The true importance of Diversity

April 13, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

. . .  To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Star Trek Mission Statement

When I hear the term “diversity” I become suspicious.  For many people, diversity refers to the mechanical process of gathering different-looking people and assuming that doing this creates a melting pot of ideas and character traits.  Used in this way, however, “diversity” is no less than a form of racism; the people who mechanically gather other people by their looks assume that people who look the same have the same character, intellect, and culture.  This is not my experience.  I have often found that groups of similar-looking people are often just as diverse (in character, intellect and culture) as groups of different-looking people.  Similarly, groups of different-looking people are often culturally homogenous.  You just shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  For me, then, mixing people by looks is not a legitimate form of diversity.

Understood in a broader way, however, diversity is something to which we should still aspire with vigor.  To understand the importance of true diversity requires a short detour into the study of human cognition. 

Humans are both assisted by and shackled by the “availability” heuristic.   “Heuristics” are rules of thumb we constantly use, often unconsciously, to navigate our complex and often disorienting world.  The availability heuristic is the “strong disposition to make judgments or evaluations in light of the first thing that comes to mind (or ‘available’ to the mind).”  See A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, John Paulos, p. 14 (1995).

As long as the availability (easy accessibility) of events correlates with their objective frequency, the availability heuristic is a useful perceptual strategy–it remedies the cognitive overload that we would otherwise have.  There are many factors uncorrelated with frequency, however, which can influence “an event’s immediate perceptual salience, the vividness or completeness with which it is recalled, or the ease with which it is imagined.”   As a result, the availability heuristic can often be misleading” and prone to attentional manipulation. R. Nisbett and L. Ross, Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment, p. 19-20 (1980). For instance, the availability heuristic empowers false dichotomies: “Are we going to overeat on Thanksgiving afternoon or Thanksgiving evening?” This question makes “sense” even though there are many other options, such as overeating at other times or not overeating at all.

When it comes to human decision-making, the availability heuristic is a double-edged sword.  Though the availability heuristic often assists us (by culling down possible courses of action in a disorienting world), the availability heuristic is sometimes our foe.  It facilitates action by focusing us on salient options, but it does this by often closing our eyes to valuable alternatives with which we are not as familiar).  Without the availability heuristic, we’d often be paralyzed by indecision.   With it, however, we tend to miss out on valuable roads we’ve never before taken.   Though blindly succumbing to the availability heuristic especially can assist us in our day-to-day routines, resisting the availability heuristic enables us to be better explorers.

What does the availability heuristic have to do with diversity?  Everything.  Spending time with people who are truly different that we are makes new ideas more “available.” Some of those ideas are great ones that we would never have developed had we surrounded ourselves only with same-thinking people.

When we think of things to do that day (or things to do with our lives), we tend to think of the things that are most “available” to us. Those things tend to be the things that are most often in front of us—the things we see our peers doing.  Thinking and conduct can become incestuous in homogenous environments; feedback loops from behavior to future behavior often become short and un-nuanced.  Because the things we most often experience are simply more “available,” we tend to take well-traveled roads because 1) It “feels” correct 2) it seems easier and 3) we’re often in a hurry.  In our real-time lives, it takes extra effort to generate options beyond those with which we are already familiar.  It takes concerted effort to think “outside the box.”  

As stated at the outset, many people believe that diversity is fully accomplished by collecting people who look different.  This crude and problematic start causes a false sense of accomplishment.  Today, I would call it the “Condoleezza Rice Phenomenon.”  The way people look is only a tiny slice of the many ways in which people differ.  A true effort to accomplish diversity must be wide-open and full-throttled.  On a national level, it would require giving voices to people who actually think in diverse ways.  It would also require that we expend effort to give greater voices to the many people without great wealth (including many people who practice what should be our most honored professions, such as teachers) to compete with the loud voices of people who hold powerful office or who run major corporations. 

Diversity must also be encouraged at the individual level.  I am astounded at how many Americans have no interests outside of their local community; they are content to wave off the religious, intellectual and social traditions of other people.  In fact, we have become a country that tries to solve our problems by demonizing people who are different (current demons are people who question the president, people who do not attend Christian churches, non- English speakers and gays).  More than anything else, the people currently in power want everyone else to fall in line to give homage to the current president and the current version of God.
When we believe that we are faced with grave dangers (such as “terrorism”), we are even more likely to use the availability heuristic, the most available political strategies today being patriotism and fundamentalism.  Our leaders clearly aren’t thinking outside of the box.  They recognize only a few options for dealing with real life dangers:  1) more bombs, 2) prisons, 3) aggressive diplomacy, 4) defend wasteful energy use, 5) tax cuts, 6) let corporations take over the government.  It’s not even available to our national psyche that our own behavior is triggering much of the outrage now directed toward us by the outside world.  The current administration’s thought patterns have become stunted and ossified—diverse viewpoints are not tolerated.  Those with diverse viewpoints have long been booted out of power.

As a nation, we should encourage true diversity.  We should recognize the importance of exposure to truly diverse people, loaded to bear with truly diverse ideas, to stretch each other beyond our intellectual, social and emotional horizons.   Through our education systems (formal and informal) and our political dialogue, we shouldn’t be yelling at each other to march in lockstep.  Instead, we should strive to knock each other “off-track” to nullify the shackling tendency of the availability heuristic bias.  This approach will prepare each of us to be fluid and creative sorts of thinkers that are more capable of adapting to a quickly changing world.
This approach, to encourage and celebrate those who are different than us, is understandably something that terrifies those who want us to think and move in a unified herd.   It appears, though, that the herd is headed toward a steep cliff. Celebrating true diversity will make each of us more likely to seek out new models and approaches rather than automatically reaching for questionable solutions simply because they seem more available.  It takes some extra time to listen to others who propose alternative approaches, but there is a huge payoff.

John Stuart Mill was correct to believe that a free marketplace of ideas was the only way to go.  In a diverse and wide-open marketplace of ideas, there is no pre-filtering, but the occasional chaos and cacophony is a small price to pay.  In Mills view, given time, true and valuable ideas tend to prevail. 

Where America has truly been great, it was because America was a place that invited people from many backgrounds to come together in such a way that they (eventually) listened to each other and learned from each other.  That is the aim of true diversity.


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Category: Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. I really appreciate this posting about the importance of diversity. Well articulated, and I haven't found another source that says it better. Thanks.

  2. DICKSON SEDZI says:

    this is an "outside the box" way of looking at diversity. I really learned a lot from this piece.

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