Who Me? I’m Not Biased: Embracing Diversity to Improve Creativity

We recognize race and gender in a split second, thanks to a specialized region of the human visual system.1 Neuroscientists studying the neural basis of prejudice propose that coupling facial recognition to amygdala “fight or flight” reactions enabled early humans to rapidly recognize friendly ingroup members in contrast to outgroup foes.1–3 Allowing such ingroup vs. outgroup distinctions to be governed solely by an emotional response is at the root of implicit biases. This type of amygdala-driven response is what may lead to prejudice and stereotyping. These responses fly under the radar of our recognition and may impair effective problem solving by limiting our ability to utilize the diversity in experience and perspective that we now know to be essential to many tasks. Eliminating these implicit biases completely may be impossible—even on an evolutionary time scale—but to limit their detrimental effects, we must elevate such biases to our consciousness by engaging the “upstairs brain” that thinks, solves problems, and makes decisions.4 Here we provide strategies for increasing mindfulness and promoting diversity in education and research.

Be Aware of Implicit Bias

In response to criticism over lack of gender diversity, the Silicon Valley giant Google engaged its powerful analytics team to study the problem. Their systematic analyses revealed implicit biases that govern preferential attribution of specific skills and talents to males or females. Surprisingly, similar implicit biases are held by both men and women. Experience it for yourself by trying to follow the facilitator’s instructions as you watch the Google YouTube video Unconscious Bias @ Work5 or by participating in Harvard’s Project Implicit6 or the MTV quiz Loo k Dif fer ent.7 To address and overcome implicit bias against women in the hiring process, Google asked recruitment teams to develop explicit job ads and interview procedures that more objectively focused on each individual’s skills and abilities and possible contributions to the team while deemphasizing the more subjective qualities of personality and rapport. From these activities, Google learned that awareness is the first step. By being mindful, by participating in deliberate training, and by being explicit, each of us can proactively contribute to greater gender, racial, and ethnic diversity in the scientific workforce.

Implicit biases, including those concealed for purposes of social or political correctness, form the core of “microaggressions,” i.e., behaviors and statements made by individuals in a majority group that are received as assaults, insults, or invalidations by members of minority group(s).8 Asian Americans or Latino Americans may be asked, “Where are you from?” or may be told, “You speak good English,” either of which sends a strong message that the individual is foreign-born, an outsider, and not American. Microaggressions lead to discouragement and disenfranchisement that can further diminish workforce diversity. Other common examples include statements related to being “colorblind” to race, or assuming that a particular job would not be held by a person of color or by a woman. Microaggressions are felt cumulatively over a lifetime. They perpetuate racial and gender inequity as well as underrepresentation in the sciences and other professions. This case was poignantly made at the 2015 ASCB Annual Meeting in a Women in Cell Biology Committee (WICB) Mentoring Theater skit entitled “Death by a Thousand Papercuts,” which was based on lived experiences by skit writers from WICB and the Minorities Affairs Committee (MAC).

How then to overcome our biases? Here we describe two strategies that can be effective in classrooms and other group settings.

Promoting Diversity

One strategy is The Marshmallow Challenge, which stimulates team building and problem solving by diverse groups. Your team of four has 20 pieces of spaghetti, one yard of masking tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. Here’s the challenge: In 18 minutes, you must build the highest tower possible using all the creative brainpower and diverse skills in the group. Ready, set, go!

Deceptively simple, the Marshmallow Challenge prototype, originated by Peter Sillman, has undergone refinement in design and has been further studied and tested by Ted Wujec in groups from kindergartners to CEOs and from business school students to engineers to lawyers.9 The common misconception of the marshmallow as light and fluffy brings team members to suspend it at the apex of the spaghetti tower. However, this strategy fails. To date, kindergartners are among the most successful in building the highest structures. Kindergartners prevail because they lack biases; they are willing to immediately try many testing and refining iterations without judging or minimizing other team members’ ideas. The Marshmallow Challenge has been shown to have benefits among all groups tested. Graduate, postdoctoral, and junior faculty training programs are beginning to leverage the Challenge because of its efficacy in bringing diverse individuals together in cohesive and highly functional teams, and because it fosters skills in brainstorming, collaboration, and incorporation of diverse skills and thinking. Key outcomes include creation of a shared experience, development of a common language, identification of hidden assumptions, and prototyping and refinement through the group’s collective wisdom.

An article by Brenda Collins Flyswithhawks offers another suggestion for teambuilding.10 Flyswithhawks brings her class together in a talking circle to represent honesty, respect, and equality. Students are asked to create a name tag with colored pencils and share the meanings behind their names. Similar strategies are used in executive leadership sessions. When individuals are asked to explain the history of their names, it reinforces individuality and gives voice to the wisdom and common humanity that lies within and moves the group away from seeing only the surface. Through a semester of engaging in dialog and using the talking circle for discussion and problem solving there is reciprocity in teaching and learning that values the contributions of each individual. Inviting each student to draw on the entirety of his or her lived experience improves critical thinking and problem solving while simultaneously taking full advantage of the classroom’s collective diversity of skills, thought, lived experiences, race, ethnicity, and gender.

Try these exercises (or others11) with your group to spark meaningful conversations!

Improving Research through Diversity

The benefits of a diverse workforce are well established. Because diversity improves productivity, creativity, problem solving ability, and economics, mindfulness about bias, and the promotion of diversity, emerge as essential elements of future scientific vigor.

Although we have studied the role of race and ethnicity in disease for nearly 100 years, we need fresh approaches to this important topic, which can be brought by a more diverse workforce. A lack of diversity in the workforce helps explain why, even now, the Cancer Genome Atlas contains over 10,000 sequences of 34 different cancers but only ~5% of sequences derive from minority patient samples. Similarly, cell lines derived from women and minority patients are underrepresented. Such cell lines have relevance for diseases such as Parkinson’s and cancer, which vary by race and ethnicity. In the era of personalized medicine, such issues are of prime importance and illustrate the need to develop a diverse scientific workforce.

—Angela Wandinger-Ness, University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center;
Paula Bubulya, Wright State University; Latanya Hammonds-Odie,Georgia Gwinnett College; Veronica Segarra, High Point University; and MariaElena Zavala, California State University, Northridge


Heartfelt thanks to the colleagues who volunteered their time and shared their experiences and perspectives at the 2015 Mentoring Theater entitled Who Me? I’m Not Biased. Embracing Diversity to Improve Creativity. Three scripts (available upon request) were developed by a team of writers that included WICB members Paula Bubulya and Angela Wandinger-Ness, MAC liaison to WICB MariaElena Zavala, and MAC members Latanya Hammonds-Odie and Veronica Segarra. The Mentoring Theater cast featured Elaine Fuchs (Rockefeller University), Joann Trejo (University of California, San Diego), David Burgess (Boston College), Renato Aguilera (University of Texas at El Paso), Chelsea Saito-Reis (University of New Mexico), and Kathy Schmeidler (Education Committee member; Irvine Valley College). A.W.-N. would also like to extend thanks to Brian Gibbs, Vice President for Diversity, Oregon Health and Science University, and Maggie Werner Washburne, University of New Mexico, for their insights related to reducing bias in research.

Footnotes and References

1Contreras JM, Banaji MR, Mitchel JP (2013) .Multivoxel patterns in fusiform face area differentiate faces by sex and race. PLOS ONE 8, e69684.
2Amodio DM (2014). The neuroscience of prejudice and stereotyping. Nature Reviews in Neuroscience 15, 670–682. doi:10.1038/nrn3800.
3Visdontas I, Mooney C (May 9, 2014). The science of your racist brain. Neuroscientist David Amodio on subconscious racial prejudice and why we’re still responsible for our actions. Mother Jones: http://bit.ly/1jUMckS.
4Siegel D, Bryson TP (2011). Upstairs and Downstairs Brain in The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Delacorte Press.
5Google Analytics YouTube video on Implicit Bias: http://bit.ly/1qjkePT.
6Harvard Project Implicit: http://bit.ly/1T8Bxl4.
7MTV’s L oo k Dif fer ent: http://bit.ly/1V5lo1x.
8Sue DW (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life. American Psychologist 62, 271–286. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.4.271.
9The Marshmallow Challenge: How to run a challenge, http://bit.ly/1HMOyQf; Skillman P. The Marshmallow Challenge as a Design Challenge, http://bit.ly/20RsuJP and http://bit.ly/1StJjbE; Wujec T (2010). Build a Tower, Build a Team (TED Talk on engaging diverse thinking and skills to create a shared experience and a common language through the Marshmallow Challenge), http://bit.ly/1PWH144.
10Flyswithhawks BC (1996). The process of knowing and learning. An academic and cultural awakening. Holistic Education Review 9, 35–39.
11Handelsman J, Miller S, Pfund C (2007). Workshop IV: Diversity, pp 153–163 in Scientific Teaching. New York: WH Freeman and Company.

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