We are What we Repeatedly Learn

“I can’t do it,” he said. So, he didn’t try.

“With his disadvantages, he couldn’t possibly catch up,” they said. So, no one encouraged him.

When I was younger, I kept hearing people say, “I can’t.” This wasn’t true. I had known these people my entire life. We had built elaborate clubhouses together, without tools, using just the things we found around the neighborhood. The idea that they couldn’t do a math problem was nonsense. I’d respond, “If I can do it, so can you.” They would rebut, “Yeah, but you’re smart.” Boy, ten-year old brains are quick.

I had run into an iceberga deeply-held belief that influences how a person sees the world. These beliefs can be incorrect, inaccurate, or completely right. In this case, my friends had mistakenly determined that intelligence was the sole cause of academic success. The truth was more complex. We went to different schools. My math class was ahead of theirs. People tend to get good at things they enjoy doing, I liked solving puzzles, and math problems were all little puzzles. Flashes of this more nuanced explanation sometimes emerged – for example, everyone knew I went to a different school – but faded quickly. After all, I had only been transferred in the first place because I was a “smart kid.” The easier explanation, laced with the iceberg, stuck.

We acquire many of our beliefs through cultural transmission – teaching, repetition, imitation, and other ways of learning. This process helps to ensure that we behave in ways acceptable to the groups we belong to. We learn throughout our lives. This allows us to adapt to new situations and multiple group norms. However, beliefs that are useful in one context may not be in another. Here, my friends likely learned “smart kids do well in school” from everyone – parents, neighbors, teachers, TV, etc. And it’s a reasonable explanation as to why I knew the math I did. But, it wasn’t a good explanation as to why they thought they couldn’t do the same. Without correction, explanation, or personal experience, my friends could have applied this idea to a variety of situations, accidentally dampening their successes in the process.

I had heard variations on “I can’t [plus why]” my entire life. It confused teenage me. It annoyed 20-year old me. (Conveniently, I ignored all the times I said this myself.) But it surprised me to hear it in law school. After all, one does not simply walk into law school without good college grades. Despite this, during those three years, I listened to many people predict their chances of success on anything other than a valid assessment of their own preparation. I sat through presentations where people discussed why we might fail rather than how we can succeed. And, not being immune to the effects of cultural transmission, for a short time I wondered whether I’d fail the bar exam simply because of the color of my skin.

This question came up against my own iceberg – I can do anything I want if I work at it. My mom told me this. Teachers told me this. I got cursed out by people when they felt didn’t I believe this. And I had experience to back it up. The conflicting ideas gave me headaches, to the point that I withdrew from conversations where friends predicted their own failure. Eventually, my long-held belief won out over my new insecurities. I put them aside, got to work, and passed the bar on the first try.

But we don’t all have the weight of expectations or the benefit of experience to help us sidestep inaccurate beliefs. This can be especially those of us who are the first in our families to get to college. I can do it myself because I’ve always done it myself can give someone a lot of a confidence. However, that person may not be comfortable asking for help if they need to learn skills they don’t currently have or if they just need to talk to someone. What happens to that person when they don’t do well as they’d like and learn from everyone around them that they should expect to fail? My guess is that most will do just that – fail, unless something circumvents that expectation.

This is what happened at several New York law schools in 2013. That year, 94% of the students from my school who took the bar exam passed. But in 2012 and 2014, approximately 85% of the students passed. The same spike occurred across the state. These three classes started with similar academic profiles, so it was reasonable to assume they would wind up with similar bar exam pass rates. But they didn’t. Something was different.

What happened was that in 2013 U.S. News and World Report changed the methodology of its law school rankings. This change shuffled the rankings. My school dropped 17 places. Students took these rankings seriously, and at my school, there was panic. Students were afraid that they wouldn’t get jobs because of our new position in the rankings. Fear can focus attention, and my classmates were more focused on the idea that they wouldn’t find a job if they failed than they were that they would fail because of any other reason. With I’m not failing this test in mind, they proceeded to do just that.

2013’s huge shock was 2014’s new normal. The fear that motivated my class was gone. But 2013 showed that normal isn’t optimal. Some portion of the law student body is capable of passing the bar exam on the first try but typically does not. If these students, like me, repeatedly heard that they were more likely to fail because of things outside their control (e.g. skin color, class ranking), it may have negatively affected their work.

Compare this to what I experienced at an event at NYU Law the other night: a panel of law firm partners consistently answered questions about how African-American lawyers can be successful with variations of “work hard” and “ask for help.” Their direct experience mirrors the results of research on the subject [auto download]. They also told the audience that they expected good work from the people who work for them. I also experienced this kind of encouragement in my master’s program at Penn, where the theme of the program was “what can you do with what you’re learning now?” Imagine what deeply held beliefs you might develop after three years of expectation and encouragement versus three years of being told you might fail.

In good news, we are capable of updating our beliefs based on new information. In better news, these updates influence our thinking, which influences how we respond, which influences people we are connected to. It takes, of course, more effort than reading a blog post, but depending on what you’re trying to do, it may well be worth it to put in the work so you can eventually challenge someone and hear them respond, “I can.”

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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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