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Assistant Professor Robert Livingston

Kellogg professor reveals roots of bias — and the lessons for business

Prejudice seen as pervasive, wired into brain, says Robert Livingston, but his focus explores tapping benefits from those few who don’t succumb to stereotypical thinking

By Aubrey Henretty

9/27/2007 - Social psychologists Robert Livingston and Brian Drwecki recently found that four out of five people harbor unconscious negative biases toward members of other racial groups.

Faced with this depressing statistic, the incredulous observer might wonder: Eighty percent? In modern America? Why?

Livingston, who recently joined the Kellogg School’s faculty as an assistant professor of management and organizations, says that question misses the point. A better question is: “Why are some people not showing this bias, and what can we learn from them?” Livingston explores this point in depth through research published in the September issue of Psychological Science.

In the paper, “Why Are Some Individuals Not Racially Biased? Susceptibility to Affective Conditioning Predicts Nonprejudice Toward Blacks,” Livingston and co-author Drwecki (University of Wisconsin-Madison) argue that racial prejudice is just one symptom of the brain’s natural tendency to categorize and form emotional associations with objects — especially negative ones.

To test their theory, Livingston and Drwecki designed an experiment in which subjects completed a task that repeatedly paired unfamiliar Chinese characters with pictures that evoked positive or negative emotions (e.g. puppies or snakes). The psychologists found that the non-prejudiced subjects were less likely than the others to develop negative feelings toward the characters paired with negative images. “This implies that people who display less racial bias may be more resistant to the kinds of real-world conditioning that leads to racial bias in our society,” says Livingston.

Because evolution predisposed people to distrust the “other,” Livingston says, most of us internalize negative feelings toward our “different” neighbors whether we want to or not, and ridding ourselves of them is a complicated task: “You can’t by sheer force of will change your affective or visceral response to something.” He argues that although reason alone is powerless to change that response, positive interpersonal experiences or continued exposure to positive images of the outgroup can help.

To illustrate the point, Livingston considers the case of the lima bean.

One can educate those averse to the humble legume by touting its health benefits, he says, but taste buds are tough customers. “The individual can certainly control whether she will eat lima beans, but has almost no control over whether she will like the taste of lima beans.” Yet Livingston points out that even lima-bean haters can acquire a taste for the beans under the right circumstances — “repetitive exposure and reconditioning.”

Formerly a member of the psychology faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Livingston also studies manifestations of prejudice across different cultures and the effects of prejudice on its victims.

In addition to providing a new model by which to explore the root causes of prejudice, Livingston’s continuing research may produce practical suggestions for business leaders. In particular, Livingston plans to find whether the 20 percent of people who did not form negative associations (and thus demonstrated no racial bias) are less likely to internalize criticism. If they are, Livingston suspects that they may perform unusually well under pressure and bounce back quickly following failure.

“Some people have a negative experience and it crushes them,” he says, while others slip through sticky situations as though coated with “Pollyanna Teflon.” They dust themselves off and move on to the next challenge without looking back. If the most trusting among us are also the most resilient, the implications are clear: 80 percent of us have much to learn, and 100 percent have much to gain.