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Unlock your creativity by battling your brain’s laziest shortcut

Professor Christian Agunwamba writes on the board while teaching his "Fundamentals of Algebra" class, at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston
Reuters/Brian Snyder
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The advertising industry is obsessed with creativity. Each year, it convenes in Cannes on the French Riviera for a massive Festival of Creativity, which recognizes the work of agencies and their clients. Festival days are thick with panels on unlocking, sparking, and “unleashing” more creative thinking.

But the industry has also been guilty of perpetuating stereotypes, which, as shortcuts around individualism and specific thought, are the antithesis of creativity. Ads frequently feature attractive, slim, white, heteronormative people living “aspirational,” traditional lives (seeking heterosexual love, marrying, having a nuclear family, celebrating Christmas, etc.) Recognizing this, Cannes has recently sought to emphasize diversity: exploring the issue in talks and showcasing ads which reflect diverse societies.

Many will welcome that change for finally addressing basic fairness and social justice. But one academic is making a compelling argument that tackling stereotypes isn’t just morally correct; it also makes creative sense. Dr Lasana Harris, a professor of experimental psychology at University College London, says that the brain processes that are necessary to unravelling stereotypes are similar to those we need to employ when making creative work. Smashing stereotypes isn’t just right, Harris argues. It can also help us access a kind of creativity that we’d otherwise never be able to find.

Harris and fellow UCL academic Gorkan Ahmetoglu, a business psychologist, recently completed a study for consumer goods company Unilever designed to test ways to make people less likely to invoke stereotypes. A group of 60 advertising and marketing professionals were surveyed to determine the extent to which they held stereotypical beliefs. The group also provided DNA samples. In a subsequent day-long workshop, the creatives were educated about what DNA is, and what it can tell us about the origins of a human living today. They also learnt the results of their own DNA tests, discovering more about their own ancestry in the process.

The tests weren’t telling participants “who your great, great, great-grandfather was,” Harris explains. But they were saying: “In your basic biological building blocks, there have been people who roamed the Sahara. There have been people who walked among the great Caucasus Mountains.” That’s powerful because it can moderate the image we have of ourselves, which is built up through the more immediate experiences of our upbringing and family circumstances, Harris says.

At the end of the training, the subjects were tested again to determine their tendency to stereotype. Researchers found a 35% reduction in “unconscious stereotyping”—specifically, attributing particular traits to a number of customer profiles—when compared to a control group. Whether or not this is a longterm change won’t be evident until the next research stage is conducted in a year’s time, Harris says. But he’s hopeful that this kind of workshopping could succeed where more traditional bias training has struggled. As Mastercard’s chief inclusion officer recently argued, standard unconscious bias training risks making participants feel they are in the wrong, putting them on the defensive from the outset.

The stereotyping brain

Harris is fascinated by how stereotypes function and why we develop them. The fact is, stereotypes are useful to us, he says—especially in an increasingly complex world where we might come across hundreds of other humans in a single day.

When we see a new face, our brains process a huge amount of information very quickly. We take in a person’s gender, their similarity to us or to people we know, their apparent mental state, and their level of prosperity. We use context to inform our judgements: Seeing someone crying at an airport departures lounge, for example, might lead us to conclude that they are sad; but we might judge the same person crying at the arrivals hall to be happy or excited. All this goes into an overall picture that indicates whether the person we are looking at might be aggressive, or friendly, and how we might interact with them. And it’s hard. The brain has to work, use up energy, divert attention from other topics. Stereotypes are a shortcut around that complicated mental workout, and save us cognitive resources.

“Every time I think about a person, it takes up a lot of space in my brain,” Harris explains. “If I have a stereotype about you, I get the same processing much easier. I don’t have to grind the statistics in the same way.” 

The problem is, these shortcuts often lead us to the wrong place. “The stereotype that I’m assuming applies to you because you’re female might be completely inaccurate for who you are as a human being,” Harris says. “To now consider you as a full human being, I need to now get all that processing going again.” This action is similar, in brain-functioning terms, to what we go through when we create something from scratch.

“What we’ve been arguing is that [this is] the same kind of processing you need to be more creative, to start thinking ‘outside the box,’ if you will,” Harris explains. “Because that’s the definition of thinking outside the box: It’s considering possibilities that aren’t apparent. And the stereotype [appears to make] certain things about you apparent.”

For many, not assuming that a man we’ve just met should display “traditional” male characteristics takes mental resetting and mental work, because instead of asking ourselves, “What is this person like?” we use the shortcut of “what men are like.” If we were creating an ad—say, for shampoo—the shortcut might suggest it had to show hair, and lead us down a shortcut in which that hair was of necessity shiny, and that the shiny hair must be flowing from the head of a young, white model.

The idea is powerful because it suggests a motivation other than “doing what’s right” for people to change their behavior. In any creative industry, it could possibly serve as a business case for tackling racism, or sexism, or any other type of discrimination. It could also be extrapolated to industries that don’t rely on creative products, but value creative thinking, from medicine to management.

Motivation is important because research shows that for change to stick, the people undergoing that change need one or more of three things, Harris explains: They need to be motivated to change, they need information, and they need cognitive capacity (mental space, in other words.) Wanting to be more creative is a big motivator for a lot of people at work.

Of course, when it comes to selling things, there are other arguments that support battling stereotypes. The ad industry is waking up to the fact that women are involved in the vast majority of purchasing decisions, meaning that ads should seek to interest and entertain them specifically. Minority groups, meanwhile, form huge swathes of the buying population. And, increasingly, conscious consumers are pushing companies to display better practice and policies both towards their customers, and towards their own staff.

But change is still slow. Harris’s argument adds a weapon to the arsenal: Making societies fairer isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s a way to spark the kind of thinking most of us want to be doing at work: Creative, unburdened by assumption, and as free as possible.

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