careful not to publicly humiliate or offend transgressors even if you feel it would be justified to do so. Depending on the situation and team disposition, you can use meeting “ground rules”, group dynamics, an established process or (perhaps the best option) the leader can deal with the offender(s) on the side. (Certainty, Fairness)

I hope that this provides you with some practical ideas on how to apply social neuroscience in the workplace. I would love to hear from you – please share your views, experiences and insights on how we can transform our workplaces into more effective and brain-friendly environments!

References and Further Reading:

Bandiera, O., Pratt, A. (2012). Executive Time Use Project: Span of Control and Span of Activity. Harvard Business School Working Paper
Klubeck, J. S. (n.d.). The Expense of Ineffective Meetings. Wolf Management Consultants
McDonough-Taub, G. (2012). Top 10 Meeting Mistakes. CNBC.Com
Moncrief, G. (July 2013). Meetings: Time Wasted or Well Spent? Ayers Report Newsletter –,0,w
Silverman, R. E. Where’s the Boss? Trapped in a Meeting. Wall Street Journal
Two wasted days at work. (2005). MoneyCNN.Com

Posted in Communication, Culture, Leadership, Motivation, Neuroleadership, Neuroscience | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Your Caveman Brain: Running From Predators at Work

By Manie Bosman

Strategic Leadership InstituteA couple of years ago a friend of mine and his son traveled through northwestern Zimbabwe when they noticed some vultures in the trees ahead of them. They decided it was a good a time as any to stop and stretch their legs and also to see what the birds were up to. They got out of the car and slowly walked through the tall grass and undergrowth towards the patch of trees where they could now also see more vultures on the ground. Suddenly a startled lioness got up from where she was laying just a few feet in front of the two men. Exactly what happened next depends on who tells the story, but the bottom line is that they both got back into their vehicle with neither of them later able to remember exactly how they managed to do so.

I’m sure you’ve heard similar stories of people performing superhuman feats when in life-threatening situations. Known as the ‘fight or flight’ response and first described by American psychologist Walter Bradford as long ago as 1915, it is basically the activation of our brain’s automated survival mode.

When the Brain Takes Over

Here’s how it works: Your brain’s most important function is to keep you alive. It does so by regulating your heart rate, body temperature and a myriad other physiological functions but also by constantly scanning the environment for possible threats and rewards. What we refer to as our ‘senses’ is in fact a finely tuned network of nerves connecting our brains with our face, ears, eyes, nose, and rest of our bodies via the spinal cord. Sensory nerves continuously gather information from the environment and then send it back to the central nervous system where it is assessed for possible threats or rewards. So as my friend and his son were walking through the unfamiliar surroundings their brains were already on high alert, even if their travel-weary minds were not consciously aware of this.

Strategic Leadership InstituteWhen the lioness suddenly appeared (obviously stuffed on the prey of which the vultures were now fighting over the leftovers), their brain’s limbic systems (the amygdala in particular) responded in a fraction of a second by activating the sympathetic nervous system which caused a release of hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline which in turn ‘supercharged’ them to either fight or flee for survival. As part of this process their heart rates and blood pressure increased, breathing accelerated, pupils dilated, and blood vessels in many parts of their bodies became constricted to force more blood into the larger muscles where the blood vessels became dilated for better performance. The result: in fully automated “flee” mode they turned around and probably ran faster than ever before to reach the safety of their vehicle in a blur.

Scanning the Social Jungle

So what’s new and what does outrunning a startled lioness have to do with the majority of the world’s population who’s only contact with predators are on Discovery Channel or in zoos? Quite a bit – one of the most significant findings in neuroscientific research over the last couple of years has been that the same automated neural responses which are activated when we face a physical threat such as the lioness are also activated in social situations. Your brain is not only constantly scanning the physical environment for possible threats, it is also closely monitoring the social environment – wherever you are interacting with other people. When you’re enjoying supper with the family, supporting your child at a sporting event, working out at the gym or trying to hold your own during a meeting at work – the behaviour of those around you is closely scrutinized and any perceived threat can trigger the fight or flight response in your brain.

Strategic Leadership InstituteWhat makes it worse is that threat responses have a greater impact and are far more powerful and easier to trigger than reward responses (see You Might Not Like it, But Bad is Stronger than Good). In other words, we experience negative interactions with other people much more intensely than positive interactions of similar magnitude. So when you’re in a meeting and you tell someone that they’re not performing as expected, the negative impact of that criticism is much greater than the positive impact when, for instance, you thank someone for a job well done (see Neuroleadership: Lead People in a Way That Would Engage Their Minds). What this amounts to is that our negative interactions can trigger automated ‘fight or flight’ responses at any time and in any place.

Fewer Resources for Clear Thinking

Why is this so bad? In a time when, more than ever before in history we need people to be engaged and motivated and creative in order to give us the competitive edge, fight or flight responses can be a serious detriment to a group or an individual’s success. While a sarcastic remark from a colleague or a scowling manager would hardly send most of us running back to our cars, an activated fight or flight mode does have a severely negative impact on our ability to perform. When the brain senses a threat, even in the office, it allocates more of its resources such as glucose and oxygen to the muscles and parts of the body needed to fight or flee (resulting in the same physiological changes as described in the par. “When the Brain Takes Over”). As a result the Prefrontal Cortex – the part of the brain where conscious thought takes place (our ‘working memory’) – receives less resources and its working is thereby impaired (this effect could last for up to four hours after the threat-incident). When our brains are in this threat-induced ‘limp mode’, it severely impairs our ability to:

Strategic Leadership Institute

Cavemen in Suits and High Heels

The human race has devised technology which has radically transformed the world we live in and will continue to do so for years to come. We have powerful telescopes that can peer into deepest space; we have super computers that can perform complex calculations in the blink of an eye; we travel faster than the speed of sound; we create data at a scale that could never be conceived before; we have access to nearly all the world’s information via the internet; and we can communicate with just about anyone, anywhere, anytime.

However, in spite of these great achievements our brains are still operating much as it did thousands of years ago when it had to protect us from lions and tigers. Just how primitive our brains still are in this regard is illustrated by a 2011 study which found that even when people look at pictures of animals, specific parts of the amygdala respond almost instantly. So while we’re living in this high-tech world of miracles and wonder, our brains are still pretty much in the cave, trying to keep us alive not only by responding to real physical threats, but also to perceived lions and tigers in the social environment.

The Price of Your Roar

From the brain’s perspective, workplaces become ‘enemy territory’ if leaders or co-workers behave in a way that trigger constant threats. In such conditions people are simply not able to perform at their best. Over time they become chronically stressed (an enduring fight or flight condition) and as a result even more sensitive to perceived threats. Thus a negative snowball-effect is created where critical success factors such as job satisfaction, trust, motivation, engagement, productivity and the overall well-being of individuals all diminish as their brains are constantly engaged in a fight for survival. The cost in terms of results and revenue could be considerable.

Strategic Leadership Institute HomepageAs leaders, understanding this gives us the opportunity to change our behaviour in order to minimize the negative effect that it might have on those around us. While changing behaviour is often difficult, neuroscientific research is showing that rewiring our brains and changing our behaviour is indeed possible (see Taking Small Steps is the Key to Improve Your Leadership Behaviour). By practicing the principles of neuroleadership (see Neuroleadership: Lead in a Way that Will Engage People’s Minds) we can stop being the predators which others run away from, and instead become the catalysts of positive engagement.

Understanding how people’s behaviour and our interactions in the social environment impacts our neurological processes is also a powerful starting point to manage our own brains and minimize negative responses such as stress, anxiety, emotional thinking and aggression. I intend to provide some practical tips on how to do this in my next post.

For Further Reading:

  1. Christine Comaford: Hijack! How Your Brain Blocks Performance
  2. Christina Haxton: Leaders: Reduce, Eliminate & Leverage Stress to Score BIG & WIN!
  3. JF Cavanagh: Social Stress Reactivity Alters Reward and Punishment Learning
Posted in Communication, Leadership, Neuroleadership | Tagged , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Checklist for Brain-Friendly Change Management

More than twenty years ago, organisational behavioral experts Kenneth Thompson and Fred Luthans noted that a person’s reaction to organisational change “can be so excessive and immediate, that some researchers have suggested it may be easier to start a completely new organization than to try to change an existing one.” This “human resistance to change,” is one of the most important issues facing the field of organisational change.

Brainwaves for Leaders BlogIn a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Walter McFarland states that the way to effectively engage the support and creativity of a company’s employees during an organisational change lies within the field of neuroscience… Read the full article on NeuroCapability’s Brainwaves for Leaders Blog: Checklist for Brain-Friendly Change Management

Posted in Change Management, Neuroleadership, Neuroscience | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

How Neuroscience is Creating “a Brain New World”

By Manie Bosman

“The gene was the central issue in biology in the 20th century. The mind is the essential issue for biology in the 21st century.”Eric Kandel

At the risk of coming over as arrogant or self-conceited for saying this about an esteemed Nobel Prize winner, I suspect that Eric Kandel completely underestimates the impact that brain science would have in the 21st century. While it may very well be the major focus in biology, neuroscience is also completely transforming many of the social sciences and other areas of life as we know it.

The development of new technology and brain research methodology, especially functional brain imaging techniques such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Positron Emission Tomography (PET), Electroencephalography (EEG) and Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS), is providing us with a constant flow of exhilarating insight into the workings of the human brain. This gives the social sciences such as psychology, education, cultural studies, linguistics, criminology, communication studies, economics, law, sociology and management a scientific perspective that it never had before. As these new insights are starting to trickle through into practice, some are prompting radical change and complete re-interpretation.

The Brain’s Day in Court

Take the law, for instance. A burning issue which needs to be addressed sooner than later is to determine what role neuroscience should play in the courtroom. Studies have shown that in juveniles the brain and the prefrontal cortex in particular, is still developing. This is the part of the brain responsible for our ‘working memory’ – handling conscious thought, which includes decision making, communication, remembering, discerning between right and wrong and inhibiting impulses. So knowing this, should courts be more lenient toward juvenile offenders?

Other studies have shown that abnormalities in the brain’s amygdala (part of the limbic system that plays a role in emotional processing) and low levels of an enzyme called Monoamine oxidase A, also known as MAO-alpha, can lead to increased aggression. Should this be taken into consideration when dealing with violent offenders?

But there’s more. In 2007 a team of German neuroscientists performed an experiment in which they used fMRI scans to monitor brain activity in real time while participants had to choose to use either their left or right hand to press a button. They found that while the conscious choice to push the button was made just about one second before the button was pushed, participants’ brain activity patterns seemed to predict their decisions by as many as seven seconds. In other words, seven seconds before the participants became consciously aware of making the decision, their brains seems to have already decided for them. These and similar studies have sparked an intense debate on whether ‘free will’ even exists.

The Limits of Self Control

Neuroscientist Matt Lieberman published a study in 2009, which showed that one region of the brain – the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex – is responsible for different forms of self control. What this means is that this particular part of the brain, which he calls the brain’s ‘breaking system’, is operating when we inhibit a physical impulse such as staring at a beautiful woman (motor self- control), suppressing a bad thought (cognitive self-control), managing our emotions (emotional self- control), refraining from buying that bargain just because it’s on sale (financial self -control), or refraining from ignoring the feelings and views of others (perspective-taking self-control).

It seems then that while technically speaking we might not have complete ‘free will’ in the traditional sense, we do have free ‘un-will’ – the ability to control the impulses or choices which our brains may make as the result of some subconscious biochemical process. However, the verdict on whether we’re always responsible for our choices and actions is not out yet – our brain’s ability to exert self-control can be severely weakened by several factors. These include neurochemical imbalances, neurological disorders, malnutrition, exhaustion, severe anxiety and even chronic stress.

So is the criminal offender with a neurochemical imbalance or suffering from a neural disease such as psychopathy accountable or not? Some believe it is too early to decide with neuroscience still in its formative years, but it won’t stay out of court and mainstream law for too long. This was confirmed by a recommendation in a 2011 Royal Society report titled “Neuroscience and the Law” which stated that “University law degrees should incorporate an introduction to the basic principles of how science is conducted and to key areas of science such as neuroscience and behavioural genetics, to strengthen lawyers’ capacity to assess the quality of new evidence”.

Selling with the Brain in Mind

Findings from neuroscience are also posing some interesting questions in economics and marketing. The emergence of new fields such as ‘neuroeconomics’ and ‘neuromarketing’ taps into neuroscience to understand what drives people to buy or sell and how this understanding can be utilized.

From neuroscientific research on decision making we know that that our decisions are much less rational than we tend to think – in fact, most of the decisions we make every day are strongly driven by the emotional centers in our brains. To better understand and ultimately influence consumer behaviour, research in neuromarketing aims to determine the underlying (often emotional) processes in economic decision making and brand preferences.

Some of the world’s foremost companies have already latched onto this and are investing millions in neuroscience research. As you read this some of these research findings are being used to construct targeted advertising campaigns, design new consumer products and create shopping environments intended to subliminally encourage buying. However, while some view neuromarketing as the start of a brand new era (pun intended) for the marketing industry, it is not without its critics.

A number of neuroscientists and sceptics have publicly rejected it as “pseudo-science”, while others are concerned for ethical reasons. One such critic, neuroaesthetics expert Anne Belden, published a paper in which she questions the ethical implications of neuromarketing, asking at what point is this emerging field still the acceptable application of scientific results and when does it become unethical manipulation of people’s minds in order to gain a profit? Only time will tell whether neuromarketing is going to be “the next big thing” in driving consumer behaviour, but we can be sure that if there’s money to be made, it will still be around for some time to come.

The Brain Goes to War

If there is one area in which the distinction between reality and science fiction becomes completely blurred, it is the application of neuroscience for war and military purposes. Headlines in Wired and other publications reporting on the topic read like something out of a cheap 1970’s spy-fi novel: “Air Force Wants Neuroweapons to Overwhelm Enemy Minds”; “Top Pentagon Scientists Fear Brain-Modified Foes”; “Neuroscience Could Mean Soldiers Control Weapons With Their Minds”; “Darpa Wants Remote Controls to Master Troop Minds”; “Nonlethal Weapons Could Target Brain, Mimic Schizophrenia”; and “Future Wars May be Fought by Synapses”;… .

The fact that one or two of these reports may be dodgy on the detail doesn’t for one moment mean that it’s not true or not at least based on some version of the truth. Just how serious the US government, among others, considers the potential military application of neuroscience is illustrated by the fact that the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s science agency commonly known as DARPA, was granted around US$240 million to fund neuroscientific research in 2011. In the same year the US Army spent US$55 million, the Navy US$34 million, and the Air Force US$24 million on research in this field.

According to a 2012 Royal Society report, “military interest in neuroscience has two main goals: performance enhancement, i.e. improving the efficiency of one’s own forces, and performance degradation, i.e. diminishing the performance of one’s enemy”. Nothing new there – strengthen your own and weaken the enemy – but what’s new is how it’s done.

Possibilities based on current and emerging technology include using neuroimaging and brain stimulation to screen and select soldiers for specific abilities; drugs to enhance endurance and keep combatants focused and alert; chemicals that shuts down enemy brains within minutes; drugs to make captives spill the beans during interrogation; drugs to prevent post traumatic stress disorder; combining human brains with computer programs through brain-machine interfaces; and intelligent brain-controlled drones. With the rate at which new information is churned up and new technology developed, the only limit for where ‘neurowarfare’ can go in future is probably the limits imposed by ethical conventions and agreements. Again, only time will tell if that will be enough.

Racism Revisited

While most of the world’s current and future conflicts result from competition for the same limited resources, many clashes are still caused by conscious or subconscious allegiance to different groups (e.g. racial, religious, tribal, ethnic, ideological, social, etc.). Neuroscience is providing us with some valuable insight with regard to inter-personal and inter-group interaction that might help create greater harmony amid diversity. We now begin to understand that what often manifests as racism or other forms of discrimination is largely our brains’ automated response to anything and anyone perceived as a possible threat or enemy (see my earlier post Your Racist Brain: The Neuroscience of Conditioned Racism).

Our brains’ primary function is to keep us alive, and on a neurological level, it simply does not respond the same to people it perceives as either “enemies” or ‘friends’. Perceived enemies (even harmless strangers) can trigger an automated fear-induced ‘fight or flight’ response for no other reason than being perceived as different from those we regard as our ‘ingroup’. While our brains seem eager to assign negative ‘labels’ based on appearance or background, several studies showed that this could in fact be modified – probably most effectively through individual exposure. Our conditioned fear response can be countered and even reversed through close, positive contact with those our brains have labelled as ‘enemies’. This not only provides new opportunities to address prevailing issues of racism and inter-group conflict, but also offers new prospects for cross-cultural interaction, diversity management and even team building.

No Dark Sarcasm in the Classroom

Hated maths in school? A recent study showed that anxiety about maths and social pain (e.g. humiliation) activates the same areas of the brain as physical pain. On the other hand, musical training during childhood actually shapes and changes the brain in positive ways which continue to benefit a person into adulthood. One of the most promising new fields to emerge over the last couple of years is that of ‘neuroeducation’ – a convergence of neuroscience, cognitive psychology and education theory. As we gain more understanding about the neurobiology of memory and learning we are able to adapt and design teaching methods that would reap maximum results.

Several studies using neuroimaging and measurement of neurotransmitters have shown that learners’ comfort level can influence the uptake and storage of information in the brain and that both children and adults learn better when they are happy. Under stressful situations information is prevented from entering the parts of the brain where learning and memorizing takes place. As educational neurologist July Willis describes it “when stress activates the brain’s affective filters, information flow to the higher cognitive networks is limited and the learning process grinds to a halt.”

Considering these and other findings about teaching methods and learning conditions, Willis and others actively campaign for greater incorporation of neuroscience in schools. She makes the case that “neuroimaging and neurochemical research support an education model in which stress and anxiety are not pervasive. This research suggests that superior learning takes place when classroom experiences are enjoyable and relevant to students’ lives, interests, and experiences”. Some schools in the USA and Australia have already started to adapt their teaching methods accordingly, but for now most are yet to see the light.

Leading to Engage Their Minds

For me personally, perhaps the most exciting contribution from neuroscience is the continuous stream of insight into the essentially social nature of the human brain. We now know that the same automated neural responses, which drive us towards food or away from danger, are triggered when we interact socially. In other words, whether we’re having a discussion with a colleague at work, attending a concert, or relaxing with friends, our behaviour is constantly triggering either ‘threat’ or ‘reward’ responses in each other’s brains.

For leaders and managers, the implications of this discovery are far reaching and has led to the emerging new field of neuroleadership. Our brains are basically social organs which react to social situations (and social pain in particular) in exactly the same way in which it reacts to the physical environment (and physical pain). It also means that the brain views the workplace primarily as a social environment, where it is constantly assessing social interaction as either threats or rewards (see my earlier posts Neuroleadership: How Your Brain Fights for Social Survival in the Workplace , SCARF: Lead in a Way That Will Engage People’s Minds and Proof From Neuroscience That Trusting People Makes Them More Trustworthy).

Our Brains on Social Media

This social nature of the human brain is also helping to explain the internet and social media frenzy of the last decade. Only China and India have larger populations than Facebook which is now heading towards one billion members. It turns out that our addiction to social media is largely about the neurochemical rewards we derive from it.

A recent study by neuroscientists from Harvard University revealed that talking about ourselves activates parts of the mesolimbic dopamine system, a region of the brain also associated with the sense of reward and pleasure we derive from food, money or sex. While in everyday life we talk about ourselves around 40% of the time, the average Facebook user devotes no less than 80% of their efforts to sharing their own thoughts and feelings, so that means double the rewards! As David Rock, author and neuroleadership consultant explains, “a sense of increasing status is one of the biggest drivers of reward in the brain… On Twitter, every time another person signs up to ‘follow’ you, you feel a little burst of reward that makes you want to post more.”

But neuroscience has also turned on the warning lights with regards to our ‘always switched on’ technology. Researchers at Stanford University discovered that overuse of technology and social media can actually reduce your intelligence! In a study involving student volunteers, they found that media multi-taskers are paying a ‘big mental price’. “They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” warned Clifford Nass, one of the researchers. “Everything distracts them.”

And There’s More…

There are many other areas in which neuroscience is prompting change and new possibilities, including healthcare, sport, medicine, treatment of mental illness and injuries, cognitive enhancement (improving intellectual performance), treatment of addictions, ethics, philosophy, change management, governance and policy making, communication, entertainment, art, architecture, coaching, relationships, stress management, politics and even agriculture. Obviously it would be impractical to discuss all of these in a blog (in fact if I wanted this article to reach a larger audience I should have stuck to about 360 words, considering indications that the internet might be rewiring our brains and reducing our attention span).

In 2001 Ray Kurzweil, renowned American futurist and inventor, wrote an essay in which he stated that “an analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense ‘intuitive linear’ view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).

While there’s no doubt that communication technology will continue to be the main catalyst and medium for this change, neuroscience will also claim its stake. As far as science goes, it’s still early days for neuroscience, yet it is progressively moving us into a ‘brain new world’.

Posted in Emerging Trends, Future Foresight, Leadership, Neuroleadership, Neuroscience | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

New Year’s Resolutions? Here’s What We Learn from Science about Making Changes that Last

NOTE: This is an adapted version of a previous post (see Taking Small Steps is the Key to Improve Your Leadership Behaviour). I’m publishing it in response to several recent conversations about New Year’s resolutions and whether or not anybody is able to make them stick.

By Manie Bosman

Strategic Leadership InstituteAnother year has gone by in a whir, the New Year has arrived and like so many of us, you want to make this one count. Perhaps you want to live healthier, be more sociable, get involved in something meaningful, start a new hobby or maybe you want to quit smoking or get out of debt.

As you are probably well aware, very few New Year’s resolutions survive beyond the first couple of weeks. According to statistics, 40-45% of American adults make one or more resolution each year, but only 20% of these resolutions are ever kept, which of course means that 80% of these noble intentions are left undone. So is there anything you can do to help you succeed in making the changes you have in mind? Yes, but…

The Neuroscience of Habits

Okay, the “but”-factor is that unless you have a really intense or even traumatic life-changing experience, your chances to make radical changes overnight are less than slim. Much of our “bad” or unwanted behaviour is the result of existing neural networks – billions of brain cells connecting to form ‘pathways’ which activate specific thoughts and actions. Many of these actions are fully automated (we perform them without even thinking about what we do) and there’s no switch to simply turn them off. Also, trying to change negative behaviours by focusing on them often has the exact opposite effect. When we focus on something, the neural pathways related to that “something” is strengthened, and so it becomes nearly impossible to change the behaviour. The best way to get rid of these behaviours is by neglecting them – focus on new behaviours that will form new neural networks that will result in new habits. Over time, the old networks will become weakened and no longer have an effect.

Strategic Leadership InstituteBad habits could also be the result of another neural process. Overindulging in coffee, overeating, gambling, or spending too much time on the internet are often a form of addiction to the effects of dopamine and other neurotransmitters which are released in your brain whenever you’re enjoying these excesses. Take the pleasure you derive from opening your Facebook home page, for example. As you anticipate the pleasure of seeing a message from a friend, your brain responds by releasing dopamine into its pleasure centers. This gives you an experience of pleasure even before you found the message. To your surprise you open your page and see an student-days picture in which you’re tagged –  even a larger surge of dopamine in response to this unexpected surprise. However, if there’s no tagged picture and the expected message is not there your dopamine levels drop considerably, causing a sensation similar to physical pain in your brain. So you wait a few minutes and the whole process repeats itself…

Trying to quit these addictions is extremely difficult because your brain still craves the “high”. It is therefore much more effective to find another source of neural pleasure such as exercise, meditation, or even simple breathing exercises. Deliberately practice these new behaviours until they become “good” habits which would then have replaced the old undesirable habits.

Change Your Brain to Change Your Habits

So the good news is that change is possible. Studies in neuroscience have shown conclusively that the old belief that you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, is simply not true. In fact, our brains can change and adapt throughout our lives. This phenomena – known as neuroplasticity – allows the brain’s neurons (nerve cells) to continuously adapt and adjust to form new neural pathways. In other words, while the neural responses which cause us to behave in a certain manner might be automated, these neurological pathways can be changed. So changing our behaviour is possible on a conscious and neurological level.

Strategic Leadership InstituteSo where can you start? Well, the “where” will depend on what you want to change, but the most important factor for behaviour change is the “how”: START WITH SMALL STEPS!

Currently some of the most significant insights into behaviour change is coming from Stanford University’s Persuasive Tech Lab where, among other things, Dr BJ Fogg and his team creates insight into how we can change ‘bad’ and undesired behaviour into ‘good’ and desired behaviour. More than 15 years of research has led BJ to conclude that among the Top 10 Mistakes in Behaviour Change, “attempting big leaps in stead of baby steps” and “trying to stop old behaviors in stead of creating new ones” rank very high. His “BJ Fogg Behavior Model” proposes that THREE ELEMENTS must come together at the same moment for a behavior to occur: (1) the motivation for that behaviour, (2) the ability to perform the behaviour, and (3) a trigger. When a desired behaviour (e.g. daily exercise) does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing.

Make it Easy for Yourself

Motivating yourself to stop smoking or start a new hobby is generally fairly easy, but the ability or trigger to actually do this might lack. The key to overcome this, according to the Stanford researchers, is to take small, doable “baby steps” and link these to existing “anchors”. In an article he wrote on the topic of persuasion BJ explains that “in most situations behaviour change occurs only when the behaviour is easy to do”. So, if you want to change your behaviour you need to start small, in fact very small. This small new behaviour must then be linked to an anchor – something you’re already doing at more or less the same frequency as the intended new behaviour. The existing anchor would then “trigger” the small new behaviour.

Strategic Leadership InstituteDoes it sound a little complicated? In fact it’s very simple, and by following this process BJ has successfully helped thousands of people change their behaviour. Here’s an example of how it works:  Want to get back into a daily routine of physical exercise? In stead of committing yourself to a vague new behaviour such as ‘I am going to start training, become fit and live healthier’, find a daily anchor (e.g. ‘after I wake up in the morning’), and then link that to a simple and easily executable new behaviour (e.g. ‘I will perform three sit-ups’). Just that. Or maybe you’ve never been able to get into the habit of keeping a journal. Now find an existing anchor (e.g. ‘after I’ve brushed my teeth at night’) and use that to trigger a small, easy-to-do new behaviour (e.g. ‘I will write one sentence in my journal’).

From New Behaviours to Good Habits

It might sound counter-intuitive to start so small, but the purpose of following this simple process is to re-wire your brain – stimulate it to form new neural networks (which will enable the new habit) to replace the old. Once this small behaviour has become an established habit through continuous repetition (the brain now calling up the new pattern without thinking about it) it is much easier to expand on it. In effect you start small with a new behaviour that is easy to perform and once the new neural pathway had been formed, you increase the frequency and intensity of the new behaviour (do more push-ups or join a gym).

The same process can be followed to stop an existing behaviour. Remember, changing a “bad” behaviour is near impossible if you focus on the behaviour you want to stop as this will only strengthen the neural connections which result in that habit. In stead, find a new behaviour that you can to replace it with and then follow this process to start the new behaviour (I already mentioned examples such as exercise and meditation).

Strategic Leadership InstituteSo, the New Year is upon us and it is possible to make this a new start by committing yourself to just one small step at a time. To determine what this should be, you could list the new habits that you want to pursue in order of priority – the good old “resolutions” list. Then select one new behaviour from the list and simplify it to its most basic form. Write it down. For example, ‘live healthier and get fit’ could be simplified to something such as ‘do three push-ups (new behaviour) after I had my first cup of coffee in the morning (anchor)’, or ‘every day when I return from work (anchor) I will take a walk to the street corner and back (new behaviour)’.  By taking these ‘baby steps’ you will be rewiring her brain, forming new neural patterns and pathways that would eventually become the habits you could expand on to live a healthier life.

  • I trust that the New Year will be your greatest yet. May it be a year of breakthroughs, renewal and perfect alignment with who and what you’ve been created to be. Thank you for sharing the journey, may we continue to do so in the New Year!
Posted in Change Management, Neuroleadership, Neuroscience | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Taking Small Steps is the Key to Improve Your Leadership Behaviour

By Manie Bosman

“So I realise that I have to change the way in which I’m leading people. Can you give me just five things I can do to be a better leader from now on?” In the nearly two decades that I’ve been involved in leadership development I have been asked variations of this question a zillion times.

In a sense expecting a shortcut to better leadership is probably a manifestation of the “Seven Steps to This” and “Ten Steps to That” quick-fix culture of our time. However, it is also a reflection of the uncertainty and even frustration many leaders experience when they realise they need to change the way they lead in order to be more effective, but they don’t know how and where to start. For instance, when I talk to leaders about the principles of neuroleadership and how it could vastly improve their effectiveness and impact, they often get really excited until they are faced with the reality of how difficult it is to change behaviour. To a large extent our behaviour is the result of our personality, character, beliefs, values and a myriad of automated neural responses (of which we’re largely unaware) – most of which had been formed over many years. So how do we now change (ineffective) leadership behaviour overnight?

Radical Change is Possible

Well, the bad news is that in spite of our best intentions it is practically impossible to change behaviour overnight. The good news is that change – even radical change – is possible. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, studies in neuroscience have shown conclusively that the old adage that learning only occurs up to a certain age, after which the human brain cannot change, is simply not true. In fact, our brains can change and adapt throughout our lives. This phenomena – known as neuroplasticity – allows the brain’s neurons (nerve cells) to continuously adapt and adjust to form new neural pathways. In other words, while the neural responses which cause us to behave in a certain manner might be automated, these neurological pathways can be changed. So changing our behaviour to lead people more effectively is possible on a conscious and neurological level.

Where to start? Well, the “where” will depend on which behaviour you want to change most urgently, but the most important factor for behaviour change is the “how”: START WITH SMALL STEPS!

Insights from Stanford’s Persuasive Tech Lab

Some of the most significant insights into behaviour change is coming from Stanford University’s Persuasive Tech Lab where, among other things, Dr BJ Fogg and his team creates insight into how we can change ‘bad’ and undesired behaviour into ‘good’ and desired behaviour. More than 15 years of research has led BJ to conclude that among the Top 10 Mistakes in Behaviour Change, “attempting big leaps in stead of baby steps” and “trying to stop old behaviors in stead of creating new ones” rank very high. His “BJ Fogg Behavior Model” proposes that three elements must come together at the same moment for a behaviour to occur: the motivation for that behaviour, the ability to perform the behaviour, and a trigger. When a desired behaviour (e.g. leading people in a more mindful way) does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing.

Motivating leaders to become better at leading is generally fairly easy, but the ability and trigger to improve the way they lead might lack in some cases. The key to overcome this, according to the Stanford researchers, is to take small, doable “baby steps” and link these to existing “anchors”. In an article he wrote on the topic of persuasion BJ explains that “in most situations behaviour change occurs only when the behaviour is easy to do”. So, if we want to change our behaviour we need to start small, in fact very small. This small new behaviour must then be linked to an anchor – something you’re already doing at more or less the same frequency as the intended new behaviour. The existing anchor would then “trigger” the small new behaviour.

Find an Anchor and Start Small

Sounds complicated? In fact it’s very simple, and by following this process BJ has successfully helped thousands of people change their behaviour. Here’s an example of how it works: Want to get back into a daily routine of physical exercise? In stead of committing yourself to a vague new behaviour such as ‘I am going to start training, become fit and live healthier’, find a daily anchor (e.g. ‘after I wake up in the morning’), and then link that to a simple and easily executable new behaviour (e.g. ‘I will perform three sit-ups’). Just that. Or maybe you’ve never been able to get into the habit of keeping a journal. Now find an existing anchor (e.g. ‘after I’ve brushed my teeth at night’) and use that to trigger a small, easy-to-do new behaviour (e.g. ‘I will write one sentence in my journal’).

It might sound counter-intuitive to start so small, but the goal of doing this is to re-wire your brain – stimulate it to form new neural networks (enabling the new behaviour) to replace the old. Once this small behaviour has become an established habit through continuous repetition (the brain now calling up the new pattern without thinking about it) it is much easier to expand on it.

So, for now forget about the five steps to become a better leader and start by committing yourself to just one small step. To determine what this should be, you could list the new leadership behaviours that you want to pursue in order of priority. Then select just one new behaviour and simplify it to its most basic form. Write it down. For example, ‘Improving trust and unity in my team’ could be simplified to something such as ‘ask X what he thinks the best solution would be (new behaviour) every time he comes to me for advice (anchor)’, or ‘every day when I return from lunch (anchor) I will write a note to thank just one person for something they’ve done well (new behaviour)’. By taking these ‘baby steps’ you could start to rewire your brain, forming new neural patterns and pathways that would eventually become the habits you could expand on to develop into the best leader you could be.

Posted in Change Management, Leadership, Neuroleadership, Neuroscience, Talent Development | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Neuroscience of Conditioned Racism

Although great progress has been made in the war on racism it is an evil which persists to haunt us. From the London Olympic Games to the run-up for the American presidential election to workplaces all across the globe friction and conflict based on racial differences is still very much part of life in the Global Village. In this article I take a look at what neuroscience reveals about some of the processes in our brains related to aspects of *racist behaviour.

By Manie Bosman

You’re not a racist and I’m not a racist and we agree that all people are equal and that there is strength in diversity – so why is racial friction still a factor in the 21st Century? What continues to drive people in civilized societies to judge, degrade, discriminate against and even victimize others solely because of perceived racial differences?

Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou has been expelled from the 2012 London Olympics by Greece, after she allegedly made offensive Twitter comments about African immigrants and expressed her support for a far-right party.

Besides the pain and sorrow it causes and the obvious moral and ethical arguments against it, racism – and all other forms of prejudice and discrimination – has the potential to be a major stumbling block in the inter-connected, globalized 21st Century marketplace. Diversity is now the norm and collaboration the name of the game. Leaders set to succeed in this complex heterogeneous environment therefore cannot afford to ignore the potential harm of racial conflict. So while fighting racism on moral and ethical grounds has brought us a long way, perhaps the insights gained from neuroscience can help us take the fight to the next level.

Ideological Racism and Conditioned Racism

To start with, it is helpful to distinguish between two basic types of racism. The first, ideological racism (aka explicit or overt racism), is based on the conscious belief that race or ethnicity (see description of differences here) is the most important determinant of human traits and abilities. ‘Adherents’ typically claim that race-related traits and abilities render one race or group superior or inferior to another. This usually translates into claims that their own race is superior and that other races – identified as such on the basis of factors such as skin tone, eye colour, language, culture, customs and origin – are of lesser value. Over the years ideological racism has been offered as an excuse for discrimination, intolerance, hate speech, oppressive laws and policies and also racial violence and killings. In organized form ideological racism is typically expressed in right-wing or supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, neo-Nazi groups, the Nation of Islam and others.

The second type of racism – which I would term conditioned racism (aka implicit, subconscious or covert racism) – is often less visible but sometimes more harmful when it rears its head in the workplace or other social environments. It is also more widespread – several studies have shown that although most people would deny having any racial biases and even be outspoken against ideological racism, almost all of us are to some extent or another influenced by conditioned racism. Unlike ideological racism, racist behaviour driven by conditioned racism is not necessarily based on conscious beliefs or ideologies about supposed racial differences. While factors such as skin tone or culture or accent can act as ‘triggers’ for conditioned racism, it is largely our brains’ automated response to anything and anyone perceived as a possible threat or enemy.

Loyalty to My Ingroup

In 1906 American sociologist William Graham Sumner introduced the world to the concept of “ethnocentrism” and the idea of social “ingroups” and “outgroups”. He suggested that our ingroups are groups of which we’re a member or with which we identify strongly. Ethnocentrism – today often termed as racism – is the view that our own ethnic group (or “ingroup”) is “the center of everything, and all other (groups) are scaled and rated with reference to it”.1 In Sumner’s view a strong “positive” attitude to our ingroup automatically causes us to form strong negative attitudes (e.g. contempt, hostility and hatred) toward any outgroup:2

“The relation of comradeship and peace in the we-group and that of hostility and war towards others-groups are correlative to each other. The exigencies of war with outsiders are what make peace inside… Loyalty to the group, sacrifice for it, hatred and contempt for outsiders, brotherhood within, warlikeness without—all grow together, common products of the same situation.”

While the aggressive behaviour of some sport fans toward supporters of other teams prove that there is at least some credibility to Sumner’s views on ingroup loyalty and outgroup hatred, numerous studies have shown that people would sometimes discriminate against an perceived outgroup or member of an outgroup even if they have no particular loyalty to an ingroup. Also, we can in fact be loyal and dedicated to an ingroup without feeling aggression or hatred to an outgroup. So although Sumner’s concept of ingroups and outgroups provide us with a solid starting point to explain the group-relationship factor of conditioned racism, we clearly need to dig deeper to understand its underlying dynamics.

Perceived Un-Relatedness

David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, used results from neuroscientific research to devise the SCARF-model, according to which the human brain has five distinctive social needs (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness). Studies have shown that when our brains perceive a ‘threat’ to any of these five social needs, the amygdala (a small almond-shaped structure, which plays an important role in emotional learning and memory) sends impulses to the hypothalamus, which then activates the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn triggers the nervous system to go into an automated ‘fight-or-flight’ mode. Simply put, perceived threats in the social environment – when your status, need for certainty, autonomy, relatedness or sense of fairness is compromised – activate the same automated ‘disengage’ (fight or flight/ avoid/ withdraw/ danger) neural circuitry in your brain as when you face a physical threat such as a fearsome predator or armed robber.3

In the context of interaction between different races the brain’s need for relatedness (our need to feel safe with ‘our own’ people – our ‘ingroup’ – and to feel that we are included in that group) is of particular importance. As part of the process to assess our relatedness in any given situation, our brains are constantly gauging whether people – strangers in particular – are ‘friends’ or ‘foes’. Anyone perceived to be different from those my brain (the amygdala) perceives as ‘friends’ or belonging to my ‘ingroup’, automatically triggers a threat response.

The results of two studies, published as early as 2000, confirmed that perceived racial differences could be enough to trigger such a response. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) the researchers established that our amygdala becomes more activated (indicating early stages of threat-response) when we see someone from another race than when we see someone from our own race group.4

So, you’re relaxing on a park bench late on a Sunday afternoon when you notice that it’s going to be dark soon and that most of the other visitors have already left. Just when you decide to leave you see a tall shabby-looking stranger from ‘the other ‘ race group coming your way. His hoodie is pulled low over his forehead and his hands are in his pockets. Your heart rate picks up, you start to breathe faster and you automatically tighten the grip on your bag while nervously keeping an eye on the approaching figure. He passes by without incident and you give a sigh of relief, although for a while your ears are still pricked to pick up any changes in the rhythm of his footsteps.

What just happened? Your brain noticed the fact that this was a stranger, that in appearance he was different from the people you usually hang out with and that there was no-one else around. Your amygdala triggered an automated ‘threat’-response, which a few moments later turned out to have been totally unjustified. However, for your brain keeping you alive is far more important than being politically correct. It would rather trigger an unwarranted threat response to a harmless stranger than to be caught asleep by a real enemy.

So was this racist behaviour? Decide for yourself, but bear in mind that while in this example the threat-response was triggered by possible race-related differences, the exact same response could have been triggered by a stranger of your own race who looked like those your amygdala has labeled as ‘enemies’ (more about that in a minute).

I REALLY Don’t Feel Your Pain

Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of racism or any other form of discrimination understands the pain, humiliation and anger that it causes. Because of this, there is no excuse for racist behaviour. However, if we want to get to the bottom of conditioned racism it is helpful to understand just how strong the impact of the conditioning is on the ‘transgressor’s’ neural functions.

Several studies using brain imaging techniques have shown that physical and social pain activates some of the same areas in our brains, sharing some of the same neural mechanisms and pathways. In particular, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the anterior insula are activated when we experience physical or emotional pain. Even stranger, perhaps, is that these exact same areas of the brain become activated when we watch someone else in physical or emotional pain and this then enables us to feel empathy for them. However, it seems that perceived group relatedness – and race in particular – can play a role in determining how much empathy we feel when seeing someone in pain.

Researchers from Peking University in China used fMRI to observe activity in the brains of Caucasian and Chinese subjects while they watched video clips of individual faces either being pricked with a needle or being touched with an ear bud. They found that the brains of both the Caucasian and Chinese subjects triggered a much stronger empathy-reaction when watching someone of their own race group suffer pain than when seeing someone from a different race group being pricked in the face. A follow-up study showed that our brains trigger a stronger empathy-response for those whom we regard as friends than for strangers – to the extent that different areas of the brain are activated depending whether we’re seeing a friend or stranger suffer pain.5

In a similar study involving soccer fans neuroscientists from the University of Zurich got similar results, but this participant’s ingroup wasn’t defined by race. The subjects – all Caucasians – watched videos where either other supporters of their favourite soccer team or supporters of a rival team received what seemed to be painful shocks to their hands. They could then decide if they wanted to help the ‘victim’ by receiving some of the pain themselves. The researchers found that when witnessing members of their own group suffer, the fans’ anterior insula became activated – showing concern and empathy – and they then offered to help even if it was going to be at their own expense. However, when witnessing supporters of the rival team suffer, the subjects’ brains showed no or little signs of automated empathy.6

Without offering an excuse for racism or any other form of discrimination, these results show just how strong the impact of conditioned racism can be on neural processes of which we might not even be aware and over which we have little or no direct cognitive control. The results of the studies at Peking University indicate that we are more likely to regard complete strangers of our own racial group as ‘friends’ and emphasize with them than we would strangers of another racial group, simply because of the way our brains are wired. But the results of the studies at the University of Zurich make it clear that this is not primarily about race – it is really still all about perceived relatedness. But there’s more.

It’s Not Just About You Being Different

Matt Lieberman and a team of researchers from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) used fMRI to monitor brain activity in groups of African-American and Caucasian-American subjects in response to race. As part of this study the subjects were shown pictures of African-American and Caucasian-American individuals. As could be expected, there was greater amygdala activity in the brains of Caucasian-American subjects when they looked at pictures of African-Americans than when they looked at pictures of Caucasian-Americans. Surprisingly though, Lieberman and his team found that the brains of their African-American subjects also responded with significant amygdala activity when looking at pictures of people from their own group. So why do the brains of both groups flag African-Americans as a possible ‘threat’?

Lieberman explains:7

“The present study suggests that the amygdala activity typically associated with race-related processing may be a reflection of culturally learned negative associations regarding African-American individuals”.

If participants of both racial groups responded stronger to faces of the ‘other’ group than to their own, it could have been argued that it was simply a reaction to the novelty or strangeness of seeing a face unlike those with which they interact with on a daily basis. Some might even have pushed the point and suggested that we are genetically hardwired to mistrust other races. However, this study strongly suggests that the strong amygdala response when looking at African-American faces is at least to some extent a conditioned reaction – a learnt response. The fact that participants of both race groups perceived African-American faces as possible threats probably reflect their shared negative stereotype of African-Americans.

While there is something profoundly sad in discovering that negative racial stereotyping (which often manifests as racism) can even occur between members of the same race, it also offers a glimmer of hope. If this is learnt or conditioned behaviour, surely it can be unlearnt?

The Fear Factor

It is often said that no child is born a racist, but research indicates that they catch up pretty soon. Some studies have shown that even children as young as three years of age prefer their own racial group and would discriminate against children of a different racial group. Another study found that around the age of five children become aware of racial stereotyping and that negative stereotyping about their own race can impair their academic performance. So why is the human brain so susceptible to negative labeling of racial groups other than our own?

A growing volume of research results are pointing towards fear as the major underlying driving force for conditioned racism.16 Some researchers have suggested that humans are born with a genetic ‘preparedness’ to learn to fear individuals from different social groups (as defined by race). Neuroscientists Elizabeth Phelps and Andreas Ollson from New York University have done extensive research on the neuroscience of racism, and they propose that “millennia of natural selection and a lifetime of social learning may predispose humans to fear those who seem different from them”.17 While the role of genetics has not been clarified, social learning, and learning to fear those from ‘other’ social groups in particular, seems key to conditioned racism.

In 2010 Andreia Santos and a group of researchers from the Central Institute of Mental Health at the University of Heidelberg in Germany launched a study involving children with the genetic condition known as Williams Syndrome. Among other symptoms, this rare genetic condition causes sufferers to be abnormally friendly even to complete strangers simply because they lack the sense of fear that the rest of us feel in some social circumstances. The children were shown a series of pictures of people from different races and asked to assign positive or negative features to the individuals in the picture. Where other children typically assign strong stereotypical features based on race (positive for ‘own’ and negative for ‘other’ races) when shown these pictures, the children with Williams Syndrome showed no racial bias whatsoever.9 Lacking the social fear from which most of us suffer to some degree, these kids were for all practical reasons ‘blind’ to race.

The key role that fear plays in conditioned racism was more recently confirmed in research at Oxford University in the UK involving 36 Caucasian students. Half the participants were given a dose of propranolol – a drug used for the treatment of hypertension, anxiety and panic – and the rest were given a placebo which looked just like propranolol. The students then took the Implicit Attitude Test which measures implicit and often hidden negative attitudes towards social outgroups such as another race. The results showed that the students who had taken the propranolol scored considerably lower for conditioned or subconscious racism. The explanation for this somewhat strange outcome: propranol is a beta blocker which inhibits the action of adrenaline and other stress hormones on the sympathetic nervous system which, as we know by now, mediates the fight-or-flight response. By inhibiting the students’ autonomous fear reaction, the drug significantly reduced their conditioned racial bias!10

Images and Stories about “Them”

Though most of us are probably vulnerable to at least some form of an automated neural threat-response to anyone perceived as being ‘different’ from ourselves and the group(s) we identify with, the intensity of this response will be directly influenced by the level of subliminal (or conscious) fear we have of ‘them’.

It is understandable that people who have been victims of racial abuse or violence could feel a rational and conscious fear for members of the race group that caused them harm. Even long after counseling and healing conditioned fear responses could still linger in their neural circuitry. However, many who have never had such a traumatic experience pick up on this fear through a process called “fear conditioning”. In the social environment fear conditioning happens when a negative stimulus (e.g. being robbed) somehow becomes associated with a neutral stimulus (e.g. a male of another race) or even a neutral situation (e.g. a deserted public park). In other words, the brain could learn to associate a man from the ‘other ‘ race with the threat of crime, and then automatically respond to men of that race as it would respond to an actual crime threat.

How does racial fear conditioning happen? Probably in a million different ways. In some cases it is the result of personally experiencing real or perceived threats involving individuals or groups from other races. However I suspect that for the majority of us racial fear conditioning is something that happens during what Phelps and Ollson calls a “lifetime of social learning”. We learn to mistrust and fear ‘others’ as we are continuously exposed to negative images, stories, stereotypes, archetypes, and memes of ‘them’. An Iraqi child listening to his father talk about American soldiers performing a house-to-house search… watching television footage of civil war violence somewhere in Africa… seeing the mug shot of a wanted rapist in the newspaper…. In our inter-connected world negative racial conditioning and reinforcement can happen in a nearly limitless number of ways. Not least of these is the news and entertainment media which, even though it proposes not to do so, often continues to form and reinforce these racial perceptions.

No ‘Quick Fix’, But We Can Change

So what neuroscience is showing us is that there are two major underpinning factors for conditioned racism. The one is the human brain’s predisposition to label and treat any perceived outgroup member as a threat, which is why someone from a different race can trigger an automated threat response even if it is completely unwarranted. The second is that this racial predisposition can be amplified and reinforced by fear conditioning, which is a socially learnt process.

While no sound-minded doctor would yet prescribe propranolol (or any other drug) for the treatment of racism, how do we deal with this deep-seated neural reaction that can drive us to discriminate, hurt and victimize? While there are definitely no ‘quick fixes’, I will propose a couple of points to consider:

  1. Rewiring is Possible. Over the last few years studies in neuroscience have shown that the old belief that learning only occurs up to a certain age, after which the human brain cannot change, is an absolute fallacy. In fact, our brains can change and adapt throughout our lives. This phenomena – known as neuroplasticity – allows the brain’s neurons (nerve cells) to continuously adapt and adjust to form new neural pathways as a result of learning, changes in behaviour and changes in our environment. In other words, while the neural responses underlying a tendency to racist behaviour might be automated, these neurological pathways can and should be changed.
  2. Reframing is Necessary. Research have shown that fear responses to dangerous stimuli (predators, snakes, spiders) are much harder to unlearn than fear responses triggered by ‘neutral’ stimuli (butterflies, birds). If we rationally believe the object of our fear poses a real threat, it will be near impossible to undo the automated threat-response in our brain when facing this object. The implication is that if you are really serious about adjusting the conditioned racist response in your own brain, you need to change the way you think and talk about other races. Does someone pose a realistic threat just because they are different? If not, start to intentionally reframe the mental pictures you hold of them (including the terms you use to refer to them) to confirm that they are ‘neutral’ and not dangerous. As parents and leaders we also have the responsibility to reframe racial images and perceptions for our children and those we lead.
  3. Exposure is Critical. While our brains seem eager to assign negative ‘labels’ based on appearance or background, several studies and real life experience shows that that this could be modified – probably most effectively through individual exposure. Our conditioned fear response can be countered and even reversed through close, positive interracial contact. Here’s how Phelps and Ollson puts it:

“For now, our finding that close, intergroup contact may reduce this (racial) bias suggests that individual experiences can play a moderating role. Millennia of natural selection and a lifetime of social learning may predispose humans to fear those who seem different from them; however, developing relationships with these ‘different’ others may be one factor that weakens this otherwise strong predisposition.”

Personal interacting with people from other race groups can be a powerful ‘rewiring’ experience. I’ve seen firsthand what a difference it makes when people from different races (or other divides) get the opportunity to experience each other as human beings who share similar joys and challenges in terms of family, aspirations, concerns, needs and other aspects of our lives. Opportunities for this type of exposure don’t automatically happen in the work environment, so leaders should be deliberate in creating and facilitating them. Leaders should also be deliberate in establishing cultures of trust, as inter-personal trust can be a powerful force to fuse diversity into constructive synergy.

To Conclude

The human race has come a long way from when our survival depended on being accepted in the tribe and our senses kept us alive by identifying the rustle in the bush as a threat even before we knew it was a saber-toothed cat. In a relatively short time the world in which we live has become an inter-connected and dynamic space where our ability to collaborate rather than to compete is crucial for success. One of the key leadership skills at this time is to find ways to facilitate safe connections between people. Dealing with diversity – racial diversity in particular – is a crucial part of that skill set.

AUTHOR’s NOTE: While the focus of this article is on racism, the same basic neural processes can also apply to almost any other form of stereotyping and discrimination. As with racism discrimination based on gender, religion, political views or group affiliation can be the result of ideological convictions, but are quite often the direct result of conditioned neural responses.

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