Diversity, oddness and multiculturalism in humans

On clone wars

Bad strategies to cultivate diversity

Classic diversity training

tl;dr there is little evidence that diversity training as typically practiced by large organisations keen to be seen to be diversity-friendly is effective in iimproving friendliness towards diversity. There is weak evidence that these programs are actively hurtful. There is strong evidence that diversity training programs is an effective intervetion to deflect law-suits, bad PR and so on.

Dobbin and Kalev have a miniature publication mill dedicated to digestible summaries of meta analyses and case studies here, all very readable, but also lacking in follow-up citations and thus not easy to verify (Dobbin and Kalev 2021, 2016, 2020; Kalev and Dobbin 2020). Dobbin and Kalev (2018) cites the actual research.

A large and excellent single study is Chang et al. (2019), which finds, if I might simplify a little, that one-off training is excellent at producing the feeling that something has been done, at least in people who were already somewhat sympathatic to the goal, but not effective in actually changing behaviour.

TODO: review the links in Matthew Yglesias’ How to be an anti-racist:

Business executives believe that doing these programs has genuine value to the bottom line in terms of protecting them in the face of lawsuits, so they are fairly widespread. Critically, however, the lawsuit-protecting attributes of training do not require the trainings to be effective, and they generally are not. Indeed, as this summary from Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev in Harvard Business Review hints, the main question in this literature is whether the trainings backfire by annoying people:

Do people who undergo training usually shed their biases? Researchers have been examining that question since before World War II, in nearly a thousand studies (Paluck and Green 2009). It turns out that while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, they soon forget the right answers. The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash. Nonetheless, nearly half of midsize companies use it, as do nearly all the Fortune 500.

Some of the backlashes can be very bad. Leigh Wilton, Evan Apfelbaum, and Jessica Good (Wilton, Apfelbaum, and Good 2019) find that emphasizing themes of multiculturalism can increase subjects' belief in race essentialism (consider Tema Okun’s work in this light) while Madeline E. Heilman and Brian Welle find (Heilman and Welle 2006) that when teams are assembled with an explicit diversity goal in mind, women and Black group members are perceived as less competent, and “this effect occurred regardless of the proportional representation of women or the degree of the groups’s heterogeneity”.

I don’t think many on the left are actually super enthusiastic about these diversity trainings, but the general sense is also that only a bitter crank would actually complain about them. But there is real evidence that they are at least sometimes making things worse, which strikes me as a big deal. For example, Michelle Duguid and Melissa Thomas-Hunt (Duguid and Thomas-Hunt 2015) find that when you tell people that stereotyping is widespread, they stereotype more.

Implicit Association Tests

Replicability-Index has an interesting round up of Implicit Bias Research, by which they mean the premise that a crucial source of inequity in practive, and good point of leverage, is subconscious sensory cues:

The controversial and novel suggestion was that prejudice could work like color perception. We automatically notice skin color and our unconscious guides our actions based on this information. Eventually the term implicit bias was coined to refer to automatic prejudice.

Some highly cited studies suggested that subliminal priming influences behaviour without awareness (Bargh et al., 1996; Devine, 1989). However, in the past decade it has become apparent that these results are not credible (Schimmack, 2020).

Worth a read. The assertion is not that prejudice, personal or institutional, does not exist. Rather, the assertion is that unconscious bias, as measured by the Implicit Association Test, cannot be shown to be important on current evidence. It does not seem a stretch to argue subconscious cues exist and do something; e.g. it seems to me that I pre-judge people who do not look like me all the time, on a variety of dimensions, even if I would prefer that I did not. But is that prejudice what IAT measures? Worse, to the degree that it might be important it is unlikely that this kind of prejudice can be fixed by training, by the sound of it.

tl;dr The evidence is weak that IAT measures an essential ingredient of prejudice and also weak that prejudice can be fixed by a standard productised training course delivered over a few days.

If I interpret this article correctly, I am led to wonder if this particular notion of prejudice gains public traction because it is one that you can simply wash away with some simple, commodifiable training, which would be convenient for various interests. (“We have been accused of being biased in the past but now we have paid for X sessions of anti-bias training so shut up.”) A world in which bias was harder to address and harder to measure would be less convenient for the PR needs of modern institutions.

It is easy to imagine other ways of measuring workplace diversity and saefty though, albeit ones that institutions would be less likely to support. Sexual harrasment complaints and resolutions, anonymous surveys of employee wellbeing etc. These require organisationa commitment and put the weight of responsibilities on the institutions rather than the individuals, however, and that is clearly going to get some pushback.

Whether token and/or ineffectual efforts are better at least than no effort is a hot button topic. Also whether tokenistic efforts detract from substantive efforts, that one can get you in a fight. This is the classic table stakes/tokenism argument.

Possibly better strategies to cultivate diversity


There is evidence that bringing people into contact makes them less prejudiced towards each other. (Counterpoint: Axelrod, Daymude, and Forrest (2021) argues that this effect only works when people are not yet cemented into opposition against each other).

One remarkably easy type of contact which has been shown effective at helping different people get along is deep canvassing. There is a fascinating scientific scandal in the history of this idea, what with the famous LaCour study, which was fake, and the Broockman and Kalla study (Broockman and Kalla 2016), which was real. There is a convenient Dave McRaney podcast on this theme.

TODO: review the links in How to be an anti-racist - by Matthew Yglesias:

[in freshman dorms at American colleges], central planners dictate where people will live and force racial integration. And that lets us ask, “what if you are assigned a Black roommate?” The answer (Camargo, Stinebrickner, and Stinebrickner 2010) is that students assigned to a Black roommate end up with more Black friends, even if you exclude the roommate from the count. A somewhat similar survey looked at peer group assignments in the Air Force Academy (Carrell, Hoekstra, and West 2015), with broadly similar results.

This general phenomenon is the Contact Hypothesis—that actual interaction with members of diverse groups will lead to less prejudice. And while Contact Hypothesis doesn’t hold up in all cases, meta-analyses tend to strongly support it overall (Pettigrew and Tropp 2000). A really interesting study by Xuechunzi Bai, Miguel R. Ramos, and Susan T. Fiske (Bai, Ramos, and Fiske 2020) finds that “at national, state, and individual levels,” places with more diversity feature less stereotyping. Detailed research from Census records suggests that white kids who grew up living next door to a Black family are more likely to grow up to be Democrats. There is a similar outcome based on the rise and fall of integration-promoting busing (Billings, Chyn, and Haggag 2021) in North Carolina.


Playing video games requiring us to step into someone else’s shoes can often help us behave more sympathetically towards them. Simonovits, Kézdi, and Kardos (2017):

We report the results of an intervention that targeted anti-Roma sentiment in Hungary using an online perspective-taking game. We evaluated the impact of this intervention using a randomized experiment in which a sample of young adults played this perspective-taking game, or an unrelated online game. Participation in the perspective-taking game markedly reduced prejudice, with an effect-size equivalent to half the difference between voters of the far-right and the center-right party. The effects persisted for at least a month, and, as a byproduct, the intervention also reduced antipathy toward refugees, another stigmatized group in Hungary, and decreased vote intentions for Hungary’s overtly racist, far-right party by 10%. Our study offers a proof-of-concept for a general class of interventions that could be adapted to different settings and implemented at low costs.

I wonder how reproducing that one has gone?


There is evidence, I am told, that narrative can also improve your empathy for other people. (Johnson, Huffman, and Jasper 2014; Bormann and Greitemeyer 2015; Oatley 2016; Kidd and Castano 2013) I would like to know more about that.


There is a review of institutional arrangements that help with sexual harrassment cases in Dobbin and Kalev (2020), but it is lacking in supporting evidence. Obviously I need more and better links on this theme.


Often when we talk about diversity we assume a classic minority group, based on ethnicity or gender. But what about people with different brains?

Crompton et al. (2020):

The Double Empathy theory would suggest that communication difficulties arise from a mismatch in neurotype; and thus information transfer between autistic people may be more successful than information transfer between an autistic and a non-autistic person. … These results challenge the diagnostic criterion that autistic people lack the skills to interact successfully. Rather, autistic people effectively share information with each other. Information transfer selectively degrades more quickly in mixed pairs, in parallel with a reduction in rapport.

Utility of diversity

A note salad of arguments people make for the usefulness of having diverse people in teams/societies, mostly economic arguments.

Does diversity help attain wisdom? Sometimes, it seems. Scott Page calls this the diversity dividend. Quantifying when and how it works is of interest to me. Possibly diversity and tolerance is not just an intrinsic moral good, but may pay literal dividends in terms of avoiding groupthink in your team. What are the conditions for this happy state? Dobbin and Kalev (2016) argue that punishing failures can be counterproductive, in favour of voluntarism and transparency, which might harness status psychology of the incumbent power brokers.

McKinsey report, Vivian Hunt, Dennis Layton, and Sara Prince: Why diversity matters:

While correlation does not equal causation (greater gender and ethnic diversity in corporate leadership doesn’t automatically translate into more profit), the correlation does indicate that when companies commit themselves to diverse leadership, they are more successful.

(They could possibly have done better than that mealy-mouthed correlation phrasing if they wanted, via causal analysis.)

Other random readings: Chris Dillow, diversity trumps ability.

The new Matthew Syed book (titled Rebel Ideas or Superteams depending where you are) apparently covers some of this material (Syed 2020).

OK, I suspect most of that is not highly controversial, although people might perhaps set the bounds about what “too much” diversity is rather differently.

For an interesting perspective on whether taking one for the team and being oddball is worthwhile, see Olga Khazan on Living and Flourishing While Being Weird. * New Industries Come From Crazy People

Diversity as an end in itself

Is cultivating diversity and difference an end in itself? The end? I have a short essay in my mind here about the intrinsic worth of human oddity, as opposed to human uniformity. For me, personally, it is important to be around diverse and different people. This is not to say that I always enjoy being around people different to me, or that every possible difference is valuable, It is more that I like better who I am, if I am forced to deal with slightly more different sorts of people that I would lazily include in my bubble otherwise.

Possibly related: hyperselection.



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