Steve Robbins saved a fundamental message until the end of his presentation Thursday as the keynote speaker on a day dedicated to launching U-M’s campuswide strategic plan for improving diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Diversity is not our problem. Do you know what our real problem is? Close-mindedness,” said Robbins, who went on to quote the Greek philosopher Aristotle: “The measure of a wise person is the ability to entertain new ideas without necessarily having to accept them.”

For more than hour, Robbins moved about the stage of the Power Center for the Performing Arts, entertaining his audience with a talk that was part neuroscience, part personal experience and part motivational speech — with a couple of simple brain teasers thrown in to keep listeners’ minds working.

A central theme throughout was that humans are designed to follow patterns and shortcuts. It helps the brain conserve energy, but when used to form attitudes about fellow human beings, patterns can lead to stereotypes, or what Robbins called “mental models.”

“Our brain absorbs those messages and creates mental models for us without asking our permission,” said Robbins, a thought leader and innovator who developed a concept known as “unintentional intolerance.” “We don’t always get to edit, gatekeep and control the stuff that gets into your head.”

At this point in his talk, Robbins was presented with an unexpected opportunity to illustrate his lesson of open-mindedness.

About two dozen students, tape covering their mouths, had stood up around the theater and turned away from the stage in silent protest. Earlier they had passed out notes indicating their belief that U-M administrators are not adequately addressing safety concerns on campus.

“I love this,” Robbins told the crowd. “I love what they’re doing, because the United States is a place where protests can happen. I used to protest when I was young, and the thing that I didn’t like when I protested was that no one would hear my voice.”

He then invited the students to share theirs.

Joining him on stage, where a couple of them explained what prompted their protest, they stood silently as he related a poignant tale about his sister’s disappearance and assumed death, and his Vietnamese mother’s suicide, which Robbins attributed to his mother feeling like an “invisible outsider.”

Explaining that humans are “hard-wired to belong,” he said it’s also possible to be “part of a tribe, be around other people, and still be very lonely.”

When people are excluded, he said, it triggers a response in the same section of the brain that reacts to pain, and when the brain is reacting to pain it can’t address other things because, contrary to popular thought, “the brain isn’t meant to multi-task.”

“For me, every diversity issue is an insider-outsider issue. Our brain sees people as insiders and outsiders,” Robbins said. “Outsiderness has an impact on cognitive performance.”


James Iseler
The University Record