Diversity Makes You Brighter

Sheen S. Levine and David Stark, New York Times, December 9, 2015

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{snip} Diversity improves the way people think. By disrupting conformity, racial and ethnic diversity prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply and develop their own opinions. Our findings show that such diversity actually benefits everyone, minorities and majority alike.

To study the effects of ethnic and racial diversity, we conducted a series of experiments in which participants competed in groups to find accurate answers to problems. In a situation much like a classroom, we started by presenting each participant individually with information and a task: to calculate accurate prices for simulated stocks. First, we collected individual answers, and then (to see how committed participants were to their answers), we let them buy and sell those stocks to the others, using real money. Participants got to keep any profit they made.

When trading, participants could observe the behavior of their counterparts and decide what to make of it. {snip}

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We assigned each participant to a group that was either homogeneous or diverse (meaning that it included at least one participant of another ethnicity or race). To ascertain that we were measuring the effects of diversity, not culture or history, we examined a variety of ethnic and racial groups. In Texas, we included the expected mix of whites, Latinos and African-Americans. In Singapore, we studied people who were Chinese, Indian and Malay. {snip}

The findings were striking. When participants were in diverse company, their answers were 58 percent more accurate. The prices they chose were much closer to the true values of the stocks. As they spent time interacting in diverse groups, their performance improved.

In homogeneous groups, whether in the United States or in Asia, the opposite happened. When surrounded by others of the same ethnicity or race, participants were more likely to copy others, in the wrong direction. Mistakes spread as participants seemingly put undue trust in others’ answers, mindlessly imitating them. In the diverse groups, across ethnicities and locales, participants were more likely to distinguish between wrong and accurate answers. Diversity brought cognitive friction that enhanced deliberation.

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What we actually found is that these benefits can arise merely from the very presence of minorities. In the initial responses, which were made before participants interacted, there were no statistically significant differences between participants in the homogeneous or diverse groups. Minority members did not bring some special knowledge.

The differences emerged only when participants began interacting with one another. When surrounded by people “like ourselves,” we are easily influenced, more likely to fall for wrong ideas. Diversity prompts better, critical thinking. It contributes to error detection. It keeps us from drifting toward miscalculation.

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