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Monday, April 23, 2012

What Counts for Diversity?

Some years ago I participated in a workshop on how to diversify non-profit boards. One participant (the executive director of a non-profit) shared that she just kept searching for qualified individuals who varied in terms of race and gender until her board was diverse. While it has been some time since I was in this workshop and my memory may be faulty, my recollection is that while this executive director was interested in racial and gender diversity, she wasn't in the least bit interested in ideological and theological diversity (it was a religious-based institution). I'm fairly certain that everyone she recruited were theological and political liberals. I don't think my experience was unique, which raises the question, "Just how diverse was this board?" In my opinion, not enough because I believe that diversity of thought is ultimately the most important form of diversity.

Why? There's a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that groups of like-mined individuals are more likely to drift toward more extreme views. This phenomenon is what former University of Chicago Law Professor Cass Sunstein ("Why Societies Need Dissent" and "Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide") calls the "law of group polarization." It predicts that when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common belief. Thus, as the Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein notes, “In a product-liability trial... if nine jurors believe the manufacturer is somewhat guilty and three believe it is entirely guilty, the latter will draw the former toward a larger award than the nine would allow on their own. Or, if people who object in varying degrees to the war in Iraq convene to debate methods of protest, all will emerge from the discussion more resolved against the war” ("Liberal Groupthink is Anti-Intellectual").

Mark Sageman’s study of the global salafi jihad (GSJ) uncovered similar group dynamics at work with terrorist groups ("Understanding Terror Networks"). He found that people who joined the GSJ were often homesick young men who drifted to familiar settings, like mosques, looking for companionship. There, small clusters of friends formed. They often moved into apartments together where they underwent a long period of intense social interaction. As they became closer, they progressively adopted the beliefs of the group’s most extreme members. This distanced them further from their childhood friends and family, leading to increased isolation and loyalty to the group, which in turn intensified their faith, and they were then ready to join the jihad.

As a consequence like-minded groups tend to be less "effective" than groups that are populated by people holding a wide range of opinions. This is because diversity of thought encourages group members to consider alternative points of view that challenge and sometimes change their taken-for-granted assumptions. (As you might have guessed, diversity of thought is one of the reasons why groups don't drift toward extremes.)  For instance, Brooke Harrington ("Pop Finance") found that the worst performing investment clubs (i.e., small groups of people who pool their money and make joint decisions about stock market investments) are those that are composed primarily of close friends who think alike and have little open debate. The highest performing clubs, by contrast, are characterized by looser friendships and more dissent.

Of course, boards and other groups may achieve diversity of thought by recruiting only along lines of race and gender, but there's no guarantee that they will. More likely, a little extra work will be needed. Indeed, a lot of extra work will probably be needed. As researchers have found repeatedly, we tend to hang out with people who think like we do (known as the homophily effect -- "birds of a feather, flock together"), which is probably why the executive director I mentioned earlier ended up recruiting people for her board who were very much alike one another and her. However, if true diversity is our goal and/or if we want our groups to function more effectively, then I believe that a little extra effort will be worth it.

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