Diversity leads to better decisions but not for the reasons you’d think

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I recently wrote about the impact of adding people with greater social sensitivity to groups, but new research suggests that diversity in groups can lead to better decisions as well. The intuitive response to that sort of information might be the idea that diversity leads to a wider range of perspectives and insights. While that may be true in part, it turns out that other factors may be at play in groups with diverse members.

Katherine Phillips has recently published the findings from research on this issue in a paper titled “Is the Pain Worth the Gain? The Advantages and Liabilities of Agreeing with Socially Distinct Newcomers,” along with fellow researchers Katie Liljenquist and Margaret Neale.

The researchers found that the social awkwardness that arises in groups when outsiders are introduced to established groups leads to more careful reasoning and improved group performance. They selected group members with some affiliation irrelevant to the task — like sorority or fraternity membership — and then introduce newcomers who are non-affiliated.

The tension arises when insiders agree with newcomers, or, as the researchers put it,

“We argue that these individuals, who are in agreement or allied with socially dissimilar group members, will feel insecure, and this alliance will threaten their social ties with the other in-group members on the team. Because they feel threatened, allies with socially dissimilar group members should be motivated to reconcile the differing opinions in the group. The motivation to resolve the discrepancy in opinions should benefit group performance as members dig deeper into the alternative perspectives in an effort to reconcile the divergent opinions. A critical issue here though is that this improved performance may still come at a cost. Group members may not recognize the improved performance and may feel that the interactions in surface-level diverse groups are more uncomfortable and less effective than in homogeneous settings where they receive support from socially similar others.”

As the authors point out, the diversity leads to better group performance on the tasks set, but the member may not think so. The psychological friction involved colors the experience.

This is a sad finding, since the pain involved will lead group members to believe that group diversity is too costly, despite bettered performance.

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