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Will Starbucks Make A $40 Million Training Mistake? The Psychology and Brain Science of Effective Racial Bias Prevention Training

(Editor’s Note: Todd Maddox, Ph.D. has over 200 published articles, 10,000 citings, and $10 million in external research funding in his 25+ years in cognitive psychology. Maddox is available for interviews on this topic at

By now, I am sure you have heard about the incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, where two black men were arrested for waiting for a third man inside the store without purchasing any items. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson issued an immediate apology calling the arrests “reprehensible.” He’s gone further, meeting with the two men in person and apologizing, as well as saying that all U.S. Starbucks will be closed on May 29 for racial-bias education for its employees.

Kudos to Starbucks for acknowledging the over-reaction by their employee and for embracing the need for additional training. This is a clear example of unconscious (racial) bias affecting a store manager’s behavior. It is also a welcome sign that Starbucks plans to incorporate racial bias training into their onboarding process.

I have spent the last 30 years studying the psychological and brain science of learning. I have shown that some skills, referred to as hard skills, are learned by the cognitive skills learning system in the brain. This system recruits the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobes and requires effective use of working memory and attention to learning to occur. This system learns the definitions of unconscious (racial) bias and how to identify it when one sees it.

I have shown that other skills, often referred to as soft or people skills, are learned by the behavioral skills learning system in the brain. This system recruits the basal ganglia and requires immediate and real-time rewards or punishment feedback for learning to occur. Interestingly, this system does not require working memory and attention; in fact, “overthinking” it can be harmful to learning. This system learns behavior. People skills, such as embracing diversity, effective interpersonal interactions, and checking unconscious (racial) biases, are about behavior. They are about what we “do,” “how” we do it, and our “intent.” True behavior change occurs only when training engages the behavioral skills learning system in the brain and the basal ganglia.

Training that leads to true behavior change moves sensitivity training far beyond the theoretical.  Knowing “what” to do and being able to identify it is important, but it is clearly not the same as knowing “how” to respond. Actions speak louder than words.

I applaud Starbucks for rapidly acknowledging the mistake made by their employee, and for making the smart decision to address unconscious (racial) bias during employees’ onboarding. My hope is that the company utilizes training content that focuses on true behavior change, as opposed to simply teaching people to identify inappropriate behavior. I also hope that Starbucks goes beyond training during the onboarding process, and incorporates it as a regular, ongoing part of employee training. The brain is hardwired to forget and requires refreshers to consolidate information in long-term memory.

Just as sexual harassment prevention and many other people skills are about behavior, so is unconscious (racial) bias and all other aspects of appropriate interaction. People skills matter in all facets of society and corporate life. It is time to embrace the science of learning and work to address these shortcomings with effective training.

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