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Do differences unite us?

Recent events in the news suggest that the world is growing more insular and polarised. The tragic shooting at Orlando, and Brexit exemplify how intolerance and divisiveness are spreading their tentacles across either side of the Atlantic. Closer home, the racial attacks against Africans in Delhi suggest that India, despite its rich diversity and famed hospitality, also harbours deep prejudices. Ironically, as globalisation and the Internet have in some sense erased geographic boundaries, xenophobic tendencies are only growing more pronounced in various pockets all around the world. Even as we connect with anyone from anywhere, we are more wary of the ‘other.’ But diversity, in all its myriad hues, actually benefits both individuals and societies. So, we must fight the narrow forces that push for homogeneity.

In an article published in The New York Times, in December 2015, researchers Sheen Levine and David Stark describe a set of experiments that suggest that ethnic and racial diversity enhances the decision-making abilities of people. By simulating a stock market in diverse versus homogenous groups, the researchers were able to study the impact of diversity. When participants were in a diverse group, they were 58% per cent more accurate in determining the true value of stocks. According to the authors, ethnic diversity, be it in Texas or Singapore where the study was conducted, allowed people to make better decisions. When participants were in an ethnically homogenous group, they tended to mimic the behaviour of other participants, often copying their mistakes as well. On the other hand, in a diverse group, people tended to be more discerning and less likely to follow the crowd.

In a 2012 issue of Observer, scholars Douglas Medin and Carol Lee argue that apart from concerns over for social equality, diversity has an elemental role to play in the sciences. Multiple perspectives at all stages of the scientific enterprise, from choosing what to study, methods one adopts, to interpreting results, can provide new insights. For example, they cite the work of Sarah Hrdy who makes the point that when female primatologists entered the field, fresh insights regarding primate behaviour emerged.

Another example of the merits of a different viewpoint is the work of Temple Grandin who came up with an ingenious and humane method for livestock handling and slaughter. Grandin, who has autism, has extraordinary visualization skills. She attributes the success of her unconventional design that transformed the livestock industry to her ability to see the process from the perspective of cattle. In an interview, published in the Daily Mail in 2011, Grandin says, “It was important to see what the cattle see, so I could address what made them anxious.”

In an article published in Scientific American in 2014, Professor Katherine Phillips, who teaches at Columbia Business School, argues that diversity entails more than just bringing to the table, different perspectives. In fact, knowing that others in a group may not share beliefs or viewpoints, compels individuals to change their behaviour. She cites a 2006 study conducted by social psychologist Samuel Sommers that involved mock jury trials. When the juries had mixed races, jurors were more deliberate in their discussion and more open to considering the role of race in the case. In addition, they were more accurate in recalling facts of the case.

Thus, Phillips argues that diversity compels us to work harder. Just by being in a diverse group, we expect others to think differently from us, and are more prepared to address alternative viewpoints. As Phillips writes, “People work harder in diverse environments,” which can “lead to better outcomes.”

To be a truly open society, we need to embrace diversity in all forms. Language, religion, race, gender and sexual orientation are only some of the dimensions on which human beings differ. Being gay, author Andrew Solomon always thought that he belonged to “a fairly slim minority.” In his book, Far from the Tree, he says that as he encountered people from other marginalised groups, from the deaf to dwarfs and child prodigies, he had an epiphany and realised that “Difference unites us.” In fact, if we take all types of differences into account, we realise that the “exceptional is ubiquitous.”

Indeed, if we embrace an truly open outlook and are open and accepting of differences, we realise that we find more commonalities with people from other groups, however, we may choose to define ‘group.’ After all, we all have multiple identities.

So, while I am a woman, an Indian and a psychologist, I also have affinities with book lovers, tea drinkers and The Good Wife fans. But regardless of our affiliations, we can broaden our horizons, both at the individual and societal levels, by interacting with people who are ‘different’ from us.

Leaving our comfort zone to mingle with those who are not exactly like us, can indeed enrich us.

Following the recent terrorist attack in a Dhaka café, Anne Bernard writes in The New York Times, that the “global mood increasingly feels like one of atavism, of retreat into narrower identities of nation, politics or sect…” Given this bleak scenario, perhaps, we should all make a concerted effort to befriend and celebrate the ‘other.’

The author is director, PRAYATNA/


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Printable version | Jan 14, 2022 4:51:57 AM |

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