Diversity makes us smarter

I often find myself drawn to discussions of ‘diversity’, which, it should be noted, is a term that can have a lot of different meanings – a diversity of meanings, if you will. Oh, you won’t? *Gulp* Sorry.

When I talk about diversity, I generally refer to a non-sociological definition – one that is really more grounded in colloquial usage: having representation of a variety of different groups, all working toward the same goal. So ‘diversity’ in a classroom means that you have many different types of students, all working toward the goal of learning. ‘Diversity’ in a government agency might refer to having people with differing socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, working toward the goal of achieving the agency’s objectives.

Another colloquial usage of ‘diversity’ refers explicitly to increasing the number of minority group members in an organization. Usually this refers to racial minorities and women, since many of our institutions tend to be white and male dominated (although we have been getting better about this). It has also become a dirty word for that same reason, since many see any advancement of minority groups as taking something away from the majority group. My argument has always been that this isn’t the case.

This post was supposed to follow a post that’s planned for this Monday, but I have decided to push it up for a couple of reasons. First, because it’s easy to write about and I have limited time while I’m away from home. Second, because it’s interesting. Third, because it’s relevant to a fight that’s currently happening on my Facebook wall:

Professors Woolley and Malone, along with Christopher Chabris, Sandy Pentland, and Nada Hashmi, gave subjects aged 18 to 60 standard intelligence tests and assigned them randomly to teams. Each team was asked to complete several tasks—including brainstorming, decision making, and visual puzzles—and to solve one complex problem. Teams were given intelligence scores based on their performance. Though the teams that had members with higher IQs didn’t earn much higher scores, those that had more women did.

This isn’t really the substance of the fight – it has more to do with the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ (which I have discussed in depth before) and wage equality for women. However, the issue of ‘tokenism’ has come up, and I feel the need to respond to it in more words than are really wieldy on a Facebook comment. The argument that a certain friend made is that there are women in positions of power, so we should really consider the issue of accessibility more or less solved – at least we shouldn’t consider it something worth making a big deal about.

‘Tokenism’, for those of you that haven’t encountered the phrase before, refers to having a single member of a non-majority group present in an organization, who can then be pointed to whenever discussions of diversity come up (“we’re not _____ist, we’ve got Pat, who is a _____!”). The problem with this ‘solution’ to the problem is that it does not reflect real diversity, only the wish to avoid appearances of selective hiring. This study I’ve cited above seems to suggest that having more diverse groups (at least gender-diverse groups) makes those groups actually work better.

Woolley: We’ve replicated the findings twice now. Many of the factors you might think would be predictive of group performance were not. Things like group satisfaction, group cohesion, group motivation—none were correlated with collective intelligence. And, of course, individual intelligence wasn’t highly correlated, either.

Malone: Before we did the research, we were afraid that collective intelligence would be just the average of all the individual IQs in a group. So we were surprised but intrigued to find that group intelligence had relatively little to do with individual intelligence.

So if the individual IQ of the group members doesn’t predict group performance, what is important? Apparently, women are (for reasons that are likely sociological as much as – or more than – biological) better at understanding non-verbal communication and can facilitate group co-operation and problem solving more adeptly than men, allowing the group to get the best from all of its members. While it is obvious from even a cursory examination of the people in your life, there are some men that are better at this skill than some women, the underlying point remains – having a variety of kinds of people and kinds of skills is a boon to group effectiveness that goes far beyond the simple appearance of diversity.

While it is certainly convenient to point to individual examples of women in positions of power as evidence that sexism isn’t as bad as it once was, nobody is making the argument that there has been zero progress along the lines of gender inequality. The point is that we can still do better about addressing the inequalities we continue to see. If and when we do that, we will have done more than simply righted a moral injustice, or made women stop complaining, or reached some faux-liberal goal of making sure nobody feels excluded ever. We will have improved our society in such a way that it improves life for everyone.

It is a stretch to cite this article as proof that reducing racial inequalities will have the same effect, and I am not claiming this to be conclusive evidence of that. My personal belief in this matter is that increasing diversity in general results in a similar outcome – more people who can bring unique experience and perspective to a novel problem will tend to outperform groups that are more homogeneous, regardless of individual merit of the members of those groups. I will flesh this idea out in greater detail on Monday.

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  1. says

    Ah, Crommunist, I do enjoy your writing. Thanks for the link, as I see this study producing some good (and possibly hilarious) conversations in the office. Looking forward to the next instalment.

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