Open-mindedness topic of convocation remarks

Ruby Wallau/Daily
Steve Robbins speaks at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium at Rackham Auditorium. Buy this photo

By Ian Dillingham, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 21, 2013

Students, faculty, staff and members of the public gathered on Monday in Rackham Auditorium for the 2013 Business and Finance Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Convocation, “Imagine the Possibilities. What if?”

Steve Robbins, the keynote speaker for the event, immigrated to the United States in 1970 with his mother to escape the perils and upheaval of war-torn Vietnam. After suffering from racial discrimination, Robbins now speaks publicly about the challenges and benefits of building a more open-minded society.

“We’ve been addressing something we thought was the problem (close-mindedness) and we haven’t gotten very far,” Robbins said. “Diversity is not the problem — closed-mindedness is.”

Robbins said implicit prejudice is the main challenge facing the current generation of Americans. Although many people do not actively attempt to be closed-minded, stereotypes emerge through both media and daily interactions.

“All we have to do is live in an environment that gives us limited narrow messages about people,” Robbins said. “Our brain absorbs those messages and creates mental models for us … in the same way it absorbs lyrics to a song.”

Robbins argued that much of the closed-mindedness prevalent in society stems from human's natural, cautious reaction to unknown situations or interactions.

“That mechanism is still inside us today,” Robbins said. “Long ago it was about physical safety; today it is more about emotional comfort.”

“Once your brain locks onto a pattern, it basically stops critically thinking. It lets the pattern’s momentum take it to the next step,” Robbins said. “You will take very little information about people and your brain will form a pattern for you and use that pattern to submit quick assessments and judgments.”

While these quick judgments were useful when trying to avoid predators, Robbins questioned the impact on modern society. Snap judgments can be harmful toward certain groups.

Robbins approaches many of his studies from both a scientific and social perspective. While he obtained his doctorate in communications, much of his current research includes the biology involved in the brain’s decision-making processes.

Although the brain accounts for only two percent of the body’s mass, it consumes almost 20 percent of the body’s total energy, Robbins said. This energy consumption is increased when the brain is exposed to unfamiliar stimuli. In these situations, the brain experiences cognitive dissonance.

“When we get into a state of cognitive dissonance or cognitive discomfort, we want to get out of it very quickly — we’re motivated to get out of it very quickly,” Robbins said.

When someone is put into a new situation, his or her brain is given two options: accept or reject. Although acceptance can make others feel much more included and welcome, Robbins noted that people do not tend to react in this manner.

“Blocking — being closed-minded — is a great way to get rid of our dissonance, but (it’s not) a very good way to learn,” Robbins said.

Robbins concluded his presentation by attempting to motivate the audience to seek change in their own communities, specifically calling for them to be more open to accepting outsiders.

“Fundamentally, for me, this work is about caring for people, and the true measure about whether you are a caring person is not how well you can care for your friends … but how well you care for strangers and outsiders,” Robbins said.

"Be a path-maker, not a path-blocker.”

The event was organized by the Business and Finance Diversity Committee and co-sponsored by several University departments and groups. Tim Slottow, the University’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, discussed the University’s involvement in this event during his opening remarks.

“Our commitment is not just to hold this single event each year. In fact, it is an ongoing commitment to organizational action, to education, to awareness rising and to celebration,” Slottow said. “Respect for diversity is one of our eight organizational values."

LSA sophomore Andrew Stevens said he found Robbins’s personal story and theories intriguing.

“I made sure to look around at all the events that were going on around campus today because it only happens once a year,” Stevens said. “You might as well get out and see something that might change your mind.”