Diversity is often associated with social justice, but author Matthew Syed argues that it also enhances group performance and intelligence. In his book “Rebel Ideas,” Syed explains how cognitively diverse groups outperform homogeneous ones by utilizing the diverse experiences of their members, resulting in increased innovation and performance.
Syed’s consulting firm helps companies cultivate cognitive diversity in the workplace, and this guide will explore the science behind why diversity drives collective intelligence. It will also examine the dangers of homogeneous groups, the benefits of diverse ones, communication styles that affect cognitive diversity, ways to create diverse groups, and counterarguments to Syed’s views.
Introduction to Diversity Science
Firstly, we’ll explore the core ideas behind Syed’s arguments, including how cognitively diverse groups have a superior understanding of problem-solving and, as a result, possess greater collective intelligence compared to homogeneous groups.
Defining the Problem Space
Syed believes that understanding the “problem space” is crucial to diversity science. This term refers to all the relevant ideas and perspectives related to a particular problem. For simple problems, individuals can understand the entire problem space, such as tying their shoes.
However, for complex problems like building a rocket ship, no one person can possess all the information required, so diverse teams with a broad range of knowledge are necessary. Syed argues that homogeneous groups of intelligent individuals cannot solve complex problems because they lack the necessary range of knowledge. However, some experts believe that cognitively diverse teams solve problems more efficiently than homogeneous ones, but do not suggest that homogeneous teams cannot solve complex problems at all.
How Cognitive Diversity Leads to Collective Intelligence
Syed believes that cognitive diversity is crucial for collective intelligence. Groups that cover the problem space more fully are better at solving difficult problems. Syed argues that collective intelligence depends on the differences in what group members know, not simply adding up their individual knowledge.
Homogeneous groups suffer from knowledge clustering and are scarcely more intelligent than any individual member. Perspective blindness prevents us from recognizing the importance of other perspectives, which hinders our ability to appreciate the benefits of cognitive diversity. This blindness also occurs at a societal level, where we fail to recognize our own blind spots.
The Dangers of Homogeneity
Syed explores the risks of homogeneity using diversity science. Three phenomena will be investigated: echo chambers, homophily, and standardization.
Danger 1: Homophily
Syed warns of the dangers of homophily, the tendency to surround ourselves with like-minded people. This creates groups with overlapping blind spots, and members become increasingly dogmatic about incomplete views.
Syed cites a study on solving a “murder mystery” that found heterogeneous groups solved the problem 75% of the time, while homogeneous groups only solved it 54% of the time. Homogeneous groups reinforce each other’s perspectives, leading to overconfidence in incorrect views.
How Mirroring Contributes to Political Polarization
Political discussions in homogeneous groups lead to dogmatic partisanship, as confirmed by studies. Researchers explain that such groups reinforce members’ existing beliefs during deliberation. College-aged Democrats were found to engage more heavily in partisan reasoning when discussing politics in groups composed of fellow Democrats, whereas in diverse groups, they entertained views outside of traditional Democratic policies more frequently.
Homophily and the Threat of 9/11
Syed highlights how homophily led to catastrophic consequences in the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks on the US. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had largely employed white, Protestant men, which led to a tunnel vision that underestimated the threat posed by al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. CIA analysts who shared a similar perspective didn’t consider the threat serious, whereas Muslim analysts might have recognized the severity of the risk based on their knowledge of Islamic faith and culture. This example shows how homophily can lead to collective blindness and underscores the importance of diversity in decision-making.
Danger 2: Echo Chambers
Syed argues that homogeneous groups not only suffer from homophily but also from forming echo chambers. These chambers filter out opposing views and lead to extreme views. Even though they may present alternate views, echo chambers invalidate them by attacking the character of those who present them, leading to ad hominem attacks that destroy trust in opponents.
Studies show that Facebook creates political echo chambers as users are exposed to arguments defending views similar to their own. However, Syed suggests that not all echo chambers are harmful; only those with unreliable information are. For example, an echo chamber that circulates empirically verified health advice is desirable because it insulates us from unreliable information.
Syed argues that large and diverse social networks are not immune to echo chambers. In fact, he suggests that these networks can create echo chambers through a process called fine-grain assorting, where individuals seek out like-minded individuals within the larger network.
This was illustrated in a study of universities in Kansas, where despite Kansas University’s diverse population, its social networks were the most homogeneous due to the size of the school allowing students to find other like-minded individuals. Conversely, smaller universities with less diversity had more diverse social networks because students had fewer opportunities to find peers exactly like themselves. While there are strategies for promoting diversity and inclusion in universities, such as social norms messaging and intergroup contact intervention, echo chambers can still exist in even the most diverse networks.
Example: The Case of Derek Black
Syed uses the case of Derek Black, a former white supremacist, to demonstrate the power of encountering diverse perspectives. Despite growing up in a KKK-involved family, Black’s experience at a small university, where he met an Orthodox Jew named Matthew Stevenson, challenged his views and eventually led him to renounce white supremacy.
Syed argues that Black’s relationship with Stevenson slowly restored his trust in those outside of his echo chamber and made him more receptive to alternate views, ultimately leading to his renunciation of racist beliefs. Research finds that experiencing higher education has a significant correlation with changes in political views, but researchers caution that there might be other variables impacting these changes.
Danger 3: Standardization
Syed warns against the dangers of homogeneity in standardization, which forces individuals to conform to average molds and creates less effective systems.
He cites the example of the redesign of airplane cockpits to accommodate individual differences among pilots, which resulted in a significant drop in safety incidents. Syed also discusses the pitfalls of standardized diets, as individuals often respond differently to various diets. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing and accommodating diversity in all areas, including education and dieting.
The Advantages of Cognitive Diversity
Syed highlights the benefits of cognitive diversity, including the wisdom of crowds and increased innovation. Cognitively diverse groups can collectively become more intelligent as their varied perspectives create greater collective knowledge.
Studies have shown that the average prediction of a group of top economists was 15% more accurate than that of the top individual economist. This phenomenon is also seen in other areas where the aggregate judgment of non-experts can be more accurate than individual judgments of experts, such as guessing the weight of an ox at a fair.
Are Crowds Always Wiser?
Crowds are wiser when their members have relevant information, but the quality of that information also matters. Poorly informed crowds actually become less intelligent as they grow in size. This phenomenon is explained by Condorcet’s Jury Theorem, which states that the larger the group, the more likely the majority answer is correct if every member has over a 50% chance of being right.
However, if members are more likely to be wrong, then larger groups are less likely to provide the correct answer. For example, US citizens failed to correctly predict John Roberts’ nomination to the Supreme Court because they had little information about President George W. Bush’s preferred nominee.
How Cognitive Diversity Fosters Recombinant Innovation
Syed highlights the role of cognitive diversity in driving recombinant innovation by bringing ideas from different fields together. Recombinant innovation, unlike incremental innovation that makes small improvements within a field, results from the fusion of ideas from disparate fields.
Syed argues that while both types of innovation are important, recombinant innovation is the driving force behind dramatic change. He suggests that individuals and institutions can foster recombinant innovation, with immigrants being particularly inclined towards it due to their exposure to different cultures.
Syed emphasizes that cognitive diversity, both in individuals and institutions, drives recombinant innovation. This type of innovation occurs when two ideas from different fields come together, leading to dramatic change. Immigrants, who are exposed to different cultures and ideas, are more likely to produce recombinant innovations.
Institutions must foster an open flow of information among diverse individuals to cultivate this type of innovation. Syed uses the example of Silicon Valley, where the social interconnectedness of engineers from different companies led to widespread information spillover and ultimately to the success of tech giants like Apple and Google. To foster information spillover, experts recommend building a transparent environment that encourages collaboration and knowledge sharing.
Communication Within Diverse Groups
Syed also addresses the impact of communication structures on cognitive diversity. He illustrates how prestige hierarchies foster and amplify different viewpoints while dominance hierarchies can silence them..
How Dominance Hierarchies Affect Diversity of Thought
Syed describes how dominance hierarchies, which are prevalent in human civilizations, may muzzle different voices and lower the group’s collective intellect. While dominance hierarchies were effective in prehistoric societies with simple decisions, they are harmful in multifaceted situations where leaders cannot know all the information.
Dominant leaders perceive opposing viewpoints as dangerous, thus they scare their subordinates into silence, creating homogenous teams where team members merely repeat the leaders’ viewpoints. Syed suggests that prestige hierarchies, which ensure diverse voices are heard, can enhance the value of cognitive diversity in groups.
The Use of Prestige Hierarchies Behavioral Diversity
Syed contends that prestige hierarchies are preferable to dominance hierarchies because they encourage followers to obey leaders out of esteem instead of out of fear. Distinguished leaders maximize collective wisdom by listening to other points of view. Such leaders freely share their knowledge and are not threatened by opposing voices.
Syed argues that prestigious hierarchies create groups where generosity is prized, leading to an open flow of information. This makes them better at harnessing cognitive diversity during decision-making. However, he concedes that dominance hierarchies are useful in the execution of decisions. Experts suggest alternating between dominant and prestigious leadership styles, depending on the context.
I’m founder and director of The Digital Agency; a certified Google Partner and Shopify Partner digital marketing agency operating in London and Istanbul. The Digital Agency has a solid track record of delivering high growth in eCommerce, Facebook & Google advertising, social media communication, search engine optimization, eCommerce and website production through 16 years of experience with 140 brands in 500 projects. Visit The Digital Agency here