Negative initial reaction to a person from another culture or race is apparently natural; indeed, it’s built into our brains. Rick Adams explores the challenge of overcoming differences in culture to work across global divides.

“Our brains were built to dislike things that are different. For the vast majority of human existence, different meant dangerous.” Indeed, Dr. Richard Griffith says, “When we encounter someone who is different than us, we actually process that information in a different part of the brain and we process it in a more shallow fashion.”

Dr. Griffith is a Professor of Industrial Organizational Psychology at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) and the Executive Director of The Institute for Cross Cultural Management. Among numerous other roles, he is co-editor of "Internationalizing the Organizational Psychology Curriculum” and has conducted research for the US Department of Defense examining the assessment and development of cross-cultural competence.

“We have a lot of evolution behind the way that we process information,” Dr. Griffith explains. “When someone is different from us, we’re processing that information almost as if they are an object, not a person. It’s even more pronounced when people are under stress, and when you have negative emotions you have a difficult time seeing the forest for the trees.”

This helps explain the instinctive confrontational reactions not only of Western soldiers dropped into ostensible “nation-building” situations in Middle Eastern cultures as well as the sometime rapid escalation of tensions during civil disorder operations between ‘protesters’ and police forces.

Dr. Griffith and his FIT colleagues hosted the first Cross-Cultural Management Summit in Melbourne, Florida earlier this year, bringing together thought leaders from academia, government, and industry to interactively discuss real-world management problems and scientific solutions to real-world management problems.

The summit focused on developing a cross-culturally competent workforce for globally expanding organizations. Speakers varied from Dr. Borislava Manojlovic, who has worked with the United Nations on genocide research in Croatia and Kosovo; to Dr. Zachary Horn, who designs virtual worlds and 3D simulations for 2014 James S. Cogswell Outstanding Industrial Security Achievement Award winner Aptima Inc.; to Major Jonathan Brown of the US Marine Corps Security Cooperation Group.

The “different is dangerous” mindset, according to Dr. Griffith, is “left over from an era when different was a real problem. “It’s nothing we should feel guilty about; that’s the way our brain was built. The problem is that’s dysfunctional now.”

“Now, different means opportunity – if we can work with different people, we can have better ideas.” He said it is necessary to “retrain the brain” and establish new routines that will then influence our subconscious behavior.

This is Your Brain on Prejudice

Researchers studying prejudice have learned some things about the way the brain processes information about other people. First, the brain distinguishes faces from non-face stimuli. This takes up to 170 milliseconds, or 1.7 tenths of a second.

Once faces are recognized, it takes a mere additional 80 milliseconds to differentiate whether the other face is part of our “in-group” or not (i.e. “out-group”). The brain then spends the next 270 or so milliseconds evaluating the differences between in-group and out-group members.

In other words, in roughly half a second your brain has decided your fundamental, visceral reaction to a person you are meeting for the first time.

In a paper, “Tracking the Timecourse of Social Perception,” John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, together with Tiffany Ito and Erin Thompson of the University of Colorado, found, not surprisingly, that “greater in-group bias” is “displayed by those with higher levels of prejudice.”

The researchers stated: “Social cognition is based on a distributed set of neural mechanisms for perceiving, recognizing, and evaluating stimuli,” which are then used to mentally construct the perceived cultural environment.

“It is clear that the perception of people from different racial groups can activate different types of evaluations and cognitions,” even when test subjects are shown photos of people of different races all with smiling faces.

To measure the electrical activity of the brain’s responses (event-related brain potentials, or ERPs), the researchers fitted subjects with electrodes sewn into an elastic cap. They then showed the subjects random sequences of photos, into which were embedded multiple “target” photos to which the researchers were seeking “first impression” reactions.

One finding was that “stereotypes and prejudice may be more freely expressed … about an entire group because they can be justified as being true for at least some members. The group-level response also makes the expression of any bias less personally directed toward an individual.” In other words, the less you know about an individual, the easier it is to ascribe negative attributes to that person based on historic actions by less-then-exemplary members of the group they belong to.

Moreover, “category” information about the target race appears to “feed forward” into subsequent evaluative judgments. Your brain’s inherent bias against another race group then flavors your opinion of an individual from that race, even as you learn more about them as a person.

The researchers also noted, particularly in Western cultures, the greater representation of whites in media exposure further fosters “in-group” familiarity.

The Biases That Bind Us

“Our attitudes often feel like they emerge from within ourselves, but they are influenced by our mental hardware and the context of our environment,” Maj. Brown told the summit at FIT. “Scientific developments in psychology indicate people are extraordinarily sensitive and plugged into cultural signals that suggest how we should make sense of the world around us. Much of this sensitivity happens below our radar.”

“Our brain incorporates hidden obstacles that modern psychology is only beginning to understand and articulate.”

Brown described four “common biases” which “prevent us from reading cultural road signs well.” In his parlance, bias refers to information processing shortcuts (heuristics) and judgment errors, rather than prejudice or preference. The four bias shortcomings are hindsight bias, confirmation bias, framing effects, and loss aversion.

Hindsight bias can lead to judgment errors in future decision-making because it tends to revise the history of one’s beliefs in light of what actually happened. With a successful outcome of a battle, a campaign, a longstanding track record, we may forget the original risks or even sheer luck that influenced the outcome. “Risk looms large in future plans,” Brown noted, “but disappears in memory.” Conversely, if the outcome is poor, the decision process is assumed to be flawed as well.

Confirmation bias magnifies details that support previously held beliefs while ignoring conflicting observations. When an inexperience soldier or employee is introduced as “someone to keep an eye on, future mistakes will stick out and stack up in our memory more easily than his successes”, i.e. we tend to see what we are looking for. Brown cautioned “Marines patrolling combat zones sometimes see evidence of hostile intent in every foreign face.”

Is China “shifty and menacing” in the South China Sea? Brown said if you think so, your brain may fix on evidence that confirms such a view: “near collisions with USS Cowpens, unilateral establishment of [an] air defense identification zone, cable-cutting … etc.” However, “our brain minimizes examples of restrained or supportive behavior, to the point we feel they don’t exist.”

Is a suspicious nature self-fulfilling? Brown noted that “Marines responsible for threat assessments and force protection are more likely to be affected by hindsight and confirmation bias, using intelligence-based information sources, and season those briefs with hints of suspicion.”

Framing information is a glass half full or half empty question. Same information, different package. Politicians and pundits frame issues in terms of Left or Right, Liberal or Conservative: “These associations make it easier for people to quickly interpret how to feel about the ideas that follow, without needing to understand the details of each issue,” Brown said.

“Outsider bias is the perspective that comes intuitively when people have superficial insights and familiarity with another group.” And if our brain is pre-wired toward a shallower evaluation of “out-groups,” we’re not collecting the type of in-depth information needed to overcome the biases.

Loss aversion can involve fighting against great odds, defending the homeland. Or it may represent fear of change or the unknown. Brown said, “Many Arab leaders fear Western influence will erode the ethical behavior of younger generations, impressed by images of wealth, fame, technology, and replacing community-oriented culture with western individualism.”

“Marines should not be surprised if everyone does not aspire to become an American,” adding, “It is intuitive for Marines to assume” the American dream represents universal values. Some would say arrogant as well.

Another angle on loss aversion is risk/reward: large odds but high payoff – think lottery. Or overly protective, for those who are risk averse. “The American defense budget is more than ten times any other country on earth. We pay huge sums to guarantee the greatest advantage and minimize risk, despite high probability of similar results at much less cost,” Brown opined.

Young Marines commonly associate “cultural proficiency” with etiquette and taboos, Brown lamented: handshakes, kisses, bows, forks, fingers, or chopsticks for eating or taking your shoes off at the door. Instead of concentrating culture training on the physical environment, economics, politics, and social customs, Brown advocates we “become familiar with our own psychology,” adopting a more introspective approach to cross-cultural competency.

Rules and Relationships

Even before a company gets to do business in another country, they have to pass the unwritten tests of acceptance. “There’s a huge difference in how you go to market and how you win internationally because the criteria are not always objective criteria. A lot of times you don’t even know the win criteria; you may notionally know, but the local procurement laws can often reach up and change on in an instant. It changes your whole strategy,” said LeAnn Ridgeway, Vice President and General Manager of Simulation and Training Solutions for Rockwell Collins, who has worked internationally for the better part of the last 25 years.”

Not infrequently, procurement officials will advise, “Here’s what we think now, but when the new government comes in …” Ridgeway said agendas can change drastically.

“There are very few generalizations you can make, at least about any of the places I’ve worked,” said Cameron McKenzie, Vice President and General manager for CAE in the Middle East. Previously McKenzie did stints in Australia, Germany, the UK, Canada, and the US.

“The further east you go,” he noted, “you do need the right product to get a ticket to the game, but there’s a lot more that goes into winning the programs than might meet the eye.”

Ridgeway said one of the key differences of doing business outside North America is an expectation of technology transfer. “If you think you can create everything in the United States and just ship it and sell it, you’re not going to be successful. You’ve got to be willing to enable them with some sort of technology.”

International customers also want a proven low-risk solution, not new development with non-recurring engineering costs. “You have to take it over, show them, let them demo the technology for awhile. The States tend to buy on specifications more than anything.”

CAE’s McKenzie explained, “The challenges are less around the processes of doing the work and more around the cultural differences of the people. Everybody’s got slightly different rules when it comes to how they deal with human capital development, offset programs. There are variations across the board in maturity of government processes.

“It’s a significantly longer process. They definitely do a lot of vetting.

Can they trust you as an individual? Can they trust your organization to deliver what you’ve claimed?

“They have to be able to sit across the table from you as you drink tea and listen to them, interact with them. They need to be comfortable with you doing business with them in their way, as opposed to the American or Canadian way,” McKenzie said.

Rockwell’s Ridgeway affirmed, “Relationships are huge. So the fact that we’ve been there for so many years building those relationships with the specific MoDs, I think, is playing out very well for us as a simulation/training entry into the global space.”