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Diversity actually makes us smarter

Reuters/Jose Luis Gonzalez
A radiant variety.
By Amy X. Wang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Lecture halls, courtrooms, boardrooms, and legislative chambers around the world right now are all pondering variations of the same question: What’s so special about diversity?

In Europe, an overflowing migrant crisis and the aftermath of a high-profile terrorist attack are fueling racial tumult in several countries; in the US, a contentious Supreme Court case about affirmative action just opened up in the midst of escalating race-related frustrations on college campuses. In Myanmar, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who prevailed in elections last month is already under fire for relative silence on the status of the Rohingya, an ethnic minority persecuted at the hands of Buddhist monks and government security forces.

With those kinds of conflicts as backdrop, it’s worth noting that a large body of research—conducted across dozens of years, countries, and situational settings—maintains that racial and ethnic diversity is critically important to our communities, our social institutions, and even our own brains.

Take these examples. In 2003, researchers found banks with racially diverse employees yielded better financial performance than those that didn’t. In a 2006 study, diverse juries were shown to be more adept at thinking holistically and recalling information without error. And a memorable study from this summer showed how diversity in parent couples can literally produce taller, smarter kids.

There are personal, individual benefits, too: A cluster of experiments from 2014, conducted by Sheen Levine, a management professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, and Columbia sociology professor David Stark, suggests diversity can prompt people to think more critically, consciously, and deeply.

“[It’s] something that is human, universally true.”

Because a hefty portion of diversity research takes place in the Western world, Levine and Stark decided to ground their experiment in both the US and Southeast Asia. In both places, they put people in homogenous and either racially or ethnically diverse groups, and asked everyone to calculate accurate prices for simulated stocks. Then the subjects were invited to buy or sell the stocks to others in the group, using real money; the subjects could keep whatever profits they made.

“Past research seemed to have involved situations that call for ethnic considerations,” Levine explains to Quartz. ”We wanted to take a setting that is completely unrelated to race—something that requires analytical thinking, where there is one correct answer, and see what role ethnicity could possibly play there.”

In experiments conducted in Texas, the diverse groups included white, black, and Latino subjects; in parallel experiments in Singapore, the diverse groups included Chinese, Indian, and Malaysian subjects.

Turns out, participants in diverse company performed 58% better than those working only with peers of similar background.

Following recently renewed controversy over affirmative action in the US—the Supreme Court this week began hearings on a case involving admittance policies at the University of Texas—the two professors penned an op-ed in the New York Times on Dec. 9 about their research, noting that diversity “brought cognitive friction that enhanced deliberation,” while homogeneity caused people to copy others and move in the wrong direction.

There is nothing uniquely American about those results. The studies in Texas and Singapore both showed diversity was a boon to people’s performance. That, Levine says, “tells me this is not something to do with culture [but] something that is human, universally true.”

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