The cognitive science behind racial bias.

Written by pete

Topics: Uncategorized

I read three interesting articles today. One is an old article, but I thought it was spot-on in pointing out that often we have a conscious attitude of racial tolerance, while harboring an unconscious racial bias without even knowing it. The second article is a more recent publication that reinforces the findings of the first: that we have some built in racial discrimination processing logic in our brains. That last article says to me that this “built-in” logic wasn’t just put there by our maker: social and cultural factors put it there, and that same mechanism can take it back out.


NYU/Yale Research Team Explores Neural Basis of Racial Evolution

Brain Activity Reflects Complexity Of Responses to Other-race Faces

New Study Suggests Race Fear Isn’t Hard Wired

While I think that the studies may have the ill-effect of giving the unenlightened (i.e. the “Davids” from The Color of Fear) a hook to hang their white guilt on, the last article shows that perhaps the key to undoing the cognitive damage of race bias lies in actively retraining your brain to recognize people as individuals, rather than members of a class or race. That’s something that sounds reasonably easy to do, but I haven’t found any studies yet where someone has tried to measure the effectiveness.

So as an MBA student, this raises an interesting question. When do we generalize and when do we individualize? It is a tough lesson to learn in MBA school. We take the management lessons from diversity and ethics courses: “Diversity is important. It is an asset. People deserve respect. Generalizations about people are dangerous.”

Then we go over to a marketing class where we learn how to sell useless widgets to “black mothers between the ages of 21 and 35 with teenagers in the home (!) ” by speaking to certain emotional concerns of a generalized group of people. We can certainly say we know the difference between treating people like individuals who deserve respect and treating people like a market to be targeted, tapped, and harvested. But do we really know what that means? Marketers make outrageous statements sometimes. Even though there is demographic data to back those statements up, I think that the language they use creeps into the organizational culture.

Do you think the traditional marketing function reinforces certain biases people have about women, black people, or any of the other groups of people that marketers use to segment markets? Have you seen any effective material on how the marketing and management functions of an organization can be designed to clearly differentiate between targeted market segmentation and discrimination within the organization itself?

I think that MBA schools ought to discuss the relationship between organizational goals, ethical concerns, and social factors in more depth. How do we balance marketing strategy with management factors, operational concerns, financial strategy, and other organizational issues? The more I learn in B-school, the more it seems like running the business of any one organizational department is the easy part. Sitting on the senior leadership team and representing your department is easy too. In order to be a great executive, you have to have a broader skillset that knits all of the organizational factors together and finds the right balance. That’s what I’ll be looking for in my last few courses at Loyola.