Is Diverse Thought Being Suppressed in the COVID-19 Crisis?

Research explains the value of diversity in uncovering creative solutions.

Posted Mar 22, 2020

A great deal of attention and resources in the current pandemic are rightfully being dedicated to physical health, especially those in the population who are the most vulnerable (the elderly, children and adults with immunological problems, etc.). You don’t need another article on the importance of washing your hands regularly and practicing social distancing.

There is something to be said, however, about altering the latter term and referring to it accurately as "Distant Socializing." Humans are designed for satisfying, meaningful social connections and there are adverse psychological and health consequences for misconstruing evidence-based advice as avoidance of social contact instead of vigilant social contact.

I live in a cul-de-sac and can communicate with neighbors at the three adjoining houses as we sit in chairs drinking whiskey a mere six feet apart. This perhaps sounds obvious until you read the words of people online, where the extreme positions on both ends of the spectrum have gotten the majority of the attention (no different than politics). Those of us who are carefully evaluating the data, updating our belief system as new data arrive, who are attuned to the uncertainty and nuances may be ignored, dismissed, or even face a few rounds of public shaming.

When uncertainty is high, why do humans possess such a strong instinct to morally condemn people who dare to ask questions about the views of the numerical majority?

The singularity (of thinking) that appears to be taking place is the diametrical opposite of diversity—the thing that many people advocate for (or signal in public), except in uncertain situations when it’s needed most. At the moment, I am waiting to hear from the over 75 diversity administrators on the payroll at the University of Michigan—earning more than $10.6 million dollars combined (part of the administrative bloat that accounts for the over 1.5 trillion dollars in student debt affecting the current generation). I am waiting to hear from the scientists who devote their careers to studying diversity and the authors touting diversity in books and workshops.

During this particular crisis, it seems that the numerical majority is clamping down on one way, a single "right" approach, despite the current absence of reliable data to derive courses of action. It should seem obvious that there aren't reliable data to base many decisions because the COVID-19 outbreak is only a few weeks in as of this writing. And yet, with an intolerance of uncertainty, people want to grab onto an answer, now. It gives comfort and security. It is exactly at this moment that people should be asking: what happened to all of those claims about the importance, in fact, the absolute necessity, of diversity? Especially in thought and perspectives. 

There is plenty of scientific research showing that having people who think differently during a group problem-solving task increases the pool of information available. Bringing in people with diverse strengths, skills, and perspectives to form a team means that more information and ideas will be available than in a team of like-minded folks. More creative solutions arise from conversations and debates, if and only if, the unique information possessed by each person is expressed and shared.

It is right here, where the value of diversity often dies on the vine. If the reason someone touts diversity is because of optics, and they want to showcase how much variety is in their group in terms of race, sex, gender, and sexual orientation, then they are not taking advantage of the potential benefits. If you hire and bring in folks who show surface diversity (in race and sex, for instance) and still hold your meetings in the same format where the same three middle-aged, white men suck up the bulk of the air time, then you are not taking advantage of the potential benefits.

And yet, having worked in the same organization for 16 years, and spoken at dozens of others, this is what I typically observe:

  1. an initiative to increase diverse hiring
  2. once hired, a failure to extract unique information from diverse voices
  3. a tendency to keep the culture the same as it ever was before these new hires arrived

It is a reminder. If you want to understand what people truly believe and care about, observe what they do, not what they say.

An uncertain situation such as the outbreak of COVID-19 will benefit from highly trained, highly skilled albeit diverse voices. They should not just be in the room. Their ideas and perspectives require a hearing. If you are not going to be thorough in considering alternatives, then be transparent: you do not truly value diversity. 

Bringing diverse voices into the room to derive the most effective solution is going to be inefficient and lead to tension. People are going to disagree and many people are going to be wrong. That's okay. Committing to diversity of thought does not mean that all ideas are right and worthy of equal consideration. It is a commitment to resisting the temptation to prematurely rule out possibilities until there is good reason (such as the presence of high-quality behavioral data). When there is a great deal of uncertainty, and impoverished data, such as in the current COVID-19 situation, diversity is a powerful resource to instigate divergent thinking and creative solutions. 

It feels good when everyone thinks the same way as you. It is validating. You feel intelligent. In trying to solve a crisis, I vote for less homogeneous thinking, group positivity, and confidence and more heterogeneous thinking, curiosity, intellectual humility, and courage. 

And remember, diversity is not just about finding a cure to COVID-19. People cope differently with adversity. Some are (very! VERY!) serious. Some use dark humor. Some drink. Some stock up on Pringles as a priority over toilet paper. Some show how smart they (think they) are (it gives them a sense of control and certainty). Respect individual differences.

How trite, contrived, and appallingly boring it would be to be surrounded by everyone who thinks the same. And how much slower it will be to find effective solutions to the COVID-19 crisis—and any other.