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The Brain Alchemist

Your brain on stereotypes and brand identities

by Anastasia on August 27, 2010

Stereotypes“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked. “Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” “How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice. “You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
– Alice and the Cheshire Cat in “Alice In Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll

What comes to mind when you read the following list: “Emigrant Savings Bank, Dakota Roadhouse, St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Starbucks, Equinox, Club Remix, Bank of New York, Shinjuku Sushi, New York City Law Department, Amish Market”?

How about this one:  “Ground Zero Mosque”?

All the structures on the list above are within the one-block radius of the proposed construction of the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan, but the choice of words transformed a non-existent building into a symbol.  In the words of NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving, “the phrase sums up a controversy in terms so vivid and concise that neither journalists nor water cooler pundits can resist using the term.”  He continues, “Of course, the phrase is also inaccurate and misleading. But how much does that constrain us when a phrase is so catchy and touches such a resonant emotional cord?”  A recent memo to AP press discouraged the use of the phrase “Ground Zero Mosque”:

We should continue to avoid the phrase “ground zero mosque” or “mosque at ground zero” on all platforms. (We’ve very rarely used this wording, except in slugs, though we sometimes see other news sources using the term.) The site of the proposed Islamic center and mosque is not at ground zero, but two blocks away in a busy commercial area. We should continue to say it’s “near” ground zero, or two blocks away.

We can refer to the project as a mosque, or as a proposed Islamic center that includes a mosque.

Words shape our discourse, thinking and understanding in powerful ways. Labels captivate the brain, which is always busy searching for patterns and making predictions to make us comfortable in the world. The brain has developed organizational mechanisms that group data into categories based on similarities.  Once information is stored in categories, the brain can use it to make predictions and inferences about new category members.  Stereotyping is a by-product of how we process information.  Stereotypes and labels are shortcuts for the brain used to conserve energy and resources.  The problem with stereotypes is that they are like a crude chisel, shaping our perceptions while disregarding inaccuracies and illusory correlations.

While stereotypes can be triggered automatically, attention and reflection can inhibit and suppress stereotyping.  For example, words can automatically activate stereotypes: people may spontaneously infer traits when they read a description of behavior.  However, when people have an opportunity to evaluate stereotypes, automatic inferences are less likely to occur.

Interestingly, our brains recognize when we are biased although we may still behave against our better judgment.  Psychologist Wim De Neys of Leuven University, Belgium came to this conclusion when he researched if stereotypical thinking happened because people failed to detect a conflict between a stereotypical response and a more reasoned response or because people failed to inhibit the tempting stereotypical response [PDF]. The participants in the study were solving a classic decision-making problem that was likely to trigger a stereotype while the experimenters watched their brain activation.  Prior research established that the brain’s alarm center responsible for the detection of conflicts was the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) while the right lateral prefrontal cortex (RLPFC) played a key role in response inhibition.  The study showed that the brain’s stereotype detection area became active regardless of whether the participant gave the stereotypical or rational answer.  That means that our brains are good at recognizing stereotypes and set off signals that we need to proceed with caution.  Inhibiting the stereotypical response is a different matter.  The inhibition area became active only when the participant overrode the stereotype.

Is it easier to rely on stereotypes and jump to conclusions in online communication, which is often brief and devoid of the richness of information we can gain in face-to-face interactions? After all, we all have short attention spans and may not have time to stop and reflect.  With anonymity, superfluous connections and minimal accountability, social networks aren’t the best examples of restraint and self-control either.

In the business realm, companies have long relied on the stereotyping and categorizing powers of the brain to create brand identities.  After all, as a business, you want people to perceive and remember you in a certain way and believe that the next encounter with your products and services will be consistent with their expectations.  Social media pose unique challenges and opportunities for brand identities.  New brands are more likely to develop out of conversations with customers, fans, evangelists, rather than from one-way messaging and advertising.  How can companies shape perceptions in the fluid online environment where they have less control over what’s being said about their brands?

It’s possible that social networks will cause brand identities to become more customer-centric and less static.  Perhaps, it’s time to challenge stereotypes and strive daily to live up to our proclaimed values and uniqueness.  Research supports the notion that consumers distance themselves from the marketplace labels and identity categories that turn into a cultural cliché, such as “yuppies,” “metrosexuals,” “hipsters,” while remaining loyal to their favorite products. Customers continuously recreate the meaning of the brands through various channels of interaction.  To adjust to this new environment, we may need to replace automation with awareness and control with curiosity.

Awareness focuses our attention on our own thinking and behavior.  It allows us to stop running the same train of thought and pretending that we know it all.  It brings automated processes into our consciousness to notice and examine. It gifts us with the beginner’s mind.

Curiosity is a big motivator for the brain, which is wired to search for resources and information.  Curiosity allows us to question assumptions and labels and open up to new perspectives. Curiosity encourages us to connect, engage and build relationships.

Where do you see challenges and opportunities for communicating your brand online?

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