How Stereotypes Threaten Your Brain's Well-Being
It doesn't matter if negative stereotypes are false. They still do damage.
Valerie Purdie Greenaway is the Director of the Laboratory of Intergroup Relations and the Social Mind. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, core faculty for the Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholars Program (RWJ Columbia-site), and research fellow at the Institute for Research on African-American Studies (IRAAS) at Columbia. Dr. Purdie-Vaughns has authored numerous publications that have appeared in journals such as Science, Psychological Science, and Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. She was been awarded grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Russell Sage Foundation, Spencer Foundation and William T. Grant Foundation. In 2013, Dr. Purdie-Vaughns was awarded the Columbia University RISE (Research Initiative in Science and Engineering) award for most innovative and cutting edge research proposal titled, “Cells to Society" approach to reducing racial achievement gaps: Neuro-physiologic pathways involved in stereotype threat and social psychological interventions. Previously, Dr. Purdie-Vaughns served on the faculty in the Psychology Department at Yale University. She completed her doctoral work in psychology at Stanford University in 2004 as a student of Dr. Claude Steele. She completed her undergraduate work at Columbia University and lettered in varsity basketball.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m going to jump right in Valerie. Tell the group, what do you do now for your professional calling? Why do you love it? And tell us what motivated us originally to study what you study?
VALERIE PURDIE GREENAWAY: So my day job is I am a professor of psychology, so I teach at Columbia University and I teach in the department of psychology, so I teach cultural psychology. Everything from how does your brain change when you go on vacation to how does stigma and bias and as an outsider—identity—how does it affect our neurological functioning, our psychological functioning and our workplace functioning?
I also have a research lab, and so just like the movies it’s actually in the basement. And so we bring people into the laboratory and what we try to do is we try to study what I call insider and outsider dynamics. And insiders are people who are historically, say, part of a company. It could be the five people that started a company, or the group that is indigenous to a neighborhood, or a country or any kind of group. And then outsiders are those who are underrepresented in some way, who have some kind of outsider status in some way.
So you can think about this in the context of gender or race or ethnicity or religion, but you can also think about it in terms of who in a company went to one particular school versus another.
You can think about it in terms of the founders of a company or people whose parents have always worked in corporate America versus those who are new.
So what I like and what I have started to show is that the insider-outsider dynamics may be local in terms of what the group is, but everybody experiences outsider status in some context, everyone experiences insider status in some context.
And so I’ve been doing a lot of work on what does that look like, what does that feel like, what are the neurological underpinnings and how can we bridge those gaps?
Whenever I talk to companies a starting point is: what is the structure of the company that either facilitates performance of all groups or undermines performance of all groups?
So rather than sort of looking inside people for talent, looking at personality matrixes, we really need to think about what is the structure of the company?
And I’ll give you a couple of different examples.
But where stereotype comes in, and stereotype threat comes in, is the general idea that when you belong to a group that has some kind of outsider status and you are in a really hot performance situation, you’re taking a CPA exam, you’re giving an interview, it’s right before year end evaluations. If you belong to a group of which there are stereotypes about your intellectual ability—so, for instance African Americans not being particularly smart, women not being particularly smart, but only in the area of like mathematical performance and engineering…
JENNIFER BROWN: According to the Google memo writer that would be a true statement.
VALERIE PURDIE GREENAWAY: In those contexts there is a worry about being seen through the lens of that stereotype and that that can undermine performance, actual workplace performance.
And so you can see it on literally—so take a slice of the brain—you can see the part of the brain, the amygdala that’s associated with anxiety is sort of amplified, and the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that’s associated with learning and memory, is sort of tamped down.
But what that translates into is three things. One is your workplace performance just is not as good as it could be. Two, your brain is doing double duty: you’re worried about how others are viewing you, you’re sort of contending with these stereotypes as well as doing your work. But three, it undermines motivation. So you just can’t give it your all.
And I would actually add a fourth piece to it, is that it undermines your ability to be authentic. So when you think about an authentic self, are you going to be creative? Are you going to bring your creative self to work? You can’t do that when you’re constantly constrained with contending with the stereotypes.
And so the piece of it that I try to help people understand is that it’s very, very subtle.
For instance I was working with a financial firm and a woman told me a fantastic—well for me it’s fantastic but it’s not so fantastic—a story about how she was on a panel and on this panel they had chairs, and the chairs were sort of the height of a standard man. So she’s on this barstool with her legs kind of swinging in the breeze.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’ve been there. It doesn’t occur to people, these are uncomfortable.
VALERIE PURDIE GREENAWAY: And sort of feeling kind of really small. And this is a structural feature. It’s just a chair. But it’s just another reminder that her identity and physiology is actually one of outsider status. Those chairs were not made for her.
And you might think about it, “Well why are we talking about chairs?” It’s one instance in which it’s just a cognitive reminder of insider/outsider.
You know you can think about this in terms of extramural sports that they have at work which are great ways to get people to come together. But also it’s another reminder of an insider-outsider dimension: Those who can play and those who can’t. And even if you can’t play you have to pretend like you can play.
JENNIFER BROWN: That's right.
It doesn't matter if negative stereotypes are false. They still harm anyone subjected to them because of how the brain reacts, internalizing the feeling of being excluded from a certain group. According to Columbia University psychologist Valerie Purdie Greenaway, that can sap your workplace performance, your ability to concentrate, and your ability to be authentic with others. Everyone eventually experiences what it's like to be on the outside of a group, as well as on the inside of one. But it's worth knowing what the harms of being unfairly treated are. They go much deeper than hurt feelings.
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
While not the first such minister, the loneliness epidemic in Japan will make this one the hardest working.
- The Japanese government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to implement policies designed to fight isolation and lower suicide rates.
- They are the second country, after the U.K., to dedicate a cabinet member to the task.
- While Japan is famous for how its loneliness epidemic manifests, it isn't alone in having one.
The Ministry of Loneliness<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/I5FIohjZT8o" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p><a href="https://www.jimin.jp/english/profile/members/114749.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetsushi Sakamoto</a>, already in the government as the minister in charge of raising Japan's low birthrate and revitalizing regional economies, was appointed this <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">month</a> to the additional role. He has already announced plans for an emergency national forum to discuss the issue and share the testimony of lonely <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/12/national/loneliness-isolation-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">individuals</a>.</p><p>Given the complexity of the problem, the minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different <a href="https://www.insider.com/japan-minister-of-loneliness-suicides-rise-pandemic-2021-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ministries</a> that hope to address the issue alongside a task <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">force</a>. He steps into his role not a moment too soon. The loneliness epidemic in Japan is uniquely well known around the world.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Hikikomori</em></a><em>,</em> often translated as "acute social withdrawal," is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00247/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/japan-hikikomori-isolation-society" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">risk</a> of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200110155241.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">distress</a>.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodokushi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Kodokushi</em></a>, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.</p><p>These are just the most shocking elements of the loneliness crisis. As we've discussed before, loneliness can cause health issues akin to <a href="https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/americas-loneliness-epidemic-is-more-lethal-than-smoking-heres-what-you-can-do-to-combat-isolation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">smoking</a>. A lack of interaction within a community can cause social <a href="https://bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/how-religious-neighbors-are-better-neighbors" target="_self">problems</a>. It is even associated with changes in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/loneliness-brain" target="_self">brain</a>. While there is nothing wrong with wanting a little time to yourself, the inability to get the socialization that many people need is a real problem with real <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-loneliness-hunger" target="_self">consequences</a>.</p>
The virus that broke the camel's back<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hp-L844-5k8" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> A global loneliness pandemic existed before COVID-19, and the two working in tandem has been catastrophic. </p><p>Japanese society has always placed a value on solitude, often associating it with self-reliance, which makes dealing with the problem of excessive solitude more difficult. Before the pandemic, 16.1 percent of Japanese seniors reported having nobody to turn to in a time of need, the highest rate of any nation <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">considered</a>. Seventeen percent of Japanese men surveyed in 2005 said that they "rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues, or others in social groups." This was three times the average rate of other <a href="http://www.oecd.org/sdd/37964677.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>. </p><p>American individualism also creates a fertile environment for isolation to grow. About a month before the pandemic started, nearly<a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/23/798676465/most-americans-are-lonely-and-our-workplace-culture-may-not-be-helping" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> 3 in 5</a> Americans reported being lonely in a <a href="https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> issued by Cigna. This is a slight increase over previous studies, which had been pointing in the same direction for years. </p><p>In the United Kingdom, the problem prompted the creation of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The commission's <a href="https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/active-communities/rb_dec17_jocox_commission_finalreport.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">final report </a>paints a stark picture of the U.K.'s situation in 2017, with millions of people from all parts of British society reporting feeling regular loneliness at a tremendous cost to personal health, society, and the economy.</p><p>The report called for a lead minister to address the problem at the national level, incorporating government action with the insights provided by volunteer organizations, businesses, the NHS, and other organizations on the crisis's front lines. Her Majesty's Government acted on the report and appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in <a href="https://time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2018</a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracey_Crouch" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tracey Crouch</a>, and dedicated millions of pounds to battling the problem. </p><p>The distancing procedures necessitated by the COVID-19 epidemic saved many lives but exacerbated an existing problem of loneliness in many parts of the world. While the issue had received attention before, Japan's steps to address the situation suggest that people are now willing to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.</p><p>--</p><p><em>If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.</em></p>
MIT professor Azra Akšamija creates works of cultural resilience in the face of social conflict.
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
Do they really need the human touch?
- In Pinduoduo's Smart Agriculture Competition, four technology teams competed with traditional farmers over four months to grow strawberries.
- Data analysis, intelligent sensors and greenhouse automation helped the scientists win.
- Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies such as AI are forecast to deliver huge productivity gains – but need the right governance, according to the Global Technology Governance Report 2021.
Pinduoduo<h3>Growing potential</h3><p>Numerous studies show the potential for Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies like AI to boost economic growth and productivity.</p><p>By 2035, labour productivity in developed countries could rise by 40% due to the influence of AI, according to<a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/12/ai-productivity-automation-artificial-intelligence-countries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> analysis from Accenture and Frontier Economics</a>.</p><p>Sweden, the US and Japan are expected to see the highest productivity increases.</p>