Ethnic Diversity: a Benefit to Thinking?

Alright, so here, I want to comment upon the idea that, if you have an ethnically diverse group of people with which you discuss a decision, that decision will come out better, than if you were to discuss it with an homogeneous group.

And for those who hoped I might disagree, the short answer is: yes, if you get sucked into a random group, and that group has greater ethnic diversity, you might perform better.

This result comes from a psychological study, summarized and reported for us by one of its own researchers: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/09/opinion/diversity-makes-you-brighter.html.

Now, I want to comment on this study. So, what this study did, was to take various groups of people, see what monetary value the members gave to various objects, and see if ethnic diversity affected their accuracy. And no, this was not simply ‘white vs. black.’ They did this test in various cities around the world, dividing their subjects into various ethnic groups. In Singapore, for example, none of their ethnic groups included ‘white’ or ‘black.’ So no, this is not about whites and blacks!

The immediate result: Yes! More diverse groups did better! So, diversity is good, right?

Well… let’s look a little bit deeper. One claim, in favor of diversity, which I have repeatedly heard, is that diverse groups are better, because the diversity of their members brings in new viewpoints. Fortunately, the researchers asked the test subjects their views prior to engaging in groups and…

Well, no, people didn’t exhibit any distinction in views correlating with ethnicitiy. In fact, ethnic diversity in a group did not increase the diversity of views in the group!

In other words: each group had, on average, the same diversity in views, regardless of how diverse the composition of that group might have been! So, having an ethnically diverse group had nothing to do with having more diversity of viewpoints!

And yet, these researchers reported that the more diverse groups did better on their tests, even though adding diversity didn’t add diverse viewpoints!

What was the reason? Well, as the researchers reported, the reason was that in homogeneous groups, if one person made an error, other members of the group were more likely to follow that error with minimal objection. In diverse groups, the individual members were more likely to question the errors of one person and to end up disagreeing with them!

So, the reason that diverse groups gave better average results is, if you are considering a question with a diverse group, you are more likely to think for yourself, and disregard the opinions of others!  That is, when you are in a diverse group, this study found the errors of others are less likely to influence you!

How does this relate to other problems? Well, consider that the writers of the article cited above claim that this means that people should support the University of Texas in being biased towards bringing in non-white students – on the grounds that this benefits all students. But in fact, the benefit, in my opinion, has not been adequately demonstrated.

In fact, I would claim, given the way this experiment was conducted, that what they showed was two-fold: 1. People trust those whom they view as ‘like themselves,’ and 2. Ethnicity is part of what people who are strangers use to determine who is ‘like themselves.’

However, in the long term, I suggest that this ‘diversity’ benefit will disappear. Why? Well, the psychological study is all about people thinking of other people as ‘other’ and thus as ‘not as trustworthy.’ That is, when you bring strangers together, they think for themselves more accurately when the other people in their group are ‘differentiated’ from themselves. For instance… because they are of a different race.

But once a group of workers or students works together for any length of time… won’t they begin to view these people as ‘us,’ and not ‘other,’ and thus remove the benefit suggested by this study? In other words, once the novelty of the so-called diversity wears off – won’t people start to view their partners more objectively than by the colour of their skin, or the shape of their eyes, or whatever? Won’t they trust their fellows based upon past performance, rather than upon their demographics? And maybe such a test would be good to make, i.e. comparing demographically diverse groups who have worked together extensively, versus homogenous groups who have worked together repeatedly! I would hypothesize that they may perform almost indistinguishably!

The point is that, if I am correct in my hypothesis, we could compare two potential groups. Group A is formed by a person who says ‘I want maximal diversity. I’m going to take the most qualified person first, but after that I want to take those who, demographically, are most different from those I’ve already hired, because this study says it will help the to be effective.’ Group B is formed by a person who says ‘I want to take the most qualified people, period.’ Now, according to my hypothesis, group A will possibly do better in the very short term. But after groups A and B get used to working with one another – once they no longer view their partners as ‘Other’ – group B, which has the more highly qualified group, will do better!

So, in my opinion, we should be meritocrats. Period. Take the most qualified people. In the long run, even if someone else does better short-term with more ‘ethnic divesity,’ what counts long-term is just who is most qualified.

Because once ‘ethnically different’ is no longer taken as ‘different,’ such a difference will mean nothing.

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