Neuroscientist Dr. Steve L. Robbins believes that our responses to encounters with difference can best be explained by the way our brains are wired.
Our ancient ancestors survived by quickly recognizing patterns (such as “this fruit is tasty” or “that animal can kill me”), both preserving health and life and conserving energy to process new information.
These patterns were useful to the ancient brain. But today, when this recognition causes us to create “people patterns” – in other words, stereotypes – it can be harmful to us, to others, and to our organizations.
At the Greenville Chamber of Commerce’s Diversity and Inclusion Summit on October 17, 2018, Dr. Robbins discussed these ideas in his keynote address, “Your Brain is Good at Inclusion, Except When It’s Not.”
Dr. Robbins said that the brain uses a lot of energy when processing new information, so we are hardwired to surround ourselves with familiarity because it takes less of our energy.
The ancient brain is also hardwired for belonging, because being part of a tribe increased one’s likelihood of survival. In today’s world, we are still benefited by a sense of belonging, which works out well for those of us who fit the predominant “people pattern.” But for those who are overtly or inadvertently excluded – from responsibility, from decision-making authority, from social settings – the neurochemical response is the same as the experience of physical pain, just like in days of prehistory.
In our modern world, though, we have a more evolved brain that can practice meta-cognition and be free from ancient survival practices that may no longer be useful.
I see many ways this applies in the practice of philanthropy. We have patterns of traditional organizations we’re comfortable funding. Or grant types that we typically make. Or the “usual suspects” we invite to serve on boards or committees who determine which patterns we break and which we keep (often based on their own predominant patterns).
From a “survival” standpoint, it’s understandable. It takes less time and energy to do what’s comfortable, and if it’s worked in the past, why break the pattern?
Dr. Robbins has dedicated his career to helping people break people patterns because of his own life story. He ended his keynote describing how he and his family were outsiders when he immigrated to the United States as a child. Their isolation resulted in repeated traumas for him and his family, as they were without a tribe in this country that they had longed to make their own.
This is why we must break our patterns. People in need, organizations with great potential, overlooked and thorny issues – they are worth including in our work.
Bringing a mindset of inclusion doesn’t just take advantage of millennia of evolution; it enriches our practice of philanthropy and makes it more impactful.