Unity In Diversity?
Demonetisation. GST. Article 370. CAA. NRC. Namaste Trump. Pandemic response. Farming law amendments.
I’ll present three key concepts of the science of diversity, gleaned from Matthew Syed’s excellent book “Rebel Ideas” and leave it to the reader to gauge how effectively they are applied for each of the above initiatives.
First off, the book. As brave as it’s brainy and as holistic as it’s honest, this book gives the reader a new lens to view the world. Incorporating insight from psychology, economics, nutrition, academia and biology Syed makes a compelling case for more diversity. He forces us to question why diversity in business, culture and society are features, not bugs.
Diversity overcomes Perspective Blindness
This is the composition of the 22 cabinet ministers of the Government of India, including the PM, tasked with serving India’s 1.4 billion people: 2 women, 16 members of the RSS, 1 from a minority religion (who coincidentally is the Minister of Minority Affairs).
We form groups with people who look, talk and think like us — this is homophily. This validates our worldview, reinforces our prejudices and triggers the pleasure centres of our brains. But it leaves us all open to having the same blind spots! Think of this as swiss-cheese slices (individuals) stacked one behind the other in a way that the holes (blind spots) are aligned. This leads to a situation wherein the group doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. This is perspective blindness and it is universal, but we can fix it. How? Cognitive Diversity. Diversity provides a holistic perspective to the whole group, negating perspective blindness.
Homophily leads to certainty being inversely proportional to accuracy because of extensive mirroring within the group. Mirroring is why some people enjoy going to work every day — you are surrounded by your amiable colleagues (they mimic your actions), taking unanimous decisions in agreeable meetings (they mimic your thoughts) while being certain that they are will make positive contributions (you don’t know about all possible outcomes so you can’t see the possible negatives). Homophily leaves groups individually perceptive but collectively blind.
Cognitive Diversity is different to demographic diversity. A truly diverse group consists of individuals of varying ideological, mental and physical attributes. Religion, caste and gender are examples of demographic diversity. Hiring a religious minority in your organisation is not diversity as they may be from the same cognitive school of thought as the existing group reinforcing blind spots in a phenomenon called “knowledge clustering”.
Dominance and Prestige
How many meetings have you been in where 20% of the people do 80% of the talking? If you haven’t, you may be in the 20%! Dominance dynamics plays a key role in group behaviour — she who shouts loudest wins. This shuts diversity down as good ideas aren’t expressed. This problem exacerbates in hierarchical structures such as patriarchal societies and dictatorships, where combined with mirroring (mimic the leader) and advocacy (say what the leader wants to hear) it leads to diversity suppression.
An alternative to a dominant leader, as proposed by Syed is a prestigious one. A prestigious leader gains respect by modelling her persona on the society she leads. She directs her attention to her followers by listening, co-operating and giving. She chooses an open-body position while interacting with her subordinates and encourages impromptu discussions. She showcases authentic pride in her personality, exerts influence using persuasion and creates long-lasting relationships with peers. A dominant leader demands respect and uses it as his own property. He uses coercion, aggression and reward/punishments manipulations to influence. He avoids eye contact and unscripted interactions with his subordinates and displays an expansive body-position with an expanded chest and wide stance. Narcissism is a common trait with hubristic pride at the forefront. He uses opportunistic and temporary social coalitions to attain a higher rank.
Dominance and Prestige aren’t two personality types but techniques with relevant use-cases in today’s world for each. For algorithmic tasks, dominance works better. Think football manager or factory floor boss. For heuristic tasks, prestigious works better as it incorporates diverse views — think being the leader-in-chief of a large, densely populated, multicultural country.
Bursting Info Bubbles and Breaking Echo Chambers
Information bubbles are conceptually hermetically sealed units wherein inhabitants can only hear each other. Exposure to the outside world bursts this bubble and what brings this exposure? Correct. Diversity. The first-ever Apple HQ had a single toilet that all employees — accountants, executives, engineers — used. Conversations and cross-pollination of ideas occurred, bursting the info bubble and facilitating rebel projects. This is also why, Silicon Valley with its hippy culture, swanky bars, dress down Fridays and jovial culture brought the fall of the more industrial, rigid and siloed Route 128 industrial complex.
How do you differentiate if you are in an information bubble or echo chamber? If you are thirsty for information but not getting it — you are in an information bubble. If any criticism of your perspective further reinforces your belief of that perspective, you are in an echo chamber. Two complementary inputs every echo-chamber has — strategic discrediting and trust erosion. This is characterised by ad-hominem attacks or in other words, playing the person, not the ball. This debating technique has been around since Socrates. Put simply, it’s a coordinated, strategic attack not on your opponent’s argument but on their character, personality or past. This appeals to the echo-chambers’ inhabitants’ inherent prejudices (remember homophily?) and leads to trust erosion i.e. the widespread ridicule of the opponent’s abilities, amplification of their weaknesses and the reinforcement of the group’s certainty. Playing the person, not the ball works.
Experiments have shown that when exposed to information from the “other side” inhabitants of echo-chambers become more extreme, not less. Loyalty is thus conferred upon those agreeing with the zeitgeist while challengers are banished and preyed upon.
16 out of 22 cabinet ministers of the Government of India are members of the RSS.
To sum-up Syed’s thesis: diversity is the fundamental fabric of our existence and a vital prerequisite for natural selection, human motivation, innovation, business performance and political stability. Applying this to the current configuration of the Indian Government is illuminating. Read this to close-out 2020. Or start-off 2021. It’s smart, informative, optimistic and ambitious. It’ll enrich your cognitive toolkit, broaden your horizons, challenge your status-quo and look splendid on your bookshelf. If nothing else, it’ll convince you to break out of your echo chamber. Let me leave you this final cheery thought: a combination of fervent nationalism, hierarchical structures and suppressed diversity led by a dominant leader who is enabled by a media echo-chamber and extensively mirrored by his subordinates, does not bode well.