How diversity makes us smarter (2023)

The first thing to acknowledgediversityis that it can be difficult.

In the US, where the dialogue about inclusion is relatively sophisticated, even the mention of the word “diversity” can create fear and conflict. Supreme Court justices disagree on the benefits of diversity and the means to achieve it. Businesses spend billions of dollars to attract and manage diversity both internally and externally, but they still face discrimination lawsuits and corporate leaders remain overwhelmingly white and male.

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It is fair to ask what good diversity means to us. variety ofexpertiseoffers benefits that are obvious – you wouldn't think of building a new car without engineers, designers and quality control experts – but what about social diversity? WhatGood comes from diversityof race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation? Research has shown that social diversity in a group can lead to discomfort, rougher interactions, lack of trust, greater perceived interpersonal conflict, decreased communication, less cohesion, increased concerns about disrespect, and other issues. So what's the benefit?


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The fact is, if you want to build teams or organizations that innovate, you need diversity. Diversity increases creativity. It stimulates the search for new information and perspective, leading to better decision-making and problem-solving. Diversity can improve business outcomes and lead to rampant discovery and breakthrough innovation. Just exposure to diversity can change the way you think.

That's not just wishful thinking: it's the conclusion I draw from decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and demographers.

Diversity of information promotes innovation

The key to understanding the positive impact of diversity is the concept of information diversity. When people are brought together to solve problems in groups, they bring different information, opinions, and perspectives to the table.

That makes sense when we talk about the diversity of disciplinary backgrounds – think again about the interdisciplinary team that builds a car. The same logic applies to social diversity. People who differ from each other on race, gender, and other dimensions bring unique information and experiences to do their job. An engineer can have just as different perspectives as an engineer and a physicist - and that's a good thing.

“We need diversity if we want to change, grow and innovate”

-DR. Katherine W. Phillips

Studies on large, innovative organizations have shown this again and again.

For example, economics professors Cristian Deszö from the University of Maryland and David Ross from Columbia Universityeducatedthe impact of gender diversity on the top companies in Standard & Poor's Composite 1500 list, a group meant to reflect the entire US stock market. First, they examined the size and gender composition of companies' top management teams from 1992 to 2006. They then examined the companies' financial performance. In their words, they found that “the representation of women in top management leads, on average, to an increase in company value of US$42 million.” They also measured companies' “innovation intensity” by the ratio of research and development expenditures to assets . They found that companies that prioritized innovation saw greater financial benefits when women were in the top management ranks.

Racial diversity can bring the same benefits. In a 2003 study, Orlando Richard, a professor of management at the University of Texas at Dallas, and his colleagues surveyed executives from 177 US central bankers and then compiled a database that measured financial performance, racial diversity, and priorities, that bank directors have, rely on innovation in moderation. For innovation-driven banks, an increase in racial diversity was clearly associated with improved financial performance.

Of course, not all studies come to the same conclusions. Even those who have not identified any benefit to racially diverse corporations agree that there most certainly aren't anyNegativefinancial implications – and there are benefits that can go beyond short-term outcomes. For example at onePaper published in June this year, researchers examined the financial performance of the companies listed inDiversityIncList of top 50 companies for diversity. They found that the companies on the list outperformed the S&P 500 index, but the positive effect disappeared when the researchers factored in the size of the companies. But that doesn't mean that diversity isn't desirable, the authors conclude:

In an era of increasing globalization, a diverse workforce can bring both tangible and intangible long-term benefits to companies, including greater adaptability to a changing market. And as the United States approaches the point where there is no longer an ethnic majority, by 2050 it is expected that corporate governance and the workforce will be more diverse. As a result, diversity initiatives would likely have a positive impact on corporate reputations.

Evidence of the benefits of diversity extends well beyond the United States. In August 2012, a team of researchers from the Credit Suisse Research Institute published aRapportThey surveyed 2,360 companies worldwide between 2005 and 2011, looking for a link between gender diversity on boards and financial performance. In fact, the researchers found that companies with one or more women on their boards achieved higher average return on equity, lower leverage (i.e., net debt to equity ratio), and better average growth.

How diversity stimulates new thinking

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Studies with large datasets have a clear limitation: they only show that diversity is associated with better performance, not that it leads to better performance. However, research on racial diversity in small groups allows for some causal conclusions. Here, too, the results are clear: For groups that value innovation and new ideas, diversity helps.

In 2006, I set out with Margaret Neale from Stanford University and Gregory Northcraft from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaignexamine the effectsof racial diversity in small decision-making groups in an experiment where information sharing was a prerequisite for success.

Our subjects were undergraduate students taking business courses at the University of Illinois. We put groups of three together—some all white, others two white and one non-white—and had them do a crime-solving exercise. We made sure all group members shared the same information, but we also gave each member important clues that only he or she knew. In order to find out who committed the murder, the group members would have to share whatever information they had in common during the discussion. The racially diverse groups performed significantly better than the non-racially diverse groups. When we are with similar people, we believe that we all have the same information and share the same perspective. This perspective, which exclusively prevented white groups from processing the information effectively, hampers creativity and innovation.

Other researchers have found similar results. In 2004, Stanford Graduate School of Education professor Anthony Lising Antonio teamed up with five colleagues from the University of California, Los Angeles and other institutionsExamine the influencethe composition of races and opinions in small group discussions. More than 350 students from three universities took part in the study. Group members were asked to discuss a current social issue (child labor or the death penalty) for 15 minutes. The researchers wrote dissenting opinions and had black and white members present them to their groups. When a black person presented a different perspective to a group of white people, the perspective was perceived as new and led to more comprehensive thinking and consideration of alternatives than a white personthe same different perspective.

The Lesson: Hearing a dissenting opinion from someone different from us is more thought-provoking than hearing it from someone similar to us. It is a result that is reflecteda longitudinal studyThe study, published last year, examined the moral development of students at 17 locations who took a diversity-related course in their freshman year. The analysis led the researchers to a compelling conclusion: students who were coached to deal with diversity from the start displayed much more sophisticated moral thinking by the time they graduated. This was especially true for students who entered with lower academic abilities.

  • How diversity makes us smarter (3)

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This effect is not limited to race and gender. Last year, for example, management professors Denise Lewin Loyd at the University of Illinois, Cynthia Wang at Oklahoma State University, Robert B. Lount, Jr. at Ohio State University, and Iasked 186 peopleWhether they identified themselves as Democrats or Republicans, they would read a detective story and decide who they thought committed the crime. We then asked subjects to prepare for an encounter with another group member by writing an essay presenting their perspective. More importantly, in all cases we told participants that their partner disagreed with their opinion, but that they should agree with the other person. Everyone was told to prepare to persuade their interlocutor to come to their side; However, half of the subjects were told to prepare to present their case to a member of the other political party and the other half were told to present their case to a member of their own party.

The result: Democrats who were told that another Democrat disagreed with them prepared less well for the discussion than Democrats who were told that a Republican disagreed with them. Republicans followed the same pattern. When a disagreement comes from a socially different person, we are pushed to work harder. Diversity drives us to act cognitively in a way that homogeneity simply does not.

Diversity therefore seems to lead to better quality scientific research.

In 2014, two researchers from Harvard Universityexplored ethnic identitythe authors of 1.5 million scientific papers written between 1985 and 2008 using Thomson Reuters' Web of Science, a comprehensive database of published research. They found that essays written by different groups are cited more often and have higher impact factors than essays written by people from the same ethnic group. In addition, they found that stronger articles were associated with a higher number of author addresses; Geographical diversity and a greater number of references reflect greater intellectual diversity.

What we believe makes a difference

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Diversity is not just about bringing different perspectives. Just adding social diversity to a group makes people specialbelievethat there may be different perspectives among them and that belief drives people to change their behavior.

Members of a homogeneous group are reasonably certain that they agree; that they understand each other's perspectives and beliefs; that they can easily agree.

However, when members of a group realize that they are socially different, they change their expectations. They anticipate differences of opinion and perspective. They assume that they will have to work harder to reach a consensus. This logic helps explain both the positive and negative sides of social diversity: people work harder both cognitively and socially in diverse environments. They may not like it, but the hard work can lead to better results.

in oneStudy from 2006Tufts University social psychologist Samuel Sommers noted in the jury's decision-making process that racially diverse groups shared a wider range of information than all-white groups during deliberations on a sexual assault case. Working with judges and a jury in a Michigan courtroom, Sommers conducted mock trials with a panel of truly selected jurors. Although the participants knew that the mock jury was a court-sponsored experiment, they were unaware that the real purpose of the study was to examine the impact of racial diversity on jury decision-making.

Sommers composed the six-member jury either exclusively from white jurors or from four white and two black jurors. As might be expected, the various jurors were better at considering facts, made fewer mistakes in recalling relevant information, and were more open to discussing the role of race in the case.

These improvements did not necessarily occur because black jurors brought new information to the group—they occurred because white jurors changed their behavior in front of black jurors. Given the diversity, they were more diligent and open-minded.

Consider the following scenario: You are a scientist and you are writing part of a paper to be presented at an upcoming conference. You anticipate disagreements and possible communication problems because your co-worker is American and you are Chinese. A social distinction allows you to focus on other differences between you and that person, such as his or her culture, upbringing, and experiences—differences you wouldn't expect from another Chinese colleague. How do you prepare for the meeting? In all likelihood, you'll put more effort into explaining your motivations and anticipating alternatives than you otherwise would—and you may have to work even harder to compensate for these differences.

That ishow diversity works: by encouraging hard work and creativity; by encouraging the consideration of alternatives before any human interaction even takes place. The pain associated with variety can be thought of as the pain of training. You have to make an effort to build your muscles. The pain brings the gain, as the old saying goes. Likewise, we need diversity - in teams, organizations and society as a whole - if we are to change, grow and innovate.

This essay wasoriginally publishedin 2014 by Scientific American. It has been revised and updated to include new research.


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