"Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd."
— Bertrand Russell, Nobel laureate
In the weeks since the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, the national uproar at the circumstances around the event has been profound. While the facts are still emerging, it seems clear that a heightened sense of threat and fear on the part of shooter George Zimmerman played a significant role in the tragedy. All this more than 60 years after the lynching of 14-year-old Emmitt Till led to the growth of the American civil rights movement. Can the workings of the human brain help us understand and perhaps thwart this conundrum?
A good place to start may be the sensitive neural circuitry dedicated to detecting and reacting to threat. One of these regions, the orbital frontal cortex (OFC), is responsible for integrating information from various brain areas, including visceral emotions, in an attempt to facilitate decision making. Current neuroimaging evidence suggests that the OFC is involved in analyzing our available options to a stimulus, and communicates its decisions by creating emotions that are supposed to help you make decisions.
Through the course of evolution, it's probably the case that these error detection centers have developed to become acutely sensitive to possible threats in the environment ... so much so that if in doubt, our brain will err on the side of caution. After all, it would have been safer for our ancestors to assume that the rustling in the bushes was a sabre-toothed tiger and react accordingly, as opposed to assuming it was a gust of wind, only to become a midday snack. The problem is that our society and lifestyles have evolved at a much faster pace than our brain. We still have that old evolutionary bias generating an intense fear of uncertainty, and react in a fight/flight response. While this may still be adaptive for us as a species, the strength of that response isn't as critical in today's society (sans the sabre-toothed tiger).
A study by Xu et al at MIT demonstrated the importance of perceived group affiliation on how we respond to others. Subjects had their brain imaged in an fMRI machine while viewing photos of people receiving either a painful stimuli (a pinprick on their face) or a neutral stimuli (cotton swap on the face). A consistent area of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), was activated when subjects viewed another person in pain, which was not surprising, since this area is thought to contribute to feelings of empathy.
However, the interesting finding in this study was that activation of the ACC was significantly decreased if the person in pain was a different race than the subject. In essence, they demonstrated evidence of an empathic bias toward racial in-group members, at the neuronal level. Now these weren't radical, racist subjects in the fMRI machine; these subjects were educated, seemingly normal college students of various backgrounds. So if I perceive you as similar to me simply based on race, then my brain will react with more empathy or compassion than if you were of a different race, and this occurs without our even realizing it.
This bias may increase our error detection circuitry so that we react quicker and stronger to a possible threat, in this case a member of another racial group. Could this have contributed to the events that unfolded in the Florida tragedy, where error detection and threat responses were undoubtedly on high alert in George Zimmerman?
Race matters more than just in regard to empathy and threats. A number of other studies have come out in the last few years highlighting how differently we process information coming from someone we perceive as simply different from us, compared to someone we perceive as similar. A study out of UCLA in March illustrated this nicely by demonstrating that the brain processes empathy towards friends who are experiencing social pain differently compared to strangers enduring the same social pain. In short, we process information from out-group members scantily, and make a lot of errors as a result. Information from in-group members is processed using totally different and more robust circuits. This all happens beneath conscious awareness.
These findings have implications beyond the courtroom. This is something that leaders and managers in any diverse organization need to understand. If you want people from different cultures to collaborate at their best, creating a common "in group" is critical. This happens through focusing on shared experiences or shared goals, which help offset our default, non-conscious "foe" response to those a little different from us.
Collaboration is on the rise in organizations right at the time that we're becoming more diverse, often involving teams drawn from various countries, who may never get to meet. As the pace of change increases, strong emotions can increase for many stakeholders. Put all this together and the potential for unhelpful knee-jerk reactions is all too high. While hopefully we won't have a corporate Martin case, many small injustices are no doubt served every day that needn't happen.
The bad news is that race does matter, no matter how civilized we want to think we are. The good news is that the effect of race can be mitigated with increased awareness. Right now many experiments are being done to test out exactly how to mitigate this effect.
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(This post was written with Dan Radecki and originally published at the Harvard Business Review blog.)