Monday, August 20, 2012

Diversity, It Matters More than We Think

Scott E. Page, complex systems and political science professor at the University of Michigan, stumbled upon an interesting phenomenon as an assistant professor at CalTech, and he uses it to frame the introduction of his book The Difference:
I stumbled upon a counterintuitive finding: diverse groups of problem solvers. . . consistently outperformed groups of the best and the brightest. If I formed two groups, one random (and therefore diverse) and one consisting of the best individual performers, the first group almost always did better. In my model, diversity trumped ability.
Obviously, a finding like this could raise some hackles.

What's that?
I will never miss the opportunity for a good "raised hackles" photo. 
An argument like that could be used as groundwork to say that merit doesn't matter. Page goes on to explain that's not the case:
Ability matters. But--here's the catch--so does diversity. Comparisons between the two (which matters more: diversity or ability?) require some care. We're comparing an apple to a fruit basket. Ability is the property of an individual--a nice shiny apple. Neither a person nor an apple can be diverse. Diversity is a property of a collection of people--a basket with many kinds of fruit. Diversity and ability complement one another: the better the individual fruits, the better the fruit basket, and the better the other fruit, the better the apple. 
OLC Open House Fruit Basket

The rest of the book outlines in great detail the different "tools" (ways of approaching a problem) people bring through their cognitive diversity. Page also discusses what goes into creating cognitive diversity in the first place, and one element is experience. 
Two people who have different experiences also develop different toolboxes. A city-dwelling banker acquires tools such as navigating a transportation system and balancing a stock portfolio. A farmer learns quite different tools, perhaps even balancing a transportation system (a horse) and navigating stock, tools that the banker has no incentive to acquire. 
All this to say that problems are best solved when the people approaching them share multiple perspectives. And one way to ensure multiple perspectives is to gather people together who have lived through different experiences. 

A recent study published by the Chronicle of Philanthropy made me think about this principle of diverse perspectives today. This study looked at the charity donations across America on a zipcode by zipcode basis. One of the key findings is that people are more likely to give if they live in areas where they encounter poor people. And those who make less money give more than those who make more money:
Rich people who live in neighborhoods with many other wealthy people give a smaller share of their incomes to charity than rich people who live in more economically diverse communities. When people making more than $200,000 a year account for more than 40 percent of the taxpayers in a ZIP code, the wealthy residents give an average of 2.8 percent of discretionary income to charity, compared with an average of 4.2 percent for all itemizers earning $200,000 or more.
An NPR article discussing these findings cites Kristin Valentine, a director for a nonprofit called Bread for the City in Washington, D.C. The zip code where this charity is housed is among the city's poorest, but the people there donate at a rate four times the national average. Think about that for a second. The people in one of the poorest areas are out-donating the rest of the nation four-fold. 

Valentine says that the findings don't surprise her because even the people in need that their charity serves donate money and time to the charity when they can. Seeing people struggle makes people more likely to donate. 

It also reminded me of the quote from Milk where Harvey Milk says that people vote two-to-one for gay rights if they personally know a gay person. A 2009 Gallup poll suggests that there's a lot of truth to that sentiment:

Most of these studies and discussions focus on the impact that entering into diverse discourse communities has upon the people in those communities. But we also have to think about the flip side. If being exposed to diverse perspectives impacts the way you interact with the world, so does not being exposed to them. 

I was thinking about this in relation to Todd Akin's reprehensible comments about "legitimate rape." Despite his statement that he "misspoke," Akin's calm delivery of a statement that has set the political world on fire today suggests that he wasn't really attuned to the way it would be perceived. And I know I'm speculating, but--as a Missourian who lives very near Akin's home district--I suspect that he didn't know the way it would be perceived because he'd been living in a bubble. I suspect that he was surrounded by people who did not bristle at that idea or others like it. He'd mistakenly been allowed to believe that was an acceptable viewpoint, and it wasn't until he found himself on a national stage with a higher level of scrutiny that his opinions butted up against other viewpoints. 

That's not to say that Akin's never met anyone who thinks that claiming a raped woman can't get pregnant is ridiculous. I'm sure he met lots of them. But if you're not entering into earnest discourse involving your beliefs, you aren't really testing them. 

Unfortunately, we tend to dichotomize everything so much that listening to diverse perspectives is tantamount to treason. There's so much invested in "winning" the fight that we forget to have the fight to begin with. We take sides without ever having tested our opinions. We don't even have enough experience with other perspectives to know that we're missing them. 

And how do we fix that? How do we push back against a cultural norm that insists winning a debate at any cost is more important than what we can gain by entering the debate? How do we demonstrate that putting ourselves in groups with diversity (of all kinds: racial, gender, economic, geographic, ethnic, political)--be it where we live, where we shop, where we go to school, where we work--is a good thing, even if it sometimes makes us uncomfortable?

No comments:

Post a Comment