Stereotypes affect our motivation

We know that the advice to stick with successful people given by the “birds of a feather, flock together” adage has been shown to have a compelling foundation that’s backed-up by neuroscientific research. Tests have shown that our assessment of risk and reward confer utility and are predicated on our cognitive processing of social signals.

Utility, of course, is a representation that defines individual preferences for goods or services beyond the explicit monetary value of those goods or services. In other words, it is a calculation for how much someone desires something, and it is both relative and context-sensitive

This means that the cultural context of our lives plays a key role in the value we place on the things we value. Love, money, power, truth, justice and social mobility; to give just some examples become desirable only when our brain’s reward system is activated sufficiently to incentivize us so we can take action to attain them.

Because we are biological beings designed to process environmental stimuli in order to create the mental representations of the world we live in, culture and social signals subconsciously affect our expectations. Expectations, in turn, determine the horizon we establish as we plan our actions. There is a deeper subtext to this when we consider the effect wrought by persistent, pernicious cultural and racial stereotypes: Italian mafia, Russian human traffickers, Mexican drug dealers, Black criminals. The list goes on and on.

When stereotypes are assimilated by culture they are subtly encoded in the environment at large through the behavior of others. That behavior reflects values and a belief system that serve to reinforce the stereotypes being reflected which then, negatively impact on those who are represented by them.

Consider, for a moment, how a young, white, blonde girl thinks of her future when she reads the Victorianized version of Goldilocks which the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim viewed as “a tale to encourage children to pursue the hard labor of solving, one at a time, the problems which growing up presents", when compared to children of color who are underrepresented in classic fairy tale literature.

Culture Reinforces Behavior

All of this now becomes important because there is a new study on stereotypes and how they affect performance in life by changing the way the reward system works in the brain to create motivation. Kyle Ratner, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at UC Santa Barbara said, at a recent interview about the study he led: “It is clear that people who belong to historically marginalized groups in the United States contend with burdensome stressors on top of the everyday stressors that members of non-disadvantaged groups experience.”

Those “burdensome stressors” form an additional layer of energy-draining anxiety which results in psychological fatigue. Constantly encountering negative stereotypes even in relatively benign settings such as a movie or a song has a cumulative effect on motivation at a personal level. Because such stereotyping is perceived as being out of a person’s control and both too pervasive and too diffuse to tackle it dampens the neurochemical arousal associated with the processing of opportunities to win or lose in particular situations.

Social stressors are generally known to have such an effect and can even lead to anhedonia which is a psychological condition that prevents sufferers from experiencing pleasure even in the most pleasurable situations.

On the face of it all this is common sense, which is why we intuitively know it is not a good call to use stereotypes in the arts, marketing and advertising. This, however is the first time we’ve had solid neuroscientific evidence to back up our intuition.

What Does It Mean For The Future?

There are deeper, real-world implications here that go beyond academic definitions or, even, the broader concept of right and wrong and they now need to be taken into account.

  • Advertisers who use stereotypes are using social stressors that dampen the mental arousal they rely on in order to get a response from their audience. There is already a backlash against brands who have used this kind of approach in their marketing and many brands are rethinking their strategy.
  • Marketers who employ recognizable racial and sexual stereotypes as a means of forming an immediate connection with the audience may be actively harming their brand.
  • Businesses that contribute to the formation of the culture at large must now consider whether there are implicit racial biases coded in their messaging.
  • Nothing is the same. There is no “business as usual” because what we considered to be “usual” has changed in ways we must now understand and internalize anew.

The biggest change of all, perhaps, has to do with sensitivity. It is no longer sufficient to say “I am skin-color agnostic” and expect it to turn into a pass to do anything. Culture is a construct that is created by the actions of the total number of people that exist in its primary set. As such, it is made up of subsets each of which will have its own context and perception of the data that underpins experienced reality.

To truly function in a 21st century setting we must all now, equally, be aware of the context and impact of our words and actions. For businesses active in an always-on, digital space that cuts across geographic boundaries and languages and may involve more than one culture, the challenge to be culturally aware, inclusive and responsive has never been greater.

A blog tracking business responses to racial injustice highlights how the business world is adapting to this challenge. Despite their efforts a lot of companies are in for a rough ride. The world is changing. These are historic times and the businesses that will survive must work out what is the right thing to do and then have the courage to do it.

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