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How Can Diversity Make Us Smarter?

By Dave Wright

Diversity is generally known as the integration and interaction of differences. There are several different aspects of diversity. For one, the diversity of thought involves integrating different viewpoints and creative ideas.

As a simple example, we wouldn't have technology like laptops and iPhones if it weren't for the diversity of individual thought. In this sense, there's little doubt among experts that diversity leads to more innovation.

But what about social diversity? How does the diversification of people from different cultures and social categories affect those people overall? That's what we're here to discuss. Ultimately, we want to find out if and how diversity can make the world smarter. Our hypothesis? It helps a lot. Read on for the details.

How Does Social Diversity Affect Us?

On the surface, social diversity is known to cause discomfort, rough interactions, higher perceptions of conflict, less trust, and more concerns about respect, or the lack thereof. But consider this.

Have you ever heard the phrase, "You grow the most when you're uncomfortable?" Social diversity may be the epitome of that phrase.

Social Diversity Makes Us Think

In other words, people tend to think harder and become more open to differing opinions in the presence of diversity. This makes way for change that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.

Social diversity also allows us to break down social barriers that keep us divided.<1>  For example, it has been associated with increased civic engagement, which is the collective actions of citizens helping to fix public issues. It may not always be easy, but social diversity leads to growth and innovation when nurtured correctly.

Moreover, diversity has significant positive effects on social awareness, critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence. It can even help us develop a new type of intelligence: cultural intelligence. Let's talk about it.

How Does Social Diversity Produce Greater Social Awareness?

Social diversity increases social awareness by exposing us to multicultural behaviors, experiences, appearances and notions. This is one way diversity makes us smarter: by opening our minds. Then, greater social awareness creates the opportunity for us to respond with critical thinking instead of emotions. In other words, social awareness leads to critical thinking, which increases our emotional intelligence.

But how does it work? Why are we able to respond so adaptively to diversity and differences? Well, it's because we're built to.

Neural Networks for Empathy and Social Awareness

You see, neuroscience has shown that humans come wired with neural networks of compassion. These neuro networks allow us to share the emotions of others. They are actually activated at the same level, whether we experience an emotion ourselves or witness someone else experience it.<2> Pretty crazy, right?

This means we are built with the ability to empathize with others. This ability is what allows us to become more socially aware. It enables us to share emotions with others to increase each other's awareness.

However, it's important to remember that our reactions to diversified people, ideas and experiences are also affected by outside influences. They are affected by our individual traits and experiences, our unique momentary states, the setting, the context and the existing culture of the setting. This makes critical thinking an important part of cultivating diverse environments and social awareness.

How Does Social Diversity Improve Critical Thinking?

Social diversity has another superpower: it can help us think more critically. But critical thinking is more of a tool than a personality trait. It's a tool meant to help us control our emotions.

Here's a more clear definition from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Committee on Critical Thinking and the Language Arts:

"Critical thinking is a process which stresses an attitude of suspended judgment, incorporates logical inquiry and problem solving, and leads to an evaluative decision or action."

Critical thinking can be used to overcome general problems, negative emotions or implicit biases we may experience. Implicit biases are assumptions we make based on underlying associations we don't even realize exist. They can hinder our ability to think critically in diverse environments.

Conversely, improving our critical thinking skills can help reverse their effects. As a presentation on diversity from the UNC Center for Teaching and Learning put it: "Emphasizing specific critical thinking strategies can give students opportunities to practice skills that help them overcome the tendency toward individualistic explanations and fundamental attribution error."

We can sharpen our critical thinking skills to overcome such biases by practicing them. Ultimately, diversity allows us to do so.

highly critical thinkers, diversity

Diversity Forces Us to Choose

Essentially, diversity forces us to choose between critical thinking or the opposite: illogical defense of our opinions and behaviors and/or dismissive disagreements. It gives us the opportunity to think critically in response to differences, which can improve our emotional intelligence overall.

In diverse group settings, critical thinking allows us to take a step back and understand where others are coming from. For instance, a highly critical thinker might assume the group's opinions will differ from theirs by default.

Critical thinkers might also agree that the group's opinions deserve their utmost attention and consideration, even though the group's opinions and/or experiences may differ from their own. Ultimately, diversity provokes critical thinking, which allows groups to be more productive and innovative overall.

For example, studies show students focus better and become more creative in diverse environments. However, experts warn that simply diversifying students will not lead to benefits without cultivation. Critical thinking is obviously important for cultivating diversity. We just have to train our brains to choose to think critically instead of the opposite.

Diversity and Critical Thinking Defeat Groupthink

Additionally, studies conclude that when groups lack diversity, members tend to perceive other members as agreeable and having the same opinions.<3>  Therefore, they often don't even consider the possibility of opposing viewpoints, let alone stop to analyze them. This is known as groupthink.

However, the mere presence of diversity has proven to get us thinking more critically. We tend to expect differing opinions more readily in diverse groups as opposed to groups that lack diversity.

In other words, diversity is crucial in sparking critical thinking and overcoming groupthink. Critical thinking, then, is crucial for developing emotional intelligence. This is monumentally important; read on to find out why.

How Does Diversity Increase Emotional Intelligence?

In short, emotional intelligence (EQ) is the combination of a person's self-awareness, self-control, social awareness and ability to manage relationships.<4> It reflects a person's level of compassion, critical thinking, awareness, and emotional control within social interactions.

High EQ enables us to manage emotional reactions to different ideas and people more successfully.  For example, it can also help us control implicit biases. Thus, it may be helpful to consider when determining a prospective employee's potential. Specifically, it can help gauge a person's ability to overcome conflict and develop strong workplace relationships.

High EQ is a Key to Success

As it turns out, EQ is a key factor for success. Experts now agree that businesses should measure EQ before IQ when determining who to hire. That's because studies show hiring employees based on high EQ is associated with much higher success rates than hiring employees based on high IQ.

Specifically, those with higher EQ and significant experience showed a 3-4 percent failure rate compared to a 25 percent failure rate for those with higher IQ.<5> Why? Well, high EQ allows us to cultivate strong, diverse relationships and connections with colleagues and customers. IQ, on the other hand, only measures intellectual abilities.

High EQ Summary

Emotions control our motivation, commitment and other behaviors. They are our body's reaction to change and differences, in a nutshell. Humans need EQ to control their emotional reactions to the differences of others. To be clear, that means there is a direct connection between diversity and higher levels of emotional intelligence. Here's that connection.

Diversity creates an environment in which more group members are free and encouraged to express their ideas. As a result, more ideas are discussed and used for unique innovations.<6> 

Those with high EQ tend to perceive differing opinions and experiences as significant, helpful and motivational instead of otherwise. They also tend to learn more from mistakes within interpersonal relationships than those with low EQ.

Ultimately, experiencing diversity forces us to raise our levels of emotional intelligence through critical thinking. Then, higher EQ makes it easier for us to transcend emotions associated with differences, leading to more success and innovation.

Does Diversity Make Us Intellectually Smarter?

Now, here's the ultimate question: does diversity make us smarter? Does it make our IQ scores go up? Well, yes and no. There's no study that directly correlates higher IQs because of diversity.

However, there is plenty of proof it can increase creativity, awareness, critical thinking and emotional intelligence, as we've already mentioned. These all add up to a new type of intelligence: cultural intelligence.

What is Cultural Intelligence?

Cultural intelligence (CQ) is a person's ability to thrive in culturally diverse settings. Ultimately, we breed cultural intelligence when we master social awareness, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence in relation to diverse groups. It's our ability to relate with diverse groups in order to work together effectively.

As a quick example, diversity has shown to generate better quality scientific research. Research shows that scientific papers authored by diverse authors as opposed to authors from similar cultures and social groups had more scientific impact and citations. This hints at the diverse authors' level of cultural intelligence. However, how do we make sure diversity doesn't produce adverse effects?

How to Cultivate Social Diversity

Social diversity can have adverse effects if it's not nurtured correctly. Now that you know how diversity can make you smarter, you should know how to maximize its positive outcomes. Here's how: create the right environment.

Nurturing diversity may include:

  • acknowledging the existence of emotional reactions to differences.
  • establishing guidelines that allow everyone to have an equal say.
  • establishing guidelines that require taking time to think before responding.

Basically, if you can create an inclusive environment for everyone, you may experience the unique success and wholesome intelligence that only diversity can unlock.

The Cycle of Diversity

All in all, diversity creates a positive feedback cycle for cognitive advancement. Below, we've created a graphic to help visualize this cycle.

diversity, cycle

Social diversity can lead to greater social awareness, which leads to more critical thinking, which leads to higher emotional intelligence. Collectively, this creates cultural intelligence.

Then, we continue diversifying, because it only makes sense to do so. More diversity begets more emotional intelligence, which is a key to success in any organization. Not only does the process make us smarter, it makes us well-rounded human beings.

How do you think diversity makes you smarter?


  1. Hallinan MT. Diversity Effects on Student Outcomes: Social Science Evidence. Ohio State Law Journal. 1998; 59(3): 733-754.
  2. Lown BA. Compassion Is a Necessity and an Individual and Collective ResponsibilityInt J Health Policy Manag. 2015 Sep; 4(9): 613–614.
  3. Sommers SR, Ellsworth PC. White Juror Bias An Investigation of Prejudice Against Black Defendants in the American Courtroom. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law.APA Inc. 2001; 7(1): 201-229.
  4. Goleman D, Boyatzis RE. Emotional Intelligence Has 12 Elements. Which Do You Need to Work On?. Harvard Business Review. 2017 Feb.
  5. Fernández-Aráoz C. Ignore Emotional Intelligence at Your Own Risk. Harvard Business Review. 2014 Oct.
  6. Hewlett SA, Marshall M, Sherbin L. How Diversity Can Drive Innovation. Harvard Business Review. 2013 Dec.

These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

This article is an opinion and explanation of current research given by the author. It is not an expression of a medical diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on as such.

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