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From: Scientific American

How Diversity Makes Us Smarter

Scientific American:

The first thing to acknowledge about diversity is that it can be difficult. In the U.S., where the dialogue of inclusion is relatively advanced, even the mention of the word “diversity” can lead to anxiety and conflict. Supreme Court justices disagree on the virtues of diversity and the means for achieving it. Corporations spend billions of dollars to attract and manage diversity both internally and externally, yet they still face discrimination lawsuits, and the leadership ranks of the business world remain predominantly white and male.

It is reasonable to ask what good diversity does us. Diversity of expertise confers benefits that are obvious—you would not think of building a new car without engineers, designers and quality-control experts—but what about social diversity? What good comes from diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation? Research has shown that social diversity in a group can cause discomfort, rougher interactions, a lack of trust, greater perceived interpersonal conflict, lower communication, less cohesion, more concern about disrespect, and other problems. So what is the upside?

In 2006 Margaret Neale of Stanford University, Gregory Northcraft of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and I set out to examine the impact of racial diversity on small decision-making groups in an experiment where sharing information was a requirement for success. Our subjects were undergraduate students taking business courses at the University of Illinois. We put together three-person groups—some consisting of all white members, others with two whites and one nonwhite member—and had them perform a murder mystery exercise. We made sure that all group members shared a common set of information, but we also gave each member important clues that only he or she knew. To find out who committed the murder, the group members would have to share all the information they collectively possessed during discussion. The groups with racial diversity significantly outperformed the groups with no racial diversity. Being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective. This perspective, which stopped the all-white groups from effectively processing the information, is what hinders creativity and innovation.

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Comments

The experiments described here, and the literature in general, fails to control for potential source traits for the value of diversity. E.g., the example here. Was it the different gender or skin colour of team members that made the diverse teams better, or was it the different life experiences, cultural background, orientations, or personality traits?

There are ways to test for this, and the scientific literature seems to fail to address the difference.

This distinction is critically important for several reasons:
(1) Hiring based on personality and background characteristics is perfectly legal. Hiring based traits like race and gender are violations of human rights laws, and for good reason.

(2) If it is personality and cultural traits that provide the value, speaking of diversity in terms of race, gender, and other categories actually evokes ingroup/outgroup psychological responses as in Realistic Conflict Theory, and makes matters unnecessarily worse, not better.

(3) It may be that a biologically similar group (same race, gender, etc.) with diverse personalities, geographic origins, and ages has more diversity where it matters than a biologically diverse group (different races, gender, etc.) that are of similar age, grew up in same geographic area, same university degrees, and similar personality traits.

By way of analogy, experiments where teams with greater height diversity perform better would result in showing that having a mixture of men and women improves results because of the strong correlation between biological sex and height. But a team of women and men who are homogeneously tall or short would not perform as well as a team of all women or all men with a range of height variations. Gender would the be incorrect, but correlated, trait and would lead to incorrectly designing teams. This sort of thing can easily happen with race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and other traits if not properly controlled.

(4) The causal chain is quite different. Differences in backgrounds, experiences, culture, and personality traits would likely have causal mechanism within the individuals in terms of different sources of ideas or thought processes. Differences in outward appearance or shared knowledge about team members would have a causal chain related to how other team members interact with individuals, not from within the individual themselves.

It is important to get the traits right, and to separate out types, which these experiments do not do.

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