Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
Sitting in my home office in San Diego, I can easily gaze into the yard at what might be termed the Labrador Play Yard. Even in the absence of the dogs, there is an obvious and, I must admit, unsightly sign of their presence. Namely, a trough in the dirt that mimics their favorite running route.
Every afternoon, almost like clockwork, one of the dogs challenges the other to a joyful chase. Leaping off the deck, they begin to run around and around that rut, making it deeper and deeper. The more they run, the deeper it gets and the more likely it is that they will never vary their route.
The Human Brain
The This principle of repetitive behavior begetting more repetitive behavior applies as much to how the brain works as it does to two rambunctious canines. In turn, because repetition impacts the brain, it also impacts the biases that lurk within us.
In the case of humans, we are talking, not about a muddy rut, but, instead, about the neuropathways that form the communication infrastructure of the brain. In the brain, neurons (brain cells) send signals to other neurons and, in the process, create a physical connection. It is these connections that activate every time we do something and, equally pertinent here, every time we think a thought. The more we think the same thing or do the same thing, the stronger that connection becomes and the more apt we are to continue to believe or behave in the same way. To quote what apparently is a common aphorism in the world of neuroscience, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
This propensity to literally engrained attitudes and behaviors is good and bad news for defeating the biases that so thoroughly plague our workplaces. On the one hand, biased attitudes and the behaviors they spawn can and do readily become habits. Every time we act in a way that is consistent with our bias – be it a hiring decision or making the choice of whom to call on first at a meeting – we are deepening the pathway and making us more apt to act the same way in the future. Through time and repetition of behaviors or attitudes, the brain – like the dogs – begins to prefer and choose the well-worn pathway.
Paradoxically, however, this mechanism also points the way to one of the most effective ways to defeat both biased attitudes and biased behaviors. Namely, to deliberately and self-consciously act in ways that run counter to our biases.
How does this work? Let’s look back at those marauding Labradors for our answer. What would happen if the dogs were motivated one day to change their route? It’s simple: A new rut will form and the original will gradually fill in until it virtually disappears.
The same process applies to our brains. When we change our behaviors, the pathways begin to change. That change, in turn, makes the new—unbiased—behaviors easier and easier to execute. And through time and repetition, they become essentially automatic.
And, it gets still better. Because the brain can’t stand having an attitude that does not fit with a behavior (an intolerance for what is known as cognitive dissonance), either the behavior or the attitude eventually has to change. As long as we continue to act in an unbiased way – or run a different route – the biased attitude will continue to weaken.
For more information on how changing behaviors can help defeat unconscious bias, click here.
Sondra Thiederman can be contacted for webinars and in-person presentations on defeating unconscious bias by clicking here or calling 619-583-4478. For additional information, go to www.thiederman.com.
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