Same House, Different Worlds: How Relationships Influence our Medical Choices

This is a repost of my February 16, 2021 article in Psychology Today.

Two people can share the same home but live in different worlds. Family ties and close, reciprocal friendships influence much of our lives, from fashion to career choice to our emotions. Though we grow from children into adults whose sense of normal tends to resemble other members of our community, evidence suggests we can maintain only a limited number of relationships. So while family members have people in common, they often have distinct networks of friends.

Add people and the effect multiplies. Cliques form. People collect friends who don’t know one another. Someone a person considers a friend might not feel the same way. Groups split, accumulating differences until each inhabits its own reality. Individuals find themselves members of an assortment of groups, navigating through disparate voices on a daily basis. So, when researchers learned that 77.8% of nursing home residents but only 37.5% of nursing home staff have been vaccinated against COVID-19, perhaps they shouldn’t have been surprised.

But they were. Most people outside of nursing homes who learn of this result probably are, likely because we expect a higher uptake from medical professionals than from laypeople. So why this result?

One factor often cited as a possible reason why people refuse vaccines is socioeconomic status. The thinking is that people who are higher on the socioeconomic ladder are more likely to vaccinate and that nursing home residents, paying an average of $100,000 per year (in New York) to live in a nursing home, are economically better off than nursing home staff. This explanation is unlikely.

A meta analysis studying connections between socioeconomic status and flu vaccination rates found that while a relationship exists between socioeconomic status and flu vaccination rates, the relationship isn’t clear because the various studies used different definitions of socioeconomic status. Some used income. Others used income and other factors. Unless researchers choose to study the same factors, it is hard to draw precise conclusions from this body of work.

The analysis also found a positive relationship (in countries without universal healthcare) between private insurance coverage and vaccination, with private insurance serving as a possible proxy for being economically well off. However, private insurance companies and Medicare generally don’t cover long term care, and very few people purchase long-term care policies. As a result, more than 70% of nursing home residents in New York, for example, receive Medicaid, which has low income and asset limits. Therefore, socioeconomic status is unlikely to drive this disparity.

Another factor cited as a possible reason for this result is race. The thinking here is that African-Americans are overrepresented in nursing home staff but underrepresented in nursing home residents, and that documented lower rates of vaccination cause the disparity. However, African-Americans comprise about 14% of the U.S. population, about 12% of nursing home residents, and about 30% of long term care workers. There is evidence African-Americans have received the COVID-19 vaccine at lower rates than white Americans (at the time of publication, the author has received the first dose without side effects), but the study in question doesn’t contain enough data to conclude that race is the primary cause of the disparities in nursing homes. There aren’t enough African-American long term care workers to account for the vaccination rate among nursing home staff.

Dividing people into groups to learn who is and isn’t choosing to get the vaccine is useful. If health departments know that certain groups are choosing not to get vaccinated, then they can devote more resources to efforts for those groups. However, this strategy can also lead researchers and reporters to explain the behavior of people who hesitate or refuse to get vaccinated via the fundamental attribution error, assuming members of specific groups refuse for reasons endemic to that group.article continues after advertisement

For example, articles often paint African-American hesitancy as a response to racism. These articles cite cultural memory of the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male conducted by the United States Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 1932 and 1972 (and other incidents) as the sole reason African-Americans distrust doctors or vaccines.

There are several issues with this reasoning. First, it assumes 44 million people know the same things and think exactly the same way, when African-Americans are as diverse as any group. Second, we humans are notorious for misremembering events soon after they happen. Third, emotional connections help with recall, but research suggests the 600 men in the study had close relationships with 3,000 to 9,000 others. Certainly, people outside this circle learned what happened, had emotional reactions to it, studied it, and use it in their decision making, but the study participants and their families settled with the U.S. government in 1974, nearly two generations ago. (And, anecdotally, the author has never had a conversation about it.) Fear of racism can be a contributing factor, but there is a simpler, more inclusive, and more likely culprit: fear of the vaccine (among other things).

The earliest evidence of vaccination comes from India, China, and Africa. A 10th century Chinese method involved grinding smallpox scabs and blowing them up people’s noses. When knowledge of this common practice first reached the colonies in 1707, in part from an enslaved African man named Onesimus, Bostonian Cotton Mather set out to immunize as many people as possible. In return, someone bombed his houseaccusing him of spreading the disease and defying the will of God.

Today, what’s left out of reports on vaccine hesitancy is what people actually say when they refuse: “I don’t know what’s in that,” or “If I don’t have the disease, why do I need to get the vaccine?” These statements are echoed by people across racial and socioeconomic lines.

However, trust allays fear. Some of us are fortunate; we trade outrageous hot dog references with a friend who researches the virus. Or we watch science videos using mousetraps and ping pong balls to demonstrate how herd immunity works. But, we also trust personal doctors, brands, and close friends. We might balk at first (not everyone is an early adopter), but any of those relationships can help someone to overcome concerns they might get sick by purposely infecting themselves with a weaker form of the virus (in the case of RNA vaccines, not even that). A person’s network also helps. If several members of a network choose to get a vaccine, others will follow.

Where does this leave nursing homes? Other (important) considerations aside, a resident has a doctor-patient relationship with the nursing home. Some portion of the uptake among residents is likely explained by the trust people place in their caregivers. Staff members don’t have the same relationship. The doctors are colleagues or bosses, and despite a close working environment, 68% of employees are either not engaged or actively disengaged from their jobs. Thus, bosses and staff live different worlds, unable to unlock the trust necessary to convince them the vaccine is safe.

A White Man Called Me N******

It’s amazing what you miss when something grabs your attention. Focus, and life fades into the background. Start a conversation in a crowded park and most of what you hear will be your friend’s voice. But listen to a recording of the conversation and you’ll hear 27,000 things in the background that were louder than your friend’s voice.

This phenomenon is called selective attention. We have limited brainpower; selective attention helps us tune in to what’s important while ignoring what’s unimportant. It’s essential for holding conversations in crowded parks or navigating downtown Brooklyn on the way to work, where locals like me run an obstacle course consisting of bikes, buses, and tourists meandering down the sidewalk, savoring the cityscape.

I am carrying a white cup of coffee with green lettering and my name written on it. A block away, I hear reggae playing. I tilt to squeeze between two people. A little girl is dancing with an old lady. They’re in my way. I bear left. A bus passes on my right. My head bobs. I haven’t heard this song in a while. I’m walking on a vent. I feel cold air rush out as I hear, “Stand clear of the closing doors please.” I’m further down the block. The reggae is still loud enough to hear, but fades as I approach the guy selling Christian music. Someone’s cooking cabbage this early in the morning? “I got edibles.” The bus beeps. I am at the corner, preparing to turn. It’s noisy, so I don’t quite hear the word. I hear the man. I hear the scorn in his voice. I hear that scorn directed toward me.

I slow down.

My neck starts to turn.

My eyebrow starts to rise. 

* * * * * * *

I couldn’t tell you when I first learned the word nigger was supposed to upset me when a white person said it. Mom says I never asked. I knew what racist meant by the time I was 11 – I told Mom all about it. But nigger? No idea. People in my neighborhood said it often enough that I certainly learned the word as a child. But I never heard a white person use it during my childhood. Not in person, anyway. And I went to school with white kids from the age of six. 

Maybe I’m too young. After all, during his 1983 stand up routine Delirious, a 22-year old Eddie Murphy observed, “Racism ain’t as bad as it used to be anyway, man. I mean it’s fucked up, but they don’t call niggers niggers no more and shit. White people don’t say it — especially when there’s niggers around, so I guess I wouldn’t know.” But a year before Murphy told this story, further explaining that he went to the deep South “looking for racism” only to be treated well by the white people he met, Chris Rock dropped out of high school after years of being bullied by his white classmates in the working class Brooklyn neighborhood he went to school in. “I was getting called nigger every day, and you get spit on and it’s hard to make friends,” said Rock in a 2005 interview on 60 Minutes. “In elementary school, kids imitated their older brothers and said, ‘My older brother calls black people niggers, so I’ll do it, too.’ But in junior high it starts to get physical — and more physical by high school,” said Rock in a 2005 interview in the New York Post.

I asked a few friends I went to grade school with, just to be sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. Seven said they never heard a white person say it. Four said rarely. Four said sometimes. But while I was growing up, I definitely heard stories. From people 20 years older than Murphy. Though in retrospect, I heard them from a small portion of people I knew, who oft repeated the same one or two incidents many times over several years.

They might also be too young. U.S. newspapers printed the word 115,047 times between 1810 and today. Australian newspapers printed it twice as often. In the U.S., the word barely appears from 1820-1849, appearing four times from 1820 to 1829, 187 times from 1830 to 1839, and 896 times from 1840 to 1849. Then the word went viral. 6,921 appearances from 1850-1859. 20,588 appearances from 1860-1869. And there it stayed, being printed between 10,000 and 20,000 times a decade until 1919. But then, as viral phenomena are wont to do, it faded, never appearing more than 1,200 times in a decade after 1939. 

If I had been born when it was common to see the word in the newspaper, perhaps I’d have also heard a white person say it in public and would have learned I was supposed to be upset from direct experience. Alternatively, if I had been born after the internet became widely available, perhaps I’d have learned its meaning from one of 38.5 million search results. Or, I could’ve opened a book published in 1863, 1938, or 1969, years when the word peaked in that medium. As it stands, I learned from hearsay. Therefore, It’s impossible to pinpoint the moment I learned nigger was a “bad word.” My best guess is that I learned it from a combination of those stories and a “very special episode” of some TV show.

None of this matters in the first moment after the word was spoken. I’m not even aware that I’ve heard anything, or that I’m reacting to it. My reactions in these first milliseconds are automatic. What matters in this moment is that I perceived a threat. Though I’m not conscious of my actions, I’m preparing to face that threat. If he had instead used the Cantonese phrase boon chon doi, I wouldn’t have reacted. His tone might have told me it was an insult, but I don’t speak Cantonese. I wouldn’t have had enough information to know how to react. Likewise, if I were a native English speaker raised outside the United States (except, perhaps, Australia), I probably wouldn’t have the same reaction. I would have just looked at him, confused.

* * * * * * *

Words come into existence to serve a need. They evolve. Acquire and lose meanings. Jump between languages. Become fashionable for a time and fade into obscurity.

Nigger started life as the Latin words nigrum and niger. These meant black, sable, dark, or dusky, and were used to describe a variety of things, including the complexion of dark-skinned Aethiops (Ethiopians) or Afer (Africans). Sometimes, Latin speakers skipped description, opting to use nigrum and niger in place of Aethiops or Afer.

The Roman Republic, via war, brought Latin to much of Europe and Northern Africa starting in the third century BCE. Eventually, civil wars would give birth to the Roman Empire. The empire died in 476 AD, but the language lived on. With time and isolation, Latin evolved from one language into many, today called the Romance Languages. In the branch that became Spanish, niger and nigrum evolved into negro (roughly pronounced “ney-gro”). In the branch that became French, they evolved into nègre. Form and pronunciation had changed, but meaning did not. The words still referred both to the color black and to Africans.

By the 1500s, people speaking Germanic languages were borrowing negro from people speaking Romance languages. But these languages already had words for the color. In German, it’s schwarz. Swedish – svart. Icelandic – svartur. English dictionaries still have an entry for swart, but somewhere between 400 and 1000 AD, Old English speakers started using blæc instead. Blæc evolved into black and blacke. Without a need for an extra word to describe the color, the English word negro (later Negro) came to refer only to Africans and their descendants.

The English negro probably sounded a lot like its Spanish parent. This is because English used to be pronounced differently. The Great Vowel Shift occurred from 1350 to 1700, affecting the pronunciation of most English words. High, for example, used to be pronounced “hee.” Like sounded closer to “lake.” Shakespeare’s works contain rhymes and puns that disappear when spoken with the English accent known as BBC English or Received Pronunciation.

The Shift happened around the same time English spelling was being standardized, and is thus responsible for most of English’s weird spelling issues. For example, Reason uses the newer pronunciation of the ea combination, but bear and swear maintained their original pronunciation. Likewise, the shift likely changed ney-gro to nee-gro. Meanwhile, people who spoke Dutch, Scottish, and Northern English dialects transformed negro and nègre into neger and negar. Neger appears to have been a neutral term until nigger makes its first written appearance in the 1770s or 1780s. Nigger was always used as an insult.

Except when it wasn’t.

* * * * * * *

Nigger is the 20,120th most used word in the English language. If that doesn’t sound impressive, consider this: there are 171,476 English words currently in use. This places nigger in the top 12% of all words used in the English language. The top 20% of all English words make up 80% of all English words used. Nigger is used more often than mussels (20,211th), pea (21,669th), thug (28,787th), lubricate (55,625th), yolks (28,935th), and raindrops (31,923rd). If all the words we used each day were evenly distributed among all English speakers, each of us would hear it a little more than once a day. But the distribution is skewed. Some people never hear it. Some hear it several times a day. When I was fourteen, I probably said it several times an hour, often in front of my mother. When I asked Mom how she felt about my use of the word, she said, “I hated it.” 

Of course, I wasn’t using the racial epithet nigger, I was saying nigga. As in person, friend, companion, or acquaintance. I told Mom it was new. We’re taking the word for ourselves. All the hip-hop artists are saying it. All my friends are saying it.

“If your friends all jumped off a bridge, would you do that, too?”

“Mom, you just don’t understand. It isn’t like when you were a kid. We’re doing something new. Something different.

We weren’t.

Nigga dates back to at least 1925, representing a Southern pronunciation of the word. Self-referential usage can be found even earlier. In the book Remembering Slavery, former slave Rachel Cruze talked about boys trying to get a date with the girls from a neighboring farm:

Gainan he watched his girls closely — used to sit on a chair between his two houses where he could see everything — and if a skinny reedy-sort of nigger made his appearance among the young people Gainan would call him over and say, “Whose nigger are you?” The boy would tell him. Gainan would look him over and say, “Well, that’s all right, but I don’t want you comin’ over to see my gals. You ain’t good stock.” And it would be too bad for that nigger if Gainan caught him there again.

Elsewhere, in The Music of Black Americans: A History, Eileen Southern said, “During a woodcutting song hundreds of slaves, paired off in twos in front of the trees, marked ‘the blows by the song’:”

A cold frosty morning, The niggers feeling good, Take your ax upon your shoulder, Nigger, talk to the wood.

Self-referential usage of this sort is normal. Words coined by one social group often transfer to another. Indeed, no one cared when nigger or its cousins were seen as merely descriptive (though I’m certain some Latin-speaking kids also used it as an insult from the beginning). But when a word is used as an insult, disempowered groups tend to take it for their own use. For these groups, the would-be insult is converted into an expression of affiliation. A term of empowerment. A way of saying, “this is who I am, no matter what kind of box you try to put me in.”

Mom wasn’t impressed with that explanation either.

* * * * * * *

Two-thirds of a heartbeat has passed.

My forward motion has stopped.

My body is starting to turn.

My consciousness is coming into play. My brain is sorting through a lifetime of information. It’s quick. Jumbled. Something isn’t quite right, but I don’t yet know what it is.

* * * * * * *

The only thing remarkable about the appearance of nigger in Australian newspapers is how unremarkable it is. Advertisements offering nigger brown as one of several colors of pantyhose. A play titled The Nigger, where the white Governor of a U.S. State learns he’s part black. Another titled Ten Little Nigger Boys. A report noting that Antonín Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 12, formerly known at the Nigger Quartet, was inspired by Negro folk songs (now called Spirituals). Articles about events in the United States. Racehorses and missing dogs named Nigger. Fish (ludericks) nicknamed nigger. Nigger Boy steel wool pads.

Limiting the search terms to nigger leaves you with only a hint of the relationship between the 400+ distinct peoples now collectively known as Aborigines and the descendants of the British colonists. A 1951 article talks about extending voting rights to the Aborigines. A 1979 report concerning Carnavon, West Australia noted, among other things, that Aboriginal children “were asked scathingly if they ate grubs by white schoolmates.” A 1923 article titled Election Workers Entertained reports that Billy Hughes, the seventh Prime Minister of Australia, hosted his supporters at an event. Mr. Hughes didn’t want to discuss the political matters of the day. But he didn’t want his guests to get the wrong idea, so “Mr. Hughes told a story which he thought was not inappropriate.” In the story, one man unsuccessfully tries to get another to speak, getting angrier with each subsequent attempt. It wasn’t funny. But the audience laughed.   

Britain established its first colony in Australia in 1788 after losing the American Revolutionary War in 1783 to the colonies it ruled for nearly 200 years. A year earlier, the United States were writing compromises to protect slavery into their new Constitution. Five years later, Britain was taking its first steps toward ending slavery. The Aboriginals may not have been slaves, but, as noted by Loretta de Plevitz and Larry Croft, in “the era of colonial and post-colonial government, . . . [if you] had a ‘strain’ of Aboriginal blood you were forced to live on Reserves or Missions, work for rations, given minimal education, and needed governmental approval to marry, visit relatives or use electrical appliances.” These limitations on Aboriginal life help to explain the casual, nonchalant use of nigger in Australian newspapers.

Casual and nonchalant are not words one would use to describe the American use. Nigger was considered an insult in both Australia and the United States, but in the United States and the colonies that preceded them, nigger developed a personality. “Monkies, if da no had a tail, be nigger’s kin-folks” (1835). “The fiendish nigger” (1832). “‘Snowball’ is a curious thing to gather vegetables – but we suppose this is another name for ‘free nigger’” (1835). “There lay his murderer, a soulless nigger, grinning in death, the hideous grin of triumph over his fallen master!” (1835). During the Civil War, numerous editorials were written about the nigger question. In 1868, a few years after the war, there are stories about nigger radicals, nigger rights, nigger outrages, and the Virginia nigger mob convention. By the 1890s, the Southern States invented convict leasing, using spurious criminal charges and harsh sentencing to force ex-slaves to once again work for free. This system was possible thanks to a longstanding rule, incorporated into the Thirteenth Amendment, allowing for slavery as punishment for a crime. By 1900, 30% of the U.S. prison population was black. Nigger became lazy and an assumed criminal.

Again, limiting the search leaves you with only a hint of a complex relationship. In the documentary Slavery by Another Name, historian David Levering Lewis said, “If you were to ask most Southerners, white Southerners what they thought of African-Americans in the 1850s, the 1860s, even into the 1870s, one profile would’ve been of people who are loyal, dutiful, trustworthy.” Newspaper advertisements for runaway slaves tend to agree. A slave named Celeste was described by her master as “very smart & Capable … & was a very competent servant.” Letty Brown was described as “a steady, clever, hard working woman & a good washer & ironer.” Isaac was “very intelligent, can read very well, and I [his owner] believe write.” Sam was “extremely proud, smokes segars, and walks with a considerable air – he is a good cook, an excellent waiter in the house, and carriage driver.” However, Lewis said, “Those same people in the 1880s and by the 1890s have been demonized. They are no longer trustworthy. They no longer have the capacity for citizenship.”

Nigger blossomed in the United States while black people were in a state of perpetual mutiny. They escaped, tried to escape, revolted, engaged in work slowdowns, maintained a sophisticated communication network, stole food and clothes, had parties, held private religious services, and killed others and themselves in their fight for self-determination. Slave owners responded by separating the interests of poor white and black people, ending indentured servitude (which mostly affected Europeans), inventing lifetime and intergenerational slavery (which mostly affected Africans), limiting education and access to weapons, separating families, inflicting physical punishment, and arming themselves. They also spread propaganda, seeding ideas in the general population to further their own agenda. Some of these ideas stuck.  

* * * * * * *

“There’s like a civil war going on with black people, and there’s two sides: black people, and there’s niggas,” said Chris Rock in his 1996 routine Niggas vs. Black People. In the routine, nigga is a person quite similar to the nigger of a hundred years earlier – definitely lazy, possibly criminal, and purposely ignorant. But instead of referring to black people generally, nigga referred to people whose behavior ruined the image and daily life of black people.

Rock’s routine was considered controversial for the same reason Richard Pryor’s use of the word and George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television were considered controversial – because at some point nigger had become taboo and an abusive swear word. According to psychologist Steven Pinker, taboo words activate areas of the brain associated with negative emotion. Our brains process these words involuntarily, and they register automatically, with meaning and negative emotion intact. When one engages in abusive swearing, they are calling on the negative emotion automatically evoked by the word to intimidate or humiliate someone. For those of us who don’t embrace neutral or descriptive definitions of taboo words, just hearing abusive swears can be an unpleasant experience.   

When the New York Times Magazine asked Rock in 1997 why he used such a “heavy-duty” word in his routine, he said, “It’s not that heavy-duty. The thing with ‘nigger’ is just that white people are ticked-off because there’s something they can’t do. That’s all it is.” In 1974, Pryor would have agreed with him. When he was asked about his use of profanity, including nigger, in his shows, he responded, “I think that people should say what they feel…. I like to be accepted, you know, but usually in order to be accepted by white people, you have to compromise so much from your hello…. And when I say white, man, I don’t mean everybody. You know who you are.”

But white people weren’t the only ones complaining. Many black people feel that no one should use it because of its history as a racial slur. But, according to the Washington Post, “As Pryor saw it, ‘nigger’ meant ‘black like me and millions of others, who’ll never get on this stage….’” Rock, Murphy, Carlin, and Pryor would have also argued that this is how people talk in real life. Real life includes a heavy dose of taboo words. (Their observation is correct. English speakers use words like shit and fuck as often as we use words like us and we.)  

Real life is the reason why I eventually stopped using the word. Fourteen year old me wanted to be like his friends. Eighteen year old me wanted to express himself more precisely. Nigger faded as I started to use a larger vocabulary in my everyday speech. It’s nearly vanished now that I spend most of my time around people who never use the word. But it hasn’t disappeared completely – I still listen to hip-hop and only censor myself when certain people are in the room. Mom is grateful.

Elsewhere, Rock eventually retired the routine, saying that racists were beginning to think it was okay to use the word. Pryor stopped using the word after a trip to Africa, saying, “When I was in Africa, this voice came to me and said, ‘Richard, what do you see?’ I said, ‘I see all types of people.’ The voice said, ‘But do you see any niggers?’ I said, ‘No.’ It said, ‘Do you know why? ‘Cause there aren’t any.’” Pryor continued, “I’d been there three weeks and hadn’t said it. And it started making me cry, man. All that crap. All the acts I’ve been doing. As an artist and comedian. Speaking and trying to say something. And I’d been saying that. That’s a devastating word. That had nothing to do with us. We are from a place where they first started people. I left regretting ever having uttered the word on a stage or off it. It was a wretched word. I felt its lameness. It was misunderstood by people. They didn’t get what I was talking about. And so I vowed never to say ‘nigger’ again.”

But nigger isn’t going away any time soon. The more popular a word is, the more likely people are to use it. For example, researchers estimate that it will take 700 years for the past tense of stink (19,191st) to have a 50% chance of transforming from stank (29,866th) to stinked. So, for now, that leaves the question of whether to use nigger a matter of personal preference. The arguments over whether it should be said, and if so who can say it, will continue. In the meantime, the word will continue to evolve.

* * * * * * *

Nigger is supposed to be the ultimate insult. It isn’t. The Serbian phrase yebem ti mrutvo dete u ladno dupe (eбем ти мъртво дете у ладно дупе) is. Nigger’s power comes from the reaction of its intended target, not from an agreed-upon meaning. Its meaning depends on the era, location, and who’s saying it. Ask people to define it. The definition will vary from person to person, if they’re able to define it at all. The best the Merriam-Webster could do was, “Offensive; used as an insulting and contemptuous term for a black person.”

And as I become fully aware of what I just heard, it clicks. The meaninglessness of the word irks me. His tone is wrong; I expected contempt. And who would say that with all these black people around? I get it – this mother fucker is trolling me.

I only have a few milliseconds left to figure out whether I’m going to respond, and if so, how. Except that I’ve completely turned to face him. I could’ve ignored him but I’m already annoyed at this lazy comedy designed for an audience of one. I can do better than that. I’m going to see if he can. I bet he doesn’t have much else in his arsenal.

I look down to see precisely what kind of idiot I’m dealing with.

“What did you say?” I ask.

“Niggard,” he replies. “From Old Norse. It means ‘stingy.’ Goes back to the 1300s.”

My gaze falls on a set of amused eyes. While the tourists were watching the skies and I was watching traffic, he was watching people as they passed him by. He’s a lay anthropologist, with a Ph.D. in observing the world. He saw the little girl when she started bobbing up and down in front of the old lady, and heard the old lady ask her new friend, “Do you want to dance?” He saw the bus driver exit the bus to buy a CD from the guy selling the reggae, who turned to music down to make the sale. He saw the garbage truck as it rumbled past, smelling like old food. And he saw me rushing to work, and predicted my most probable reaction.

He shifts his attention. I follow the direction of his gaze from me, past his dowdy beard, down a ragged sleeve, to the stained, wrinkled, blue paper cup in his hand.

Three heartbeats pass.

The left side of my mouth arches slightly upward as I nod my head and shrug my shoulders. I reach in my pocket. I give him a dollar and continue walking to work.

“What did you think I said?”

Presentation: “Channeling the River: Using Social and Cognitive Science to Steer Inclusion Efforts”

As of April, 900 people have listened to my presentation, Channeling the River: Using Social and Cognitive Science to Steer Inclusion EffortsHere’s a brief description:

In 2012, I was running Brooklyn Law School’s student newspaper when the school’s New York Bar Exam pass rate dropped for the third year in a row. No one knew why. I investigated; the answers led to questions about the success and failure of minority students, a master’s degree, and the realization that scientific research could enhance diversity efforts from the LSAT to the partner’s chair. Channeling the River explores psychology, sociology, and other disciplines to learn how we can best channel the river of untapped potential. Here’s a clip:

Channeling the River is available on demand at the Practising Law Institute for $129 until November. There’s various educational credits available for taking the course, including NYS CLE Diversity/Elimination of Bias credit.

How to Calm Your Fears

Fear has a bad reputation. It’s a negative emotion. It’s a weakness. It’s a path to the dark side of the Force. It’s a character flaw. Our fictional heroes rarely show fear, and when they do, it’s for five minutes in the second act of the second movie in the trilogy.

Continue reading

When Purpose Fades

My 92-year old cousin is dying. She’s had cancer for 15 years. No one knew; she never complained. The doctors just found out a few weeks ago when she went to the hospital for something else.

Her death isn’t a complete surprise. Not because of her age, and not because of the cancer. You see, a few months ago, she called my mom, concerned that she hadn’t heard from one of our other cousins in a while. They talked on a regular basis, and it wasn’t like him not to call. He wasn’t close to the rest of the family, so no one knew where he lived, and only one or two people had his phone number, and she wasn’t that good with her phone, so she couldn’t just give mom his number. It took a week or two and the help of a few more cousins, but we got his phone number and a rough idea of where he lived in Manhattan. I called the police. He died back in February.

People who lose purpose – a clear reason to get up in the morning – in their life tend to decline rapidly. Many teachers and police officers, for example, die soon after they stop working. My aunt died a year after my uncle – her husband of 50+ years – passed away. To the contrary, many people who live past 100 point to purpose as a reason to keep going. Centenarians interviewed in Okinawa, for example, noted regular meetings with friends to gossip and share useful community information being important to them and something they looked forward to each day. I understand that my older cousin was one of the few people my male cousin trusted. Considering how upset she was when she first called my mom, searching for him, it stands to reason she felt a strong sense of purpose in being there when he needed her.

Mom showed me a picture of her. She’s a bit smaller and grayer than the last time she visited from South Carolina. But she’s in good spirits. When mom called, she asked, “Did Dwayne bake you a cake?” Mom said no. I used to bake a lot, but it’s been a few pounds since I’ve done that on a regular basis. So I made mom a cake for my cousin.

It wasn’t my best cake. I forgot to flour the middle of the pan. Some of it got stuck. I still ate it, but the finished product wasn’t as pretty as it could’ve been. That’s okay. When Mom told her I made it, she said “Oh, good!” even though it wasn’t for her, and even though she was too far away to taste it herself.

This kind of thinking is something that everyone I’ve known who was about to pass away had in common. They all talked about relationships. When careers came up, the prestigious title or awards many strive for were always secondary to stories about what happened while they were on the job. It’s as though we live our life striving for one definition of “success” only to find another along the way.

Baking a cake your cousin won’t get to taste isn’t the kind of situation we tend to think of when we use the word “success.” We usually think of good grades, graduations, weddings, first homes, and dream jobs. But maybe we should. There’s a lot of life to live between events. We have a lot of practice dreaming big. We can also practice dreaming small.

It took me an hour to make the cake. I made two people happy. I call that success.

Works Referenced

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Starbucks, Us, and Them

I didn’t know you could trespass in Starbucks. People bring their laptops there. People hold meetings there. One of my friends spent two months studying for the bar exam there. “Sit and stay awhile” embodies Starbucks’ business model. Even those of us who don’t drink tall half-caff soy lattes at 120 degrees know that Starbucks is a place where people come and stay. The idea of overstaying your welcome at Starbucks is absurd. At least McDonald’s warns you that you have 20 minutes to eat.

But then two Black men walked into a Starbucks. The manager said they needed to be paying customers to use the bathroom (a problem I’ve never encountered). They thought nothing of it and sat down to wait for the third member of their party. As they waited, the manager called police to complain that they were trespassing. Someone recorded the incident. Members of the public threatened to protest. In response to the bad press, Starbucks closed 8,000 stores for one day to train its employees about unconscious biases, losing about $12 million in the process. That was a brilliant public relations move.

But a one-day training will lose to millions of years of evolution.

Blink your eyes. That’s about how long it takes for your brain to categorize someone by social status, gender, or race. Even with few clues, we easily group people into “Us” and “Them.” This process starts early – infants learn to recognize faces that are the same race as their guardians (including different-race adoptive parents) easier than faces of other races. By age four, kids group people by race and gender. As long as the categories seem important, our brains can group people according to the weakest of connections, turning meaningless attributes into meaningful differences.

Dividing people into Us and Them is not a conscious process. It is emotional and automatic. When we meet a new person for the first time, we experience intuition and emotions. Then, we devise justifications for our feelings, convincing ourselves that we rationally thought out why we feel the way we do toward an individual or group. In the meantime, whether we classify someone as “Us” or “Them” influences how we act toward that person.

How do you know when someone is one of “Us?” Is the chicken and rice dish common to your group tastier than other kinds of chicken and rice dishes? Would you and others you know acoustic guitar, piano, horns, or a’cappella vocals to lead your favorite version of Yesterday? Do the pundits you watch on television have the best solutions for social problems? If you answer yes to any of these, then you’ll likely consider others who agree with you an “Us.” If you answer no, then you’ve probably grouped others who disagree with you as “Them.” Of course, there are multiple groups we can pull “Uses” from – home, school, work, religious group, Yankee fans, soccer moms – and while some overlap, others have nothing to do with each other.

Simply put, we think better of “Uses” than we do of “Thems.” We treat “Uses” better, too. Members of our group are honest and trustworthy. Members of their group are threatening and angry. We are loyal to members of our group, playing favorites with them and expecting the same in return. We empathize with our group members, treating members of our group as individuals rather than as part of a simple, homogenous mass of people. Indeed, elites in Ancient Rome, Imperial China, Medieval England, and the antebellum South all viewed slaves as “simple, childlike, and incapable of independence.”

It is worth noting again that our brains divide people into “Us” and “Them” automatically, before we are aware that it’s happening, and in absence of bad intent. A one-day training isn’t going to stop this process. But perhaps it doesn’t have to.

Starbucks undertook the training on the idea that our unconscious preferences dictate our conscious actions. Scientists aren’t quite sure this is the case. Our brains take action not only in the short time it takes to register a preference, but after a few hundred more milliseconds (note – we still haven’t reached one second yet) other parts of the brain that dampen our threat response start to activate. This continuing development is part of the reason six-year olds will openly state their preferences about who they like to spend time with, but ten-year olds are more careful about what feelings they share. People are more likely express unconscious racial prejudices if they have poor frontal executive control (executive functions are processes that help us control behavior) or if they have just spent their executive resources.

Indeed, the question of whether one can predict behavior based on unconscious racial preferences has been the subject of a 12-year debate between scientists. At issue is Harvard’s Implicit Association Test. This tool tests one’s reaction times between pairs of words. People generally have shorter reaction times between words they associate with one another (like ice cream and yummy) and longer reaction times between words they don’t associate with one another (like tires and yummy). Over many iterations, the test is said to show one’s unconscious preferences. For many people, the test has become an easy way to determine how racist they are on the inside, and by extension how racist our society is. Applied to Starbucks, this means that the manager was implicitly biased against the two gentlemen, and acting on that bias, proceeded to call the police. Since the problem is simple and straightforward, so is the solution – just train people out of it and there will be fewer incidents.

But science is hard. Scientists (except those implicitly biased in favor of their own research) consider ideas to be true only if different people can repeat the same test under similar conditions and get the same results. In the case of the IAT, much of this work does not live up to scientific standards that would allow most scientists to say that this tool accurately predicts human behavior. As a result, we know that people treat others they consider part of an out-group worse than members of an in-group, but we don’t have a way to measure it. Additionally, as far as I can tell, there’s no evidence that we know how to do what’s being proposed in the media and by Starbucks – determine whether someone held an unconscious preference because of their actions.

Besides, simply telling people that they have unconscious biases against people of other races and that they are likely to act in a racist manner because of it robs a person of agency. After all, if this is something I can’t change, why would I try? Perhaps Starbucks could create a more robust training, in coordination with police and psychologists, to help its employees determine which customers are potential threats. This way, a future manager might not consider that two people sitting at a table are trespassing. Or, Starbucks could stop letting people hang out in its shops…

Works Referenced

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The Bottom Line

I was in my suit, sitting in a chair that looked more comfortable than it was, waiting for my would-be employer to break the silence. The interview was going well, if you call correctly answering a set of standard questions “going well.” I passed the time by looking for useful information on the office walls – she might shift the conversation and one of the hanging mementos might be important.

I hadn’t found anything interesting yet when she turned back to me and said, “I’m looking for loyalty.”

“Loyalty” was the wrong word. She meant “an unpaid after-hours administrative assistant.” I know because I sometimes ran into the person who abandoned the position I was interviewing for on the way home, hours after the workday ended. She was coming from work; I was coming from hanging out. I never met her replacement, who lasted nine months – just long enough for me to forget why my acquaintance quit. Without access to that memory, I was stuck contemplating something she said about not giving me too much extra work, wondering whether I could trust her.

True loyalty is most often earned over time, through multiple interactions with another person. Through these interactions, followers infer what kind of people their leaders are. When followers conclude that leaders are stable, trustworthy, and care about them as a person, they are more likely to work hard to help leaders achieve their goals. However, leaders can also fabricate loyalty through fear:

A district Party conference was under way in Moscow Province. It was presided over by a new secretary of the District Party Committee, replacing one recently arrested. At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). The small hall echoed with “stormy applause, rising to an ovation.” For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the “stormy applause, rising to an ovation,” continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin. However, who would dare be the first to stop?

[After an 11-minute ovation, the first man to stop clapping was sentenced to 10 years in prison on made up charges.]

– Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
The Gulag Archipelago

or reward:

[After sneaking into Liberian President William Tolbert’s house to learn why he and other members of the Liberian army had not been paid, Sergeant Samuel Doe found Tolbert sleeping and killed him.] In short order, he proceeded to replace virtually everyone who had been in the government or the army with members of his own small Krahn tribe, which made up only about 4 percent of the population. He increased the pay of army privates from $85 to $250 per month. He purged everyone he did not trust. Following secret trials, he had no fewer than fifty of his original collaborators executed. Doe funded his government, as his predecessors had, with revenues from Firestone, which leased large tracts of land for rubber; from the Liberian Iron Mining Company, which exported iron ore; and by registering more than 2,500 ocean-going ships without requiring safety inspections. Further, he received direct financial backing from the United States government. The United States gave Doe’s government $500 million over ten years. In exchange the United States received basing rights and made Liberia a center for US intelligence and propaganda. It is believed that Doe and his cronies personally amassed $300 million.

– Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith
The Dictator’s Handbook

but those who follow for these reasons are more likely to slack off when the leader is out of sight or fade soon after they sense the blade dulling or the vault emptying. Finally, some people sincerely believe that authority shouldn’t be questioned. When these people are followers, they tend to comply more easily and ask fewer questions of leadership than others.

This was my first interaction with my would-be employer, and since my salary would be based strictly on experience, she had no power to punish or reward me. I considered pointing out that she should be more concerned with my skills, but I wasn’t there to debate philosophy. I was there to get a job. She hadn’t quite asked me a question, so I didn’t quite give her an answer. I said, “Uh…okay,” and let her keep talking.

When I got home, I vented for an hour calmly considered the situation. The concept of loyalty was as out of place in the context of the job I was interviewing for as it would be if I applied for a job chucking rocks into a black hole. It might make sense if she had just taken over a large organization. There, she might be looking to fire people so she could reward those who helped her get the job with lucrative positions. But this was a five-person office. All she needed was someone capable of doing the work. Unless she was referring to after-hours work…

A few days later, I got the good news – a second interview! I prepared to impress with stories of my legendary work ethic. I sat down, opened my mouth, and out popped stories of my love of finishing my work quickly so I can leave work and enjoy my life.

I didn’t get the job. A few days later I remembered why my acquaintance quit.

Works Referenced

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On Difficult Conversations

Of all the definitions of “friend,” I prefer the one that says friends are people we share our secrets with. The idea is that we grant greater access to closer friends. Sure, we break this rule, trusting a new love interest too soon or crying in McDonald’s, rambling to a stranger while barely touching our burger. But generally, we divulge our secrets as experience suggests someone will not betray our confidences.

Familiarity breeds friendship. We bond over shared backgrounds, current passions, and private definitions. There is comfort in not having to explain what you mean. Ease when someone else “gets it.” This is why I don’t play spades with rookies – you lose games you should win because they have yet to learn the language. With someone who knows the game, however, gone is the partner who needlessly plays cards higher than yours. In their place is someone who communicates the strength of their hand with a glance. You work together more easily than you do with a novice because you both understand how the game works.

Conversations between Black and White Americans often endure a lack of familiarity. All things considered, this is predictable. White Americans outnumber Black Americans 7 to 1. Thus, it is easier for Black Americans to be acquainted with White Americans than the reverse.

Psychological research shows that people divide into groups easily. The basis of these divisions can be intentional, random (think coin flips) or arbitrary (think eye color). In the United States, all of these factors contributed to our conception of race. In 1705, the American colonies wrote the first laws dividing African slaves, European indentured servants, and free laborers to prevent revolts by what was then one large group of poor people dissatisfied with how they were treated by rich employers and slave owners. The 1790 Census divided the population using the first ancestry-based classifications (European, African, and untaxed Native American) and the first official classifications (free, slave, taxed, and untaxed) to help fulfill its mandate. [1] A series of state and federal court decisions, including U.S. Supreme Court decisions rendered as late as 1923, determined who we now classify as “white,” usually to exclude groups from receiving governmental benefits. [2]

Research also shows that we favor in-group members over out-group members. Whether the out-group is the kids from the next block or the sports team in another city, we tend to think the best of our group and the worst of others. This can cause us to treat people who are not members of our group worse than people who are members of our group. In the United States, states and localities enacted segregation laws from 1876 – 1965 to reprise pre-Civil War social divisions. [3] In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration subsidized suburban housing loans on the condition that none of the homes be sold to African-Americans. Marketers sold entire cities to White Americans, appealing to a need for security by claiming they had no Black residents, falsely implying the cities were crime-free.

People also self-segregate, choosing to live and associate with like-minded others. Additionally we watch television shows and visit websites that agree with our pre-existing beliefs. Today, we can go weeks without encountering a contrary viewpoint.

Consequently, Americans tend to have friends who belong mostly to the same race. These factors result in a gulf of understanding, even where people share more similarities than differences.

Schools could abate this knowledge gap via student investigations of historical subjects, graded on detail and nuance. Instead, history classes omit loads of information. Decades can pass before someone grasps the scope of the acts committed by and against our ancestors. [4] Even then, our general understanding is “White people do a lot of bad things to Black people.” Daily news coverage reinforces this narrative, encouraging debate about the sensational rather than solely informing us about the significant but mundane.

It’s usually after one of these stories sparks a national conversation that someone asks me what do you think of [insert current event here]?


Wait for it…

My brain starts its analysis. Who’s asking? Do I know them? If so, what’s their usual M.O.? If not, what does their inflection tell me? Are they asking my opinion, my opinion “as a black man,” “as a lawyer,” or someone else?

Most often I’m aware of the event, but haven’t read beyond the headlines. I ask for more information. I receive facts, opinions, value statements, and speculation (not necessarily in that order). Zero point six eight seconds later my indifference disappoints my companion.

But aren’t you angry?

I was. Twenty years ago.

But you’re Black!

I weigh my options. Do I feel like having this conversation? How long is this going to take? Is this person likely to update their beliefs based on what I say? When’s lunch?

I engage and explain: Africans and their American descendants are more than victims of history. Including their responses to events that happened around them and incidents that happened to them reveals a push and pull that is absent from the history we teach. Consider segregation again: The United States outlawed slavery. The former slaves ran for political office, including Congress, and won. [5] In response, Southern legislatures enacted forced segregation and other laws intended to strip African-Americans of their ability to participate in the leadership of their states. African-American lawyers answered with a years-long strategy that ended segregation.

Even in isolation, the history we haven’t learned refines perceptions. History classes often teach that Europeans kidnapped Africans from beaches. Based on this, we infer that millions of people were simply scooped off the beach and dropped into boats. Instead, the truth is that Africans controlled the sale of slaves to Europeans during most of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Africans valued labor and tended to have a lot of slaves. African slave traders were happy to sell, getting rich in the process. While Europeans definitely tricked some Africans onto boats, it was far easier (though more expensive) to purchase a slave from Africans. That is, until improvements in firearms shifted the balance of power from the African slave traders to the Europeans.

When we consider the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, we usually focus on horrific events that produce strong emotional anchors: fear, anger, guilt, pity. But the innumerable unknown acts of our ancestors comfort me. Most never lost their drive for self-determination. Knowledge of these acts pulled me away from asking “why do they keep doing this to us?” long ago. Thus, when someone asks me to connect the past to a current event, I can’t get angry. Instead, I respond with pride.

* * *


I watch my companion process this information. It’s interesting, but doesn’t feel like it answers the question. I didn’t provide the emotional echo my companion expected. The moment lingers, unfinished…

But what about [insert heart-wrenching moment here]?

I ask for a second. A few Google searches later, I’m back. Usually, I learn that the event which led to this discussion, while tragic, doesn’t happen often. But deep down, I know statistics can’t compete with the amygdala. The possibility that something bad might happen once outweighs the certainty that it won’t happen 999,999 times. I try anyway and fail.

I regroup. I point out that I answered the original question 10 minutes ago, but what started as an inquiry has become a debate. For my companion. Who is now committed to “winning.” In the meantime, I’m trying to decide whether to walk away. A wise old lady once told me that you can only fight facts, never opinions, and I recognize that the question of how angry I should be about a current event is a matter of opinion.

Then again, I’m having fun. And I have a few more facts. And I might make a breakthrough. And my companion has just said something along the lines of but I bet the [poor Black citizens of the United States] don’t think that.

This is why I don’t play spades with rookies.

Unbeknownst to my companion, I’ve been holding a trump card the entire conversation – I grew up in the projects. I would have preferred to divulge this fact through the normal friend-building process. I even dropped a hint that my past was relevant to what we were talking about, but it’s too late. The statement warrants correction.

I glance.

I stop everything to clear up a few things: There isn’t a Black lens any of us can view the world through. Talk to enough people and you realize you’re looking through a kaleidoscope, watching temporary shifting patterns of opinion arising from the light of life and the colors of experience. You can’t see these patterns by talking to one person. After all, we divide over more than just race. Nevertheless, I represent my neighbors to help my companion handle the truth that there is often distance between what my neighbors think is important and what others believe is important for them.

With that conversation finished, I finally ask what I’ve learned to ask at the beginning of these encounters: “why do you ask?” My companion’s reason is typically tangential to the original question and race is not the dominant factor they think it is. At best, their reasons are specific. In these cases, I relish the opportunity to shift my companion’s thinking so they can effectively achieve their goal. At worst, the reasons are vague, amorphous, and I find myself speaking to someone unwilling or unable to see past the blinders created by their preconceived notions about African-Americans. I’ve learned to let them be.

And rarely, someone truly is intellectually curious, and wants to discuss these topics with me.

Not the lawyer.

Not the Black guy.

Just me.


I repose.

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[1] Under the Articles of Confederation, each state had one representative and one vote in Congress. Congress chose the President. The amended, “more perfect union” created by the Constitution added in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. The total free population and 3/5ths of the slave population residing in the state determined its representation in both entities. The questions of why this change happened, and how it affected the country is a story for another post.

[2] The 1923 U.S. Supreme Court, in U.S. v Thind, separated the scientific and popular definitions of the terms Aryan and Caucasian, deciding that Indians from the extreme northwestern part of the country were not white, despite being both Aryan and Caucasian.

[3] After the Civil War, the former slaves were granted the rights to vote and profit from their own labor. African-Americans were the majority population in Mississippi (and a significant minority in several other states), and thus voted the first African-Americans into Congress and other positions of power. To combat these developments, Southern legislatures passed laws that effectively stripped African-Americans of their right to vote (i.e. poll taxes, literacy tests, and currently existing laws that strip one’s right to vote for life if convicted of a felony). Law enforcement officials unevenly also enforced laws, imprisoning a disproportionate number of African-Americans, where their labor was once again sold at little or no cost. For more information, see The Strange Career of Jim Crow (link provided above) and Slavery by Another Name.

[4] I say this as an African-American and the descendant of Africans and Europeans.

[5] Not everyone reads footnotes.

How to Work Smarter

Today, I invite you to take the Beat Your Brain Challenge™! The rules are simple: don’t think of something you’re good at! Seriously, that’s it! Don’t think of anything you’re better than most people at. Don’t consider how long you’ve been doing that thing, or how you started doing that thing in the first place.

If you’re like most people, you’re now thinking of something you’re good at and how you got there. Congratulations! Keep that in mind for a minute. If you somehow avoided thinking of something you’re good at, please take a moment, call and ask someone who knows you well, and then come back to this post.

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s focus on how we get good at things – study and practice, lots of it.[1] Our brains are like plastic, capable of being molded through time and effort. When we try new things, our neurons make new connections. These connections eventually become efficient enough that we can complete a task without much conscious effort.[2] Stop using the skill for an extended period and connections atrophy, or are used by the brain for other tasks.

We all perfect new skills this way, as evidenced partly by your memory of how you got good at something.[3] Further evidence comes from findings that (1) people who perform at expert level needed approximately 10,000 hours[4] of deliberate practice[5] to get there and (2) people with an average affinity for a task but who put in a lot of work will outperform those with a natural affinity for the same task but who put in little work. If you accept the Ask a Friend Challenge™, I suspect you will find that all your friends objectively put a lot of work into getting good at whatever they are good at, too.

“Objectively” in the prior sentence is important – subjectively, we mistakenly tend to associate the word “work” with things we dread doing. This dread can be so strong that we will look for shortcuts – or simply not even try – to avoid the unpleasant experience of “work.” In fact, we build skills regardless of whether we enjoy the tasks that build them. And since many subjectively lousy tasks are also important life skills, how can we convince our kids, students, and mentees to engage in necessary skill-building work?

If I may be so bold, might I suggest the Compliment Challenge™? How does it work, you ask? First, take time to explain to your kids, students, or mentees that our brains grow with work, and work leads to success. Then, instead of complimenting people for being smart (or worse, insulting them by calling them stupid), compliment them on how hard they have worked. These factors have been shown to help inspire learners to put more effort into study, with a resulting increase in performance.

The title of this piece implied that I’d be offering shortcuts, and since “working harder” is a kind of a long shortcut, I also offer the following: (1) don’t multitask; (2) cut off the internet when you’re studying; and (3) put your phone in another room. Multitasking and internet use distract you from your work. If you don’t have them available to you, you can concentrate on what you’re doing, finish your work faster, and get back to the more pleasurable things in life.

Thanks so much for playing today! Good luck with your learning, or helping someone else to learn! I’ll see you soon in my next post!

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[1] Extra points for anyone who got the Doctor Strange reference.

[2] After all, when’s the last time you had to think about how to move your mouth when you speak?

[3] Savants, who can perform a task at expert level with little training exist, but they are rare. It also seems to be the case that their expert skill set is limited to one or two things. Everything else, they must learn.

[4] A bit over a year if you could skip sleep, food, and life. Closer to ten once real life is factored in.

[5] Deliberate practice differs from just practice. The term indicates an intense form of practice, characterized by detailed feedback from a mentor and attention to detail by the practitioner. Imagine a singer practicing a single note for an hour, then going to a vocal coach to discuss the note for another hour. This is not the only factor that leads to expert performance, but it’s a definite contributor.

How to Beat the Bar Exam (or any other test)

Please click here to read an updated, shorter version of this article. 

As I write this, thousands of freshly minted JDs are just starting the 10-week slog of studying for the bar exam. By the end of the study period, these people will come out of exile, grateful to see sunlight again and not wanting to read another printed word for the next three months. This post is in honor of them.

In my last post, I offered organizations tips to increase the success of their diversity recruitment efforts. This post is aimed at those they want to recruit – current and future students. One thing all students have in common is that taking tests is necessary to get from where you are now to where you want to be. Another thing you have in common is the wide variety of things you can do to help increase your chances of getting the results you want.

We don’t usually use a wide variety of strategies to help us pass tests. Instead, we tend to stick with what has worked in the past – often repetitive reading to remember just enough information to pass. This information is usually forgotten as quickly as it was remembered, with the student believing that it has no further use once the test is over.

But one of the reasons people become teachers and professors is because they believe the information they’re sharing is not only important, but worthwhile. This is especially true of foundational classes, where the information learned is needed to understand more difficult concepts in later classes.

Therefore, it is often worthwhile to understand new material not only to pass a test, but also in a way that allows you to apply to future tests, different classes, and life outside the classroom. To do this, or, as per the title of this post, do well on a major test such as the bar exam, you have to use multiple strategies.

You can use the following advice to prepare for any test, but I will often reference the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and bar exam because I’ve taken both tests, and it’s easy to use them as examples. Besides, anything I discuss here can be applied to any test you will take from this point forward. So, what’s the first thing we need to know?

Step 1: Understand what is expected of you

a. What kind of test is this?

The first thing you need to determine if you’re taking a test in the United States is whether the test is standardized. This is easy. Are multiple people in various locations taking the same test at the same time? If yes, congratulations, you’re taking a standardized test!

There aren’t many good ways to compare students who received their education at different schools. Standardized tests fill this role. For example, the combination of an undergraduate student’s GPA and LSAT score is highly predictive of how well that student will do in the first year of law school. (Prospective law students: note that this combination only predicts first year success, or more precisely how prepared you were for the work when you entered law school.)

One advantage of taking a standardized test is that the organizations running these tests tend to have all kinds of useful resources for prospective examinees. Among other things, you may be able to find subject guides, old tests, and answers to those old tests. Reading through these resources and using them to study can let you know exactly what to expect on the test. If you can find them, you can use them to your advantage. I strongly suggest checking.

One complaint people make about standardized tests is that schools will adjust to changes in standards by “teaching to the test.” Since I’m just talking about what you can do to do well, that’s a subject for another time.

b. What information am I expected to understand?

Additionally, some people mistakenly believe that standardized tests including the LSAT can’t be studied for. I think whoever started that rumor was watching that episode of Star Trek where the testing authority wanted to see how students dealt with fears they didn’t know they had. Of course all tests can be studied for. You just have to find out what subject matter is being tested, and then study the appropriate subjects.

In the case of the LSAT, the headings tell you the subject matter. Three sections deal with logic. Logic is usually neatly tucked away in the philosophy or mathematics departments. Oversimplification: logic is a thinking system used to solve problems. We use logic, but it’s more often the case that we use arguments that don’t work to try and win arguments. If I say the light is green and your counter with, “but it used to be yellow,” you didn’t win the argument, you changed the subject. You may even feel emotionally satisfied with your “win,” but in this specific case, you would have had to prove that the light is not green now, rather than talking about what the light was before. Learning how to use logic helps us to avoid these kinds of false wins.

Logic also helps us to build legal arguments, which fail miserably without it. It is for this reason that the LSAT tests one’s ability to use logic. But if you don’t know classes exist on this subject, aren’t required to take it, or don’t take it at random, you won’t even know it exists. With no foundation or experience in a subject it’s hard to do well on a test of the subject. But once you know what you’re expected to understand, you can start working on your objective.

c. What exactly is my objective, anyway?

Depends on the test. Is the test pass/fail or does it compare you to others? The bar exam, for example, is pass/fail. When I took the New York test, you needed 665 out of 1000 points, or a D+ to pass. To the best of my knowledge, all bar exams require a similar level of competency for one to pass.


In contrast, tests like the LSAT test your skill relative to other people taking the test. I don’t want to bore you with a dissertation on statistical transformation methods, so let me explain using the LSAT as an example. The test has 100 questions. The average of all scores is about 50 questions right. Most examinees get near 50 questions right – let’s pretend that the range is from 40 – 60. This range would be where you place a bet if you’re choosing a student at random. Fewer people will get below 40 or above 60, and even fewer will get below, say, 20, or above 80. Needless to say, the more questions you get right, the better you understand the subject.

On a test like this, your objective depends on what you want. Some schools will accept a person who gets half of the questions right. Others will only take students who get 90 – 100 right. Information regarding what students a school or organization accepts is usually available. If you’re taking a test like the LSAT, find this information first so you can have a goal to work toward. Setting goals increases your chance of success.

d. Got it. By the way, why am I taking this test?

Usually, we answer this question “to get into [business, law, med] school.” That’s not what I mean. If someone is asking you to take a test, there’s a reason for it. Admittedly, this reason can sometimes be hard to find. But understanding why a school or association thinks the test in question is important can be useful. As I mentioned above, the LSAT tests the basic skills needed to do well in law school. Schools choose students from a narrow range of GPA and LSAT score because people learn best when they learn with people of similar ability. Too far ahead or behind and the outlying student is not well served by the school.

In contrast, states started administering bar exams for reasons unique to each state. Common themes for instituting bar exams are concerns about incompetent lawyers and a variety of standards across a state. This means that lawyers in one part of a state had to meet higher standards that lawyers in another part of the state. Pennsylvania even used to have a weird situation where a lawyer could only practice in the county the lawyer was admitted to practice in. So, if your client had legal needs in another county, the client might have to find a new lawyer.

In any case, knowing why the test was instituted in the first place gives you an idea of why you’re being forced asked to take a test. Of course, some people disagree with using tests as a gateway to a career, especially where schooling can cost upwards of $150,000, but the arguments for and against are a subject for another time.

With these preliminary factors out of the way, I turn to

Step 2: Studying harder by studying smarter

Usually, when you hear the phrase “work smarter, not harder,” someone is about to tell you about an amazing new shortcut to make your life easier – for $19.95. I’m giving this information away for free, so I’ll be telling you about amazing ways to learn that actually work – but I’m happy to take donations.

By “studying smarter,” I mean that you can use what is known about how the brain works to increase the effectiveness of your study sessions. This allows you to learn more information in a shorter time, giving you a better chance of getting a higher score on your test.

a. So, what’s going on in our heads?

First, an extreme oversimplification: we learn and remember new things because the neurons in our brain make, and then strengthen, connections to other neurons in our brain. This occurs on a surface level through repeated exposure, and on a deeper level through trying to remember and use the information. At the deepest level, you make connections between the new information and other things you’ve learned, allowing you to build on top of your previous knowledge.

Probably not the kind of connections I was talking about

For example, when you first started walking, your parents told you to stay away from something hot. But, being two years old and all, you had no idea what they were talking about and laughed at them while they tried to stop you from experiencing “hot.” And as they ran to stop you, you put your hand on the radiator and started crying as you finally understood the definition of the word “hot.” Later, as young kids do, you repeated the word “hot” repeatedly anytime you looked at the radiator, your parents confirming that the radiator was indeed hot.

But that isn’t all you learned about “hot.” It comes from the sun, the stove, car engines. It can keep you warm, make you sweat, cook food, iron clothes. These connections between your idea of the word “hot” and the various things it’s connected to helped to cement the idea of “hot” in your brain.

b. That’s cool and all, but how does that information help me study?

The key thing here is that attempts to use information helps cement ideas in your head. With that in mind, you can add retrieval practice to your study to give your brain the best chance of remembering what you’re supposed to be learning. Need an example? Here’s my daily study schedule for the bar exam. You can adjust the hours according to your needs:

Retrieval Practice (4 hours, with one 15-minute break)

  • Write one essay from a past bar exam, open book and untimed
  • Attempt to answer 30 multiple choice questions from past bar exams (six areas of law were tested, so this was five questions each)
  • Review flash cards (see below)

Lunch (1 hour)

Reading, aka “Studying” (6 hours, two subjects per day, with one break)

For those unfamiliar with bar exam study, yes, that’s right, I studied ten hours per day almost every day for ten weeks. And there were 27 subjects on my exam. Here’s the rationale for each of these decisions:


I had no choice. Out of the 27 subjects on my exam, only six of the major topics were required classes in law school. I took those six three years before, and without use, I would only remember some of what I was taught. So, even though I was enrolled in a bar exam prep course, I still had to read a semester’s worth of a subject to be fully prepared for one or two questions on the topic. Most subjects had enough information that they could not be read in less than three hours. As a result, I read for six hours a day.


Writing the essays served two purposes: (1) improving my skills to the point that writing was automatic, which left me more time to consider the legal issues at hand; and (2) using the legal rules in context, so that I could remember them better. Fighting to learn information, in this case by digging though pages and pages to make sure my answer was complete, helps you to retain information better. Additionally, this allowed me study subjects that weren’t part of my reading that day.

The bar exam prep company gave us essays that they made up for us to practice on. I skipped those and went straight for the old NY bar exam essays. After all, NYS provided years of old essays on its website (Note: NY has since moved over to the UBE. You can find old UBE essays here), and it made more sense to use the real thing rather than something that someone else made up. This gave me direct experience with the kind of essays I’d be writing on the exam.

Writing the essays untimed gives me another advantage – no additional pressure because I’m trying to beat a clock. There would be plenty of time for beating the clock on the day of the test.

If you have time, find someone to give you detailed feedback on your work, so you can write the next essay with that feedback in mind. This is part of the idea behind deliberate practice, which I’ll have to explain in more detail at another time.

Finally, writing an essay every day allowed me to see my improvement, and celebrate small wins. For me, a small win was any noticeable improvement. Understand the form of the essay better? Win! Got through the essay a little faster? Win! The first essay took me about an hour to write. The final essay took me about 20 minutes to write. But celebrating with each noticeable improvement (about once a week or once every two weeks) let me know I was on track, and inspired me to stay on task.

Multiple choice

The year I took the bar, I had to answer a total of 250 multiple choice questions. Therefore, seeing what they might look like was also important. Here, I looked at the question, tried to figure out what the correct answer was and why, and then chose an answer. When I saw whether I was right or wrong, I went back and read the reasons why all of the answers were right and wrong.

Again, this allowed me to cover multiple subjects that I might not have been reading up on that day, celebrate small wins, and gauge my progress. Here, I was shooting to get 75% of the questions correct, because that would mean I wouldn’t have to take the bar exam if I wanted to get a law license for two or three other states. Also, the higher I scored on this section, the lower I could score on the other sections and still pass. Again, setting a goal helps you achieve what you want.

Flash cards

The old school, hand-written flash card is the ultimate retrieval practice tool. First, you write down the information you want to remember on one side, and what it refers to on the other side. Writing things down on paper helps your brain to remember things. So does trying to remember what you wrote.

Next, you take either side of a card, and try to remember what’s on the other side. Over time, your brain makes those connections, and it’s easier for you to remember what’s on either side of the card.

I had to deal with 27 different subjects, though, so this could have easily gotten out of hand. Therefore, I limited the number of cards to a maximum of 25 per subject. I further limited the content of the cards to things I didn’t know or couldn’t easily remember. After all, is there a point in putting a lot of effort into what you already know? Finally, because even with these limitations, going through all the cards could take over an hour, I found a way to review the smallest number of cards on any given day. This is called the Leitner system.

To do this, you’ll need three boxes (or bags – it doesn’t matter, as long as you can separate the cards).

On day 1, review all of the cards. Remember what’s on the other side? Put it in box 2. Don’t remember it? Put it back in box 1. Do this every day until day 7 (Note: day 7 is arbitrary. I used day 2 here).

On day 7, pull out box 1 and box 2. Start with box 2. Remember what’s on the other side? Put it in box 3. Forgot what’s on the other side? Put it back in box 1. When you’re finished, review the cards in box 1 that you haven’t looked at yet. Do this every day until day 28 (Note: day 28 is also arbitrary. I used day 3 here).

On day 28, pull out all three boxes. Start with box 3. Remember what’s on the other side? Put it back in box 3. Forgot what’s on the other side? Put it in box 2. Continue with the cards in boxes 2 and 1 as before. Still having trouble? See below:


Continuing in this fashion will help you reinforce your memory only when you need to – when you’re at the edge of forgetting. It will also help you concentrate on learning only the things you don’t already know, which saves you time. Along those lines, when reading you can also skim parts of subjects you know very well, allowing you to concentrate on reading the things you don’t know very well.

Note that all of this is in contrast to what many of us usually do to prepare for tests – read entire passages over and over in an attempt to memorize information. As you may remember from your seventh grade Spanish class – or more to the point, not remember – simply rereading information helps you memorize for the short term, not learn. If you want to learn, you have to be in Spain, at the store, looking for cookies but not knowing how to say the word. You then run down the hill to the store at the bottom of the hill, pick up a pack of Oreos and ask the clerk in Spanish how to say cookies. When he responds galletas and you run back up the hill to tell the other cashier that you’ve figured out that you were talking about galletas and he responds that he didn’t have what you were looking for anyway…that memory will never fade.

And as an FYI – learning doesn’t feel like anything – other than a big headache (to me) as your brain tries to make connections between the one concept you’re trying to learn and its applications. We mistakenly expect learning to feel a certain way, but it doesn’t. We also expect to remember everything on the first try, but we don’t. We only think we do, and we are rarely tested on that assumption.

Rest, the real hero

Rest is important. We need rest. Our brains need rest. Did I say “rest?”

As you can see, I included rest periods in my schedule. I also included rest outside of my schedule. I left early when it was clear I wasn’t going to be able to take in any new information. I stayed home when I woke up and my brain told me, “no!” I slept well every night, and took what was probably a total of two hours a day to walk around, eat food, crack jokes, and talk to people.

Your brain needs this downtime to build connections, store information, and prepare you for the next task. Without it, things go haywire.

Unfortunately, too many examinees make the mistake of not getting rest, or cramming all night rather than letting their brains do the work that they do. It’s understandable because that’s what’s been passed down to us. However, we’ve since learned that rest is essential for memory formation and brain development.

So, if I didn’t say it already, get some rest!

You didn’t mention study groups

I haven’t mentioned study groups because I didn’t use study groups while taking the bar. It was only after I took the test that I learned the best way to use a study group – everyone in the room should have different strengths. Those who are unclear on some issue that their friend understands well try to explain, and the ones who know clarify. This is so much better than just sitting in silence in a room full of other people, laughing from time to time about random stuff.

This Calvin and Hobbes strip accurately depicts my experience in study groups.

What about multitasking?

We’re not good at it. Cut off the music, TV, email, internet, and phone. Do one thing at a time.

Step 3: Preventing test anxiety before it starts

Please take a minute to compare the various things I’ve discussed so far. Hopefully, you will see what binds them all together – these are all things you have control over.

Anxieties, however, concern things we either don’t have control over or think we don’t have control over. Two oversimplified examples: “I can’t control what’s going to happen to me next” = learned helplessness. “People like me don’t do well on this kind of test” = stereotype threat. In both of these psychological phenomena, a person believes (for different reasons) that what’s about to happen next is out of their control for some reason or another.

As noted above, the interesting thing is that people can experience these phenomena even when things are actually in their control, causing our stress response to kick in. Constant stress, even when it’s psychological, can make it easier to associate different factors with fear and turn them into long-term memories. When this memory is activated, we can become anxious even if there’s no objective reason to be. And to make matters worse, this process has to be unlearned, but the same factors that make fear associations easy to learn make them hard to unlearn.

Let’s say, for example, that you’ve come to believe “people like me don’t do well on this test.” It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, female, or a high school sports star, every group you identify with is subject to some version of this belief. You may start to prime yourself for failure in advance, saying something like “this test is biased against us.” For the record, this is a real biased test. Please take ten minutes to see what it feels like. Seriously. I’ll wait.

With this priming in mind, you may not study as hard as you would otherwise, ignoring all of the tests you passed since kindergarten, and all of the factors noted above that are completely in your control. Even if you do study well and are fully prepared, incorrectly assessing the situation can cause you to second guess yourself, failing a test you would otherwise pass, because you thought some immutable characteristic about yourself was important when the only thing truly important was how much work you put in to understand the material.

So, to prevent anxiety, you have to remember how much is in your control, and how much you’ve done with that control. You may not have control over the time, place or content, but you definitely have control over how well-prepared you are before you take most tests.

There is one caveat to all of this – losing a loved one, breaking up with a significant other, or having an undiagnosed learning disability can derail your success, even when you’re fully prepared. I’m sure that people pass under these circumstances, but the first two definitely take away from your mental energy.


At some point, we all have to take tests. These tips got me through 24 hours of testing over three days to pass two bar exams. I trust they can help you, too.

UPDATE: I am now offering Bar Exam tutoring services! Click here to learn more.

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3 Ways Cognitive Science can Help Diversity Efforts Succeed

These days, many schools, businesses, and associations make efforts to recruit and retain women and minorities. Yet, much of the press surrounding these efforts focuses on the various failures of these programs. Behind the scenes, discussions can also center on failures, rather than making plans to succeed. Finally, many of the approaches used by organizations seeking diverse candidates overstate their message, leading to disaffection of the recruited candidate.

There are a number of ways these efforts can be improved, leading to more diverse student bodies and workforces. In this post, I explore how organizations can use findings from cognitive science (primarily psychology) to improve the results of their efforts.

  1. Reframe your themes

In psychology, the framing effect refers to our tendency to make decisions based on how information is presented to us, rather than on an analysis of the content. This occurs because our brains naturally take context into account, rather than analyzing information in isolation. A study conducted in 1981 demonstrated this tendency. Participants were asked to choose one of two treatments for a deadly disease affecting 600 people. The first treatment would produce a certain outcome: 200 people would live and 400 people would die. The second treatment would produce a less certain outcome: there was a 33% chance that everyone would live and a 66% chance that everyone would die.

Here’s how the options were presented to the participants:

Positive Frame: Treatment A – will save 200 lives. Treatment B –  a 33% chance of saving all 600 people, and a 66% chance of saving no one.

Negative Frame: Treatment A – 400 people will die. Treatment B – 33% chance that no people will die, and a 66% probability that all 600 will die.

Here’s what happened:

Although the choices are identical, how the choice was framed significantly impacted what decision participants made.

By now, you may have figured where I’m going with this, and you’re right – your own language can sabotage your efforts to reach your goals. When you are looking for ideas on, say, how to add more light to a room but your event title is “Why Lawyers Can’t Screw in Lightbulbs,” you can be sure that more time will be spent talking about how lawyers aren’t handy than will be spent preparing to buy extra lamps. At diversity improvement meetings, this often translates into a discussion of obstacles instead of ideas. Furthermore, repetition helps to cement ideas in our mind. This can cause us to carry a frame forward into the next conversation about the same topic.

There are three small things you can do to help keep your diversity meetings on topic:

Watch your words. Frames are created by the words you choose to express an idea. When it comes to a meeting, they help participants know what to expect. Therefore, choosing words in your program title and agenda that help set the tone you want is essential. If you want to discuss how bad something is, words like “problem” and “crisis” may be appropriate. If you want participants to discuss ideas to improve your efforts, words like “issue” and “opportunity” may help keep participants on track.

Save time to discuss the negative. The best laid plans consider how things can go wrong. Even if the potential issues considered by the team never happen, the exercise helps prepare your team to handle the unexpected things that always happen.

Though it can be useful to bring up some negative aspects during the course of a meeting (for example, if the suggested idea is impossible or illegal), it is also useful to evaluate fully formed ideas. However, it is not useful to get stuck discussing potential issues when you’re still trying to form ideas. Therefore, I suggest setting aside specific portions of time to discuss what could go wrong, and make sure (1) that the idea is ultimately feasible and (2) that you’ve thought ahead about potential realistic obstacles.

With respect to potential obstacles, the team leader should ask the group for a list of potential obstacles. Once this list is in the air or on the board, the team should then figure out what they will do if these specific issues happen. The team will not come up with everything that could happen, but when something does, the team will be prepared to effectively work through it.

Create a penalty system. One way that groups enforce behavioral norms is through punishment. Humans have created many forms of punishment, from teasing to gossip to jail. Each of these serves the purpose of keeping individuals in line with group norms. For example, you are likely with familiar swear jars, where group members put money into a jar each time they swear. This helps to promote the norm of not swearing. Paying money into the jar reinforces the idea that one is not supposed to swear.

If you want to create a group norm of not getting bogged down in the discussion of obstacles, first, everyone in the group must clearly understand that this is expected behavior in the group. Second, the punishment should be something the group considers fair (I also like funny, but that’s just me). Finally, if the undesirable behavior occurs, the punishment rule should be enforced. If it is not, then the rule is likely to fall by the wayside.

  1. Aim high, but stay grounded

In law school, I organized events for the Black Law Students Association. The job description didn’t contain a set of goals, so I created one – fill the room to capacity. I immediately figured out a way to make this happen – get President Obama as a speaker. So, I called the White House and asked what the procedures were to request the President as a speaker. They sent a list, and I followed it to the letter.

Here’s the thing – Presidents get lots of speaking requests. We were definitely having the event, but the White House would probably tell us he wasn’t available. So we requested other high profile black lawyers, all with the same expectation that they might be unavailable. Ultimately, President Obama wasn’t available. We expected that. We were still able to come up with a great concept, find notable and interesting speakers, and draw a healthy sized crowd.

Similarly, diversity efforts often begin with someone saying, “We need more ______ in [our office, this field, etc.]!” This is commendable, but as an example, let’s imagine that every law office wants a proportional amount of African-American attorneys, today:

Proportion of African-Americans

Clearly, that’s impossible. Sure, you could poach students from master’s programs in ethnic, gender, and cultural studies and Ph.D. programs in education , where African-Americans and other minorities are overrepresented. However, these programs don’t have enough students to result in a proportional share of law students, let alone creating equal proportions in every industry. Considering these facts, here’s what you can do:

Be realistic. Realistic goals have the best chance of success, and encourage people to try harder tasks. In my example, I attempted to get President Obama as a speaker. This was realistic because the White House had a dedicated set of procedures to request his time. However, it was also unlikely because of the demands on his time. Therefore, I had to accept both the small possibility that he might say yes and the large possibility that he might not be available. Based on that analysis, it made sense to try and recruit other speakers.

Likewise, your diversity effort may be aimed at making your organization reflect the demographic makeup of the United States, but at present this is also unlikely. To compensate, your organization can create two goals: (1) to get as close to parity as possible, and (2) if that is not possible, at least have the organization reflect the current demographic makeup of the field. Adjusting your goals as things change can help keep your organization on track.

Shoot for the stars anyway. I knew from the start that booking President Obama to speak was unlikely, but I still went for it. After all, booking the President wasn’t my main goal – filling the room to capacity was. Therefore, it was worthwhile to spend time asking, because this exercise allowed me to consider approaching people I might not have otherwise considered.

Like many others, I value being recruited for what I bring to the table. I have little interest in being recruited just so that someone check off a box or two on a list. Ultimately, the value in diverse candidates lies in the varying perspectives of people with different backgrounds. So, by all means, even if a prospect may have a good enough résumé to garner offers from every organization in your industry, go for him or her. Try to get the demographics of the company the way you want them. Not because you want to check off a box, but because these people bring value to your company. If you can shoot for this star, surely you’ll land on a cloud.

Be flexible. Let’s say you’re realistic. You shot for the stars. And then all of your top prospects took offers at other organizations. What do you do then? Think of something else.

Flexibility is simply the ability to change course when needed. In this context, there are actions that are now considered traditional recruiting methods. But you also can take actions that are truly traditional recruiting methods – developing your own talent.

One variation on this idea is the apprenticeship. In theory, an organization can hire a diversityperson who has entry-level skill and an interest in the work of the company. The prospect could be hired on contract – he or she would work for the organization for a set number of years while pursuing the necessary credentials to take on certain jobs in the organization. This way, an organization doesn’t have to fight for the same prospects as its competition. The prospect gains valuable skills. Finally, this type of program helps to avoid worker/intern situations that provide no value for the intern or the company.

This is only one possible example of flexibility. There are surely more ways to work around the current lack of diverse candidates in a field. Organizations could use a variety of flexible approaches to diversify their workforce.

  1. Help increase the supply

Okay, I fibbed a bit in the title – this tip is economics, not cognitive science. But it’s important.

Economic theory holds that if there is a demand for a product or service, the market (individuals acting on their own or through entities such as corporations) will add supplies to fill that demand. Today, there is a strong demand for diverse candidates in many fields, but there are not enough candidates to fill those seats. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case, but that’s a subject for another post.

For now, let’s focus on one idea – the best way to increase your chance of finding diverse candidates is to increase the size of the pool of diverse candidates. There is, of course, an obstacle to making this happen – the candidates themselves. Consider this: a potential candidate must (1) know that a job, school, or program exists; (2) obtain the necessary skills and credentials to gain entry; (3) believe in their skills and credentials enough to apply; and (4) obtain the position. This is a lot of work for one person, which is why schools have career counselors, companies have created test preparation programs, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics created the Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Because there is so much information, and because people tend to follow the lead of others in their group, organizations and industries seeking diverse candidates should find ways of making things easier for their candidates. Ideally, this effort should be taken up by organizations, schools, parents, students, and other stakeholders. However, until this type of coordination happens, let’s think about how the organization can contribute to increasing the size of the pool.

Be present. If you want people to know you exist and that you’re looking specifically from them, it pays to be where they are. Sure, plenty of organizations attend job fairs, school fairs, etc., but consider the recruiting tactics of the military, credit card companies, and bar exam review companies.

In the past, credit card companies were criticized for their on-campus recruiting efforts. Generally, these organizations would set up a table in the school or on its property once or twice a month. Students would pass by, talk to the recruiter or salesperson, and some would sign up to join the military or for a credit card.

Organizations seeking diverse candidates can do the same thing. Have someone come by, set up a table, tell students about the industry, the company, what kind of jobs they hire for, and the type of skills the candidate needs to develop to achieve that goal. The representative need not take résumés – just obtaining the correct information can help an aspiring candidate perform better and keep them striving toward a goal.

Alternatively, consider training diverse employees to teach introductory classes at colleges. A 2013 study found that many students choose a major based on the quality of their introductory class. Compelling professors can spark interest in a field, while mind-numbing professors can cause a student to lose interest entirely. Diverse students may be more comfortable addressing certain concerns about the field to someone of the same race, ethnicity, or gender. The professor can help allay these concerns by giving them detailed, specific information about the environment in the field.

No matter how it’s done, having someone with knowledge who can explain to prospective candidates and those who haven’t made up their mind can greatly benefit the organization’s efforts. It can also help students to choose between fields based on their strengths, rather than because everyone else is doing the same thing.

Inform. Specific information is always more useful than general information. Say, for example, you want to be a lawyer. You ask someone how to get into law school. They say, “you have to get a good score on the LSAT.” That’s a useful piece of information, but imagine if your advisor also explained what subjects the LSAT tested, how the scoring works, what’s considered a good score, and why law schools use the LSAT to begin with. This specific information is far more useful than the general information in the first example. It allows a person to make goals, something you can’t do if you don’t have specific information.

Your organization can help make this type of information available to groups they wish to hire. The table idea above is a good way to disseminate this kind of information, but so are pamphlets, websites, commercials, and appearances. All of this communication can help a prospective candidate to see that they are the kind of person you’re looking for, not just based on diversity, but based on their skills and interests. And this knowledge can start them on the path to finding your organization.

Normalize. People are influenced by persons who they perceive to be members of their group. If it is normal for group members to seek out a particular career, you may start to see overrepresentation of a group in a field. If there are no members, your potential candidates may think that your organization is “not for them.”

Using the above example as a starting point, be sure to have representatives on hand who are members of the group you wish to recruit. Actually speaking to someone who can address a candidate’s concerns is more effective than any stock photo.


Cognitive science can give diversity officers and committees a variety of tools to use in their efforts. Often, we mistakenly begin these efforts with a discussion of what makes a person of another gender or culture different. Instead, we should look first to the processes all humans have in common, the same way that illusionists have been for thousands of years. Understanding these fundamental processes can help organizations do a better job of finding and retaining the currently available talent. It is also a first step at increasing the total pool of talent. While this post is not even close to a complete rundown on the aspects of humanity that organizations can consider, hopefully it can be a starting point for including cognitive science in your efforts.

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