The Bias Against Difference
And how it gets in the way of creativity and collaboration.
Posted Jun 25, 2020
Human beings — no matter their race, ethnicity, or religion — are united by a deep-seated desire to belong. We all share the same human emotions of love, loss, disillusionment, and wonder, but we are incredibly varied in our appearances, beliefs, and the lived experiences that frame the way we interpret the world around us. As such, we gravitate toward people like us — toward people who can empathize with our experiences and worldviews.
This phenomenon is known as affinity bias. It is our tendency to connect with others who share similar backgrounds, beliefs, and interests. In millennia past, this inclination was evolutionarily advantageous. It allowed us to disperse, fragment, and form complex social networks and diverse cultural belief systems. Today, however, this unconscious bias against difference is problematic in a number of ways because it means we are more likely to befriend, date, marry, hire, read, respect, work with, and vote for people who resemble us.
While this implicit prejudice is a complex issue to unpack, the root of the problem is the simple fact that affinity bias narrows our vision and limits our possibilities. Research has shown that our preference for the safety of the familiar can curb creativity, undermine collaboration, and close our minds to novel ideas and new perspectives.
So, how can we be more mindful of our unconscious biases and crack ourselves open to the unfamiliar, or the “other?"
The solution might just mean living a little more on the edge.
Like-mindedness can lead to insular thinking
Though we might like to think we are open-minded, the fact is that our minds are lazy and will remain shut without conscious effort. You see, the brain seeks simplicity and it does so by categorizing people and things in order to more easily and instantaneously assess how those people or things compare to or affect us. When it comes to social dynamics, this can create a dichotomy between “us” and “them.”
Studies in neuropsychology have demonstrated that the neural pathways we use when we think about people in our “in-group” — those friends and family members closest to us — are the same pathways that light up when we think about ourselves. This means that we are biochemically disposed to show more empathy toward these people. On the other hand, we use a completely different pathway when we think of people outside our group, and as a result, are more indifferent to their triumphs and troubles.
The problem is that creativity does not dwell in the familiar and we need creative solutions for the common problems we all face, whether on the micro-level of broken hearts or the macro-level of climate change. Not to mention, collaboration with like minds is usually less fruitful than assembling a broad variety of viewpoints. Odds are that the members of your “tribe” think and problem-solve in much the same way you do. However, things get interesting when we try to try to bridge that gap between “us” and “them” to look at our challenges and creative endeavors in a new light.
Intercultural relationships encourage creative thinking
In 2011, Harvard economics professor Richard Freeman was studying how scientists collaborate when he noticed that, in the United States, scientists of the same ethnic or cultural backgrounds tended to group together. Believing that scientific innovation is the result of a fusion of different perspectives, Freeman began to wonder whether scientists of similar backgrounds produce “better” or “worse” research than collaborators of different backgrounds.
To test his hypothesis, Freeman surveyed millions of scientific papers by US-based authors and found that papers by ethnically diverse co-authors were not only cited more frequently, but they were also published in higher impact publications. These findings suggest that diverse teams were able to generate more innovative ideas and make greater contributions to their fields than teams of the same background.
Further studies show that diversity’s effect on creativity extends well beyond the sciences and into the social sphere. In a 2017 study, social psychologist Adam Galinsky sought to determine whether intercultural relationships enhanced creativity, workplace innovation, and entrepreneurship amongst business school students.
As he had surmised, Galinsky found that participants with more intercultural relationships were more creative and entrepreneurial. But even more interesting was the finding that participants with intercultural romantic relationships were most creative of all. Galinksy interpreted his results to mean that it is not merely exposure to diversity that impacts creativity, but rather the depth and degree of immersion in another culture that leads to personal and professional breakthroughs.
As both studies suggest, a confluence of cultures — of perspectives — can generate more innovative solutions and original ideas than either culture could alone. In other words, by riding the edge between two distinct cultural worlds, we can unlock our creative potential.
Living on the edge
The edge effect is an ecological phenomenon where the boundary between two distinct biomes shows greater biodiversity than either biome alone (or even both combined!). Think about the coral reef. It is a technicolor seascape brimming with life between the intertidal zone and the open ocean. Hundreds of species of fish come here to feast in the nutrient-rich waters of this liminal space, while a profusion of colorful corals, anemones, starfish, and other sea creatures blanket the ocean floor. It is far more populous than the deep blue sea and more diverse than the rocky tide pools closer to shore.
In a social context, the “edge” is where two cultures or two divergent points of view meet. It is usually a contentious space, though it doesn’t have to be. Rather than seeing this point of convergence as an ideological battleground, we can view it as a communion of ideas and a cradle of creativity. But this takes work.
Diversity simply means variety. Inclusion is the collective effort that helps those varied people and perspectives mesh together.
Times of uncertainty heighten the inherent tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Yet if we can learn to be more conscious of our biases, to sit with the discomfort of facing the unknown, to acknowledge and overcome our resistance to even the smallest of changes, then perhaps we can rediscover the wonder that lies within that tension and open our minds to what’s possible in a more inclusive world.
Freeman, Richard B.; Huang, Wei (2014) : Collaborating With People Like Me: Ethnic Co-authorship within the US, IZA Discussion Papers, No. 8432, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA), Bonn
Lu, Jackson G., et al. “‘Going out’ of the Box: Close Intercultural Friendships and Romantic Relationships Spark Creativity, Workplace Innovation, and Entrepreneurship.” Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 102, no. 7, 2017, pp. 1091–1108., doi:10.1037/apl0000212.
Molenberghs, P., & Louis, W. R. (2018). Insights From fMRI Studies Into Ingroup Bias. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 1868. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01868