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A system optimized for success

Why homogeneity in the lab can hinder progress.

A system optimized for success
Photo by Robert A. Lisak
A system optimized for success

Change is a constant, and it takes a wide variety of responses to best meet it. Within groups of people, diversity is the fertile ground from which fresh new ideas can spring. “Homogeneity minimizes adaptability,” said John Dovidio, PhD, the Carl I. Hovland Professor of Psychology and professor in the Institute for Social and Policy Studies and of epidemiology. “When you only have one way of doing something, you become a dinosaur. If conditions change—or if what you do well doesn’t have an audience or a group of people that want it—it’s over.”

By contrast, Dovidio said, “There is a lot of research that shows that groups that have more diversity are more creative; are more flexible; are more adaptable.” In diverse groups, the tensions that develop may be creative, forcing people to think more complexly, he said. That can lead to more adaptability and more empathy, as members must maintain a more nuanced worldview about everyone else in the group.

Ethnically diverse juries, for instance, think more deeply about the issues in trials involving race than all-white juries do. Similar phenomena has been found in academic organizations, industrial settings, and the legal system. There’s also evidence that intercultural experience correlates with a higher level of creativity.

It’s true in science, too, said immunobiology professor Akiko Iwasaki, whose lab includes researchers educated in China, Japan, and Korea. “I’m a strong believer in diversity, and I try to implement that in my own laboratory. Diverse teams produce more innovative discoveries,” Iwasaki said. Indeed, scientific papers with a more diverse author lineup tend to include more references and to have a greater effect on their fields than those with a more homogeneous group of authors.

There are undeniable downsides to maintaining a diverse group, however. “Socially, it’s difficult to manage,” Dovidio said. “You have more social tension. You may have some more, at least initially, misunderstandings. … Diversity requires some management and cultivation and attention that homogeneity doesn’t.” That management could include encouraging people to think of themselves as members of the larger group rather than of subgroups, while simultaneously taking care not to gloss over important differences to create a “veneer of harmony,” he said.

For example, we can “get people to say that we are connected in a positive way with one another—we are Americans—but that we come in different flavors.” It can be difficult for groups to navigate that kind of discomfort. But a rich reward often awaits those that succeed. “The benefits of diversity are not simply about helping minorities,” Dovidio said. Rather, diversity “is also about helping majority group members—helping people who identify with the whole system—to be much better, more complex, more flexible.”