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Diversity is good. It helps our groups with creativity, problem-solving, and learning to communicate. Yet many societies build structures that hinder diversity (often unintentionally). And most people have a difficult time adapting emotionally to differences in those around them.

In other words: diversity is really hard to navigate. Why?

America’s pattern of exclusion and repression of minority groups is a reprehensible part of our legacy. But I am not equipped to delve into those areas. I focus here on more banal cases of navigating diversity in groups and organizations that have good intent but still struggle.

America is rife with examples of organizations that fail at supporting diversity — it almost seems that they were designed to fail. For example, consider the overwhelming maleness of Silicon Valley; or look at how all strategy divisions pull former management consultants of a very specific mold; consider the ways that all people who work at retail companies tend to have the same “look”; or note the outrageous low percentage of women in C-Suite positions in corporations; or scratch your head at how groupthink and change-fear plague organizations.

There are countless factors shaping those examples, and 100 PHD’s wouldn’t be enough to understand it. But all those groups exhibit glaring homogeneity in their makeup — that is easy to see. I suspect the majority of those groups are filled with generally good people who would like their groups to be as productive as possible. If diversity is vital for innovation and creativity, there must be reasons why so many groups struggle to accommodate it.

I think those challenges come from two connected things:

  1. Our minds are wired with a bias for similarity and familiarity
  2. Managing cognitive biases requires a lot of mental and emotional exertion

Embracing diversity feels like an uphill climb because we’re inclined (pun intended) to favor the familiar and because regulating biases is exhausting. Diversity forces us to face the unfamiliar and challenges the idea that our ways are “correct.” Well except for mine — those are correct; I happen to be one of the only people who usually is correct: that’s why I use semi-colons and started a blog.

Unpacking the challenge of diversity first requires a journey into evolutionary psychology and a dive into cognitive biases.

A little evolutionary psychology

The way our brains and bodies evolved is critical to understanding how we think, and how our minds grapple with diversity. According to researchers like Steven Pinker, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, the human mind is a complex functioning system of sub-systems the evolved over time to meet the needs of early humans. Check out more of their work here, here, and here.

Through natural selection, our brains (the meat in our heads) and our minds (the thinking and actions that our brain performs) evolved to meet specific needs for early humans surviving in a harsh world. Watch out for those saber-tooth tigers!

You’d be surprised what images come up on a Google search for “caveman”

Steven Pinker outlines this process in his book How the Mind Works. He compares it to the evolution of other another unique tool in the animal world: the elephant trunk. Elephants evolved their wonderful and unique trunks over thousands of years. Similarly, we evolved our marvelous minds throughout early human development. And like elephants, that evolution came from a mix of useful preconditions in our ancestors, selective forces in the environment, and lots of luck.

Our minds evolved to solve the day-to-day problems of our ancestors — not the issues of the modern-day. We can appreciate that they are amazing but not perfect. In fact, it is likely that our minds developed traits that, while useful in bygone times, are not effective in many modern settings. Natural selection does not create perfection; it creates a system where generally better features win out over time. But nothing guarantees that an evolved attribute will be without flaws. In evolutionary psychology terms, these instances are called “mismatches.”

Our brains miss many important external signals and our minds often fail to process complicated stimuli. We have “blind spots” (nicely outlined in the same-titled book by Bazerman & Tenbrusel). Our brains are effective at compensating for those blind spots, which can give us false confidence. We assume that we’re seeing or experiencing a “true” “reality.”

In truth, our brains patch things together from incomplete sensory receivers and add layers of subjective interpretation and analysis on top. But that interpretation was critical for our survival when it evolved. Imagine having to consciously build vision in your head / body every time you wanted to escape a lion…

It’s feels easy to trust that what you see is happening…like actually happening. But with all the unconscious filtering going on that’s not exactly the case. There’s a reason why eyewitness testimony is not the most reliable source during court trials. Powerful unconscious processing creates biases that shape our thinking and actions. And these have a major impact on our interpretation of diversity. Let’s take a closer look at two of the major biases that impact our acceptance of diversity.

Similarity bias and perceptual fluency

Two cognitive traits that are key to understanding are “similarity bias” and “perceptual fluency.” Similarity bias means we have a bias toward (we are inclined to favor) things that are similar to us or to what we like (i.e. birds of a feather flock together).

Perceptual fluency is a little different. It describes the phenomena whereby humans prefer things to which they have been previously exposed, regardless of whether they actively liked or disliked the thing (i.e. better the devil you know than the one you don’t) (Reber, Winkielman & Schwarz, link). Merely being exposed to something over time can create positive feelings toward it (Zajonc, link). This has been illustrated in research over the past few decades, particularly around marketing products (Schwarz again, Alter & Oppenheimer). It means that we are predisposed to take something we recognize and unconsciously feel a liking toward it — without any thought about the actual merits of that “something.”

These are the Wonder Twins. They’re really similar, really familiar, and they really biased to like each other…but like in a non-creepy way

Inclination toward the familiar (regardless of its merit) is hard-wired into our mental processing. It combines with our bias for things similar to us to create a reality where humans favor the things they recognize and seek out settings where others are similar to them. That doesn’t sound like diversity… To be clear, we don’t ALWAYS like familiar things, nor do we automatically dislike the unfamiliar. But we are predisposed to make that initial mental jump.

So our often minds connect recognition with liking. This means we unconsciously favor familiar systems — regardless of whether we consciously like or dislike them. Think about how many miserable people stay in jobs or relationships that they consciously dislike, mostly because they know them. Similarity bias often lapses into fear of the unknown, which can make us even more triggered by differences. This gives diverse options more of an uphill climb, relative to familiar options.

In an early harsh world, when our brains and minds did most of their evolving, this would be beneficial for our survival. Avoid things you are unfamiliar with and stay close to the groups and places you know. It is easy to imagine how those logical progressions went: who knows what that other tribe intends, so stay away! I’ve never seen a lizard that large…so avoid it! I’m unfamiliar with this stretch of land — warning, you might get lost!

But that bias for familiar and similar is not always ideal for our modern world. In today’s world, increasing diversity is good for the long-term health of organizations and societies. When similarity bias interacts with perceptual fluency, it is easy to see how people get stuck in echo-chambers that limit diversity and creative thinking. Our imperfect mental wiring means that we have to spend considerable energy to process our biases and diversity with even a small amount of objectivity.

Confronting our biases is hard work

Cognitive biases are difficult to regulate, yet they shape our thoughts and reactions to the external world. In addition to our preference for familiar and similar, we face other evolved biases that influence how we perceive diversity. Three more of the biggest culprits related to diversity include:

  • Representativeness (link): this is when our minds unconsciously consider someone else to be an Asshole because their wardrobe looks like what we think assholes wear. Petty, yes. And according to famed psychologists Tversky and Kahneman (link), relying on representativeness to make judgments leads us to frequently judge wrong. Because the fact that something is “representative” does not make it more likely to be true.
  • Confirmation Bias (link): it’s when your mind focuses only on evidence that supports your belief that people from Country A are annoying, even if that evidence is false and ignoring lots of other evidence indicating they are exactly the same level of annoying as any people from anywhere.
  • Affect heuristic (link): your emotional first impression plays a big role. When you feel confusion and frustration in a complex and diverse group once, your mind is likely to associate that fear with all situations of diversity. So in the future when you encounter diversity, your mind might associate it with fear and negative emotion. That makes you more likely to be close-minded and aloof with diverse groups.

Many other biases challenge our minds, but these three feel particularly influential on how we perceive differences. We CAN learn to increase awareness of our unconscious biases and consider how they drive our thoughts and actions. However, that is strenuous work.

Facing all these biases, perhaps you feel like this poor student who I assume has just taken a standardized test

It is likely that no person can ever fully regulate their biases. Add smartphones to the mix and we’re essentially distracted monkeys when it comes to being conscious and in control of our biases. At best we can become aware of them and learn to balance them over time. Sustained focus on monitoring biases requires a lot of mental bandwidth. It requires us to use our conscious minds to attempt to track rapid processes that are happening subconsciously. Oof.

It’s like those moments at parties when a group has formed in a circle, and you’re trying to actively listen and have deep conversation with a few folks. But on your right are a few people gossiping boisterously and it unfailingly pulls half of your attention away. Now imagine that the other conversation is mostly happening at a level you cannot hear and in a different language. but you can still feel the pull of it. So your focus and energy are split in several directions while you try to contribute meaningfully…exhausting.

One phone to rule them all…

There’s a reason why many of our mental processes happen subconsciously: we don’t have the capacity to consciously juggle multiple attention balls at the same time. In today’s increasingly distracted world of smart-phone notifications and torrential content, we have an even harder time managing bias. Like an overweight couch-potato learning a new sport, our monkey minds struggle with the hard work of navigating our biases around diversity.

I get it, diversity is hard…so then what?

It is not a question of whether people are biased — it is a question of the extent to which our are in the driver’s seat. Though they cause misunderstandings, biases are not inherently good or bad. They just are. And they arose as our brains developed to face environmental conditions of early humans.

Gear up for an uphill climb when managing your biases

We need many of our biases to be able to function on a day-to-day basis without shutting down from information overload. But biases cause trouble, particularly when we encounter diverse settings. It will never be easy for us to maneuver situations with confusing viewpoints and backgrounds, but we can learn to calibrate. We can manage challenges around bias and diversity the same way we address any organizational change: formally accept the challenge of diversity, build systems that incentivize reflection at individual and group levels, and emphasize sustained and open dialogue around it.

An important first step in managing diversity is to acknowledge that it is valuable AND challenging for our organizations — often we only talk about how valuable diversity is without addressing the difficulty. Long-term voyages with diversity requires persistent, mindful efforts to examine biases at the individual and group level and to build systems that reinforce productive incentives (i.e. interact more mindfully, less unconsciously, etc.) while limiting harmful incentives (ex. get things done quickly at all cost, etc.).

It’s also important for us to role model the fact that we’re dealing with the challenge of bias. How often have you heard a manager openly discuss their personal struggles with cognitive bias or getting used to diverse settings? We can build credibility and healthier dialogue by opening up to others about our own journeys to manage bias and deal with differences in others. Don’t just cover everything in the same coat of chrome bullshit that we do when we market our AMAZING lives and companies on Instagram & LinkedIn.

Get a load of this douchebag* (* — the author of this post is an expert at burying insecurities under layers of well-crafted bullet points on LinkedIn experience descriptions)

Will we ever get to a point where organizations seamlessly integrate diversity while also accommodating and valuing the differences? Probably not. But we can improve and work to better understand and navigate diversity’s challenges.

Hard work indeed.

A wanderer, a water-drinker, a wastrel, and [something pithy]