Who? Me? My brain? Judge you? No way.
Tell me the company you keep and I’ll tell you who you are. — Cervantes (1607)
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Here’s an interesting study done more than a decade ago. Michelle Hebl and Laura Mannix, psychologists at Rice University, placed a number of volunteer subjects in a waiting room with a prospective job applicant. In one condition the applicant sat in a corner all alone. In another, they sat next to a person of average weight. In a third condition, the applicant sat next to a person who was overweight. Different sets of volunteer raters were then asked if they would hire the applicant.
As you might suspect – simply because I’m including it here under this blog title – in addition to being perceived as less active, intelligent, hardworking, attractive, popular, successful, and athletic, the job applicant sitting next to the overweight person was deemed to have lower professional and interpersonal skills when compared to the person sitting alone or with a person of average weight. Cluelessly, these “hiring managers” were not only penalizing overweight applicants, but they also penalized someone who was merely in proximity to someone overweight.
Now consider: more than 2/3s of the people in this country are currently obese or overweight. What do you think those unconscious negative judgments are doing to people who struggle with weight’s neurophysiology? What unspoken answers do you think their own brains are giving to The Big Brain Question? (An interesting aside: If YOU win a Lottery Jackpot, this research suggests my brain is more likely to make me spend to the point of bankruptcy!).
The Brain’s Primary Primary
My brain has one primary concern: keeping me alive. If you’re someone who hangs out with fat people, my brain unconsciously decides that you will not be of much help when the Storm Troopers or the toothless guys from the movie, Deliverance show up. My brain (mostly) unconsciously decides my chances of survival are better if I don’t hang out with you, but hang out with mixed martial artists and Navy Seal Team Six members instead. Of course, knowing about this unconscious bias of my brain is necessary in order for me to then consciously override it. But what if I’m clueless and unaware of this unconscious bias? Then what?
Color Me Biased
This unconscious bias in my brain is unfortunately not only active in me when it comes to the company overweight people keep. It’s also quite active in assessing the color of the company I keep. If you are a person of color or hang out with a person of color, my brain has a built-in anti-preference for you. And unfortunately, it has it against you even if I am a person of color myself. Frances Aboud, a developmental social psychologist at McGill University, has been studying toddlers for decades. Black, brown, white or yellow, every toddler in predominantly white cultures unconsciously prefers … white. Why? Because virtually everything their brain has been exposed to in white dominant cultures implicitly and explicitly portrays white-preference. From billboard ads to television programs to simply their larger numbers on the street – whites dominate the world around us. They also dominate in the world inside us – in the connections our brain cells make in the process of learning about the world around us. In order to counteract this early learning it is important to expose children to diversity in as many forms as we can supply it. From people of different colors, various sizes, different sexual and political and religious preferences, to people with different developmental and physical limitations. Exposure to multi-forms of diversity in the world outside us leads to multi-forms of diversity in the neural networks inside us. Which provides a much richer life to live.