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What We Believe Makes a Difference

What We Believe Makes a Difference

Diversity is more than just bringing different points of view to the table. Just adding different kinds of people to a group makes people think that they might have different points of view, and this makes people change how they act. Members of a homogeneous group have a reasonable expectation that they will agree with one another, that they will understand one another's perspectives and beliefs, and that they will be able to reach an agreement quickly.

However, when group members realize they are socially different from one another, their expectations shift. They anticipate disagreements and points of view. They believe they will have to work harder to reach an agreement. This logic helps to explain both the benefits and drawbacks of social diversity: People work harder in a variety of settings, both cognitively and socially. They may not like it, but hard work can lead to better results.

In a 2006 study of jury decision-making, Tufts University social psychologist Samuel Sommers discovered that racially diverse groups exchanged more information during deliberation about a sexual assault case than all-white groups. Sommers conducted mock jury trials with a group of real selected jurors in a Michigan courtroom in collaboration with judges and jury administrators. The participants were aware that the mock jury was a court-sponsored experiment, but they were unaware that the true purpose of the research was to investigate the impact of racial diversity on jury decision-making.

Sommers chose either all white jurors or four white and two black jurors for the six-person jury. As one might expect, the diverse juries performed better when it came to considering case facts, made fewer mistakes when recalling relevant information, and were more open to discussing the role of race in the case.

These improvements did not occur because black jurors brought new information to the group; rather, they occurred because white jurors altered their behavior in the presence of black jurors. They were more diligent and open-minded in the presence of diversity.

Consider the following example: You're a scientist preparing a section of a paper for presentation at a conference. Because your collaborator is American and you are Chinese, you anticipate some disagreement and potential communication difficulties. You may focus on other differences between yourself and that person because of one social distinction, such as her or his culture, upbringing, and experiences—differences that you would not expect from another Chinese collaborator. How do you plan on preparing for the meeting? You will almost certainly work harder to explain your reasoning and anticipate alternatives than you would have otherwise—and you may even work harder to reconcile those differences.

This is how diversity works: by encouraging hard work and creativity, as well as the consideration of alternatives before any interpersonal interaction. The pain associated with diversity can be compared to the pain associated with exercise. To build muscle, you must push yourself. As the old adage goes, "pain produces gain." Similarly, diversity is required in teams, organizations, and society as a whole if we are to change, grow, and innovate.

This essay was first published in Scientific American in 2014. Katherine Phillips revised and updated it in 2017 to include new research.