Diversity Makes Us More Creative, Smarter People

Don't get complacent. Next time you're in a public setting, sit next to someone who doesn't look (or seem) like you do. (Photo: Rawpixel /Shutterstock).

Next time you're looking for a seat on a crowded bus, subway or train, or have to sit near a stranger in a movie theater, look at who you end up next to. Most of us, most of the time, will opt to share space with someone like us (that "like us" can be physical traits or less obvious commonalities).

It's very normal, and very human to do this. Without thinking about it, I always end up sitting next to a younger woman, and though I don't seem to be picky about race, it matters what she's wearing — I tend to sit next to young women wearing dresses (I rarely wear pants). If I do sit next to a man, it will be a younger man, not an older one, and I avoid older women too. But all bets are out the window when it comes to one trait — if someone is reading a book, I will be much more likely to sit next to them. It took me years to notice that I did this.

Admitting the above makes me feel uncomfortable but it's true. We all tend to feel more comfortable with people like us, since they seem safer (this is called the Familiarity Principle of Attraction by psychologists). Studies show that our friends are even likely to be related to us. But just because it's comfortable to be around groups of people like ourselves doesn't mean we should stick to our bubbles.

It's worth it to deal with the initial discomfort, anxiety, and sometimes conflict that interacting with people different from ourselves can bring up. Why?

Because when we surround ourselves with people like us, we get complacent and less creative. Innovation doesn't come from the same-old same-old. Large companies, from AT&T; and Coca-Cola (in the video above), already see diversity (of race, age, gender, sexual orientation, and other aspects of difference) as core to the way they will be able to communicate with their customers — they aren't just into diversity because it sounds good, but because it benefits the bottom line. Diverse workforces are more innovative, creative, and produce better results. The same goes for cities — and as urban theorist Jane Jacobs found, diverse communities — even on a block-by-block level — are healthier ones.

"Being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective. This perspective ... hinders creativity and innovation," writes Katherine W. Philips in Scientific American. Philips has studied diversity, when she did an experiment on problem solving with undergraduates working in groups. She made some groups of three racially heterogeneous and some groups homogenous, and then set them to a task: "The groups with racial diversity significantly outperformed the groups with no racial diversity."

Another experiment looked at what happened when novel positions on familiar issues were presented to a group by a person of opposite race than the rest of the group. Turns out that the information was considered more carefully, group members thought more broadly about the issue, and took more time to think about it. When information is presented by someone like you, you are more likely to just accept it without thinking it through.

Race isn't the only player in diversity, of course. Business professors from Columbia University and the University of Maryland studied the size and gender composition of 1,500 financial firms from 1992 through 2006 and determined that: "female representation in top management leads to an increase of $42 million in firm value.” It is studies like these (and others like the one from Credit Suisse that found the companies with women on their boards weathered the challenges of the recession better), as well as pressure from progressive groups, that has led many European countries to pursue aggressive quotas for getting women involved in company leaderships.

And other research has shown that people prepare better for arguments when they are going to have to present that information to someone of the opposite political party, and that people showing information to peers from another country will spend more time ensuring that their ideas are communicated effectively.

As Philips concludes her presentation of the science behind the benefits of diversity, "This is how diversity works: by promoting hard work and creativity; by encouraging the consideration of alternatives even before any interpersonal interaction takes place." The short of it is that diversity — of any and all kinds — makes us less lazy thinkers. And that's a boon no matter what kind of work you're doing.