A neuroscience guide to assembling inclusivity

According to a January 2015 report from McKinsey & Company, companies with the most racial and ethnic diversity earn 35% greater financial returns than industry averages; organizations with higher gender diversity garner 15% more profit than their competitors.

What we have then, is a finding that suggests a correlational benefit to organizations that have a diverse workforce. What we need is an account for how diversity produces these benefits.


Diversity itself is difficult to define. There are many forms of diversity. It includes the dimensions we typically think of, such as gender, ethnicity and race, but also age, culture, socioeconomic status, and political affiliation. Diversity can be thought of as a way to describe a workplace. The mechanism by which diversity works, however, is through the tool of inclusiveness. Inclusiveness is thought of as the mental and emotional processes by which we focus on common ground with others, build empathy for other perspectives, and have gratitude for the opportunity to learn from people who come from a wide array of backgrounds and personal histories.

As it happens, the processes of inclusiveness are rooted in brain circuitry, and we can draw upon this knowledge as a means to enhance our understanding of inclusiveness and generate tactics for boosting its benefits. The neuroscience evidence for how inclusiveness works can be assembled with three pillars:

  1. Our brains are set up to have bias towards others, but this bias is flexible.
  2. Neuroanatomical studies have shown that we are very similar across groups. The biology of our same-ness allows us to better understand others’ perspectives.
  3. Psychology studies have shown that there are effective ways to build inclusivity.

Pillar 1: The brain is wired for bias—but it is more flexible than we think.  The brain evolved in the wild environment where quickly perceiving and analyzing threat and safety were critical for survival.   Though, thankfully, most of us no longer need to use our threat and fear circuitry for survival, it’s structure remains, and is co-opted by the brain for other tasks. This can manifest in suboptimal ways.  For example:

  • When we read stories about people of high social status, we automatically infer that the person is a male.
  • Brain scans of people viewing images of females and males reveal an absence of activity in perspective taking areas of the brain while viewing females—indicating a predilection toward seeing the male point of view, but not the female.
  • Brain imaging studies reveal that viewing images of black faces, compared to white faces, yields increased activity in the amygdala—a key brain region for fear and salience, indicating that at a very low level of perception, we are inclined to sort people by racial appearance.


Happily, buried amongst these findings are some interesting caveats, which show the fluidity and flexibility of our brain and ways in which we might usefully recruit this flexibility when we build an organizational culture.  For example, individuals in mixed-race relationships do not show the same nervous system characteristics of bias. Equal status interpersonal contact with people from a wide variety of groups can reduce our tendency toward automatic or unconscious stereotyping and bias. Further, brain imaging studies of social group membership have shown that how we place people into groups is malleable. The brain maps these flexible group memberships depending on the immediate context and can adapt at any given time. So while we may be predisposed to bias, we have the available opportunity to reframe how we think of people, placing them in the more inclusive category of our broader humanity.

Pillar 2: It just so happens that we are not that different after all.  Consider the test case of biological sex as a group identifier. Thousands of studies have found interesting ways in which the sexes differ in terms of brain structure and function.  This leads us to believe that if we were to take a sample of all human brains, it would be easy to separate the female brains from the male brains.  It turns out, however, that this is not the case when we look at a large enough sample of people. While there are differences in male and female brains, there is no such thing as a male-brain or a female-brain.  Sex differences in the brain are not nearly as significant as we may be apt to believe.  Relatedly, social psychology studies of sex difference have found a similar theme: that men and women are more alike than they are different.  There is as much diversity within the sexes as there is between them.

What this means in terms of inclusivity is that the differences between groups are notable and important, but we are all a part of the broader class of human beings.  What a relief it is to hear that instead of filtering out someone’s behavior through preconceived group membership constructs, we can focus on people as being people first, and group members second–if we are motivated to do so.  Such a perspective allows us to recognize common ground, and that, in turn, allows us to benefit from that person’s unique personal experience, and have empathy for their experiences.

Pillar 3: There are formal and tested strategies for boosting inclusiveness.  In the 1970’s, psychologist Eliot Aronson visited a school in Austin, Texas.  Racial infighting, bullying, and a divisive learning environment besieged the school following the school’s desegregation. To address the problem, Dr. Aronson and his team invented an intervention called “The Jigsaw Classroom.”   The Jigsaw method was built around a theory called “The Equal Status Contact Principle.”  This method builds inclusivity by developing interpersonal relationships through shared goals and inspiring people to act as their best possible selves.  In practice, the benefits were huge: students who were previously flunking exams and acting out were brought into the fold of the classroom environment, and the benefits of the intervention were long lasting.  The implication here, for organizations, is that by highlighting our shared interests and recognizing the rewards that may come if we help develop other people’s talents, we can experience the best people have to offer—and show the world the best we ourselves have to offer.

Inclusivity inspires a virtuous cycle. We find our common ground as people, share empathy for their experiences, and feel gratitude for the opportunity to learn from their unique perspectives. The machinery of inclusiveness thus grows stronger by itself, leading to an enthusiastic, collaborative and creative work environment.

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