Diversity Defined

What Is Diversity?

For the Greater Good Science Center, “diversity” refers to both an obvious fact of human life—namely, that there are many different kinds of people—and the idea that this diversity drives cultural, economic, and social vitality and innovation. Indeed, decades of research suggest that intolerance hurts our well-being—and that individuals thrive when they are able to tolerate and embrace the diversity of the world.


In North America, the word “diversity” is strongly associated with racial diversity. However, that is just one dimension of the human reality. We also differ in gender, language, manners and culture, social roles, sexual orientation, education, skills, income, and countless other domains. In recent years, some advocates have even argued for recognition of “neurodiversity,” which refers to the range of differences in brain function.

Research shows that differences do make it harder for people to connect and empathize with each other. Navigating differences can be tough, whether in the classroom, the workplace, or our personal relationships—and yet people all over the world do it every day. It’s a prosocial skill, like empathy or forgiveness, that can be developed over a lifetime with intentionality, knowledge, and practice. In diverse societies, cultivating our ability to forge relationships across differences can actually increase our well-being.

What are the Limitations?

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Why Practice It?

Social connections are one of the single biggest predictors of personal well-being, and there is some evidence that making your network of connections rich and diverse can also contribute to health, success, and happiness.

  • Many studies have found that diverse organizations outperform their non-diverse counterparts. For example, when researchers studied the gender composition of management teams of the top firms in Standard & Poor’s Composite 1500 list, they found that, on average, “female representation in top management leads to an increase of $42 million in firm value.”
  • Economic diversity matters as well. Several studies suggest that contact across social classes seems to influence well-being and prosocial behaviors like gratitude and generosity. This research suggests it’s bad for everyone’s well-being when the rich don’t have contact with the poor, or the poor with the middle class.
  • Prejudice hurts the health of both targets and (to a different degree) perpetrators. The targets of prejudice experience the well-documented “weathering effect” on their physical and mental health. On the other side, many studies suggest that people who discriminate are at much greater risk of cardiovascular disease. Fortunately, interracial interactions needn’t be stressful. In many of the same studies, low-prejudice people respond to interracial interactions in ways that are happy and healthy.
  • Prejudice against students by educators hurts their academic achievement. At the same time, research to date suggests student achievement is higher in diverse schools.
  • Implicit and explicit prejudice fuel incredible disparities in the criminal justice system at every level. For example, a study led by Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford University found that black men convicted of capital crimes are more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death if they have facial features deemed to be more stereotypically “black-looking.”
  • One 2014 study in the journal Psychological Science suggests that people who play more diverse social roles may be better able to perceive and decode nonverbal cues in a variety of social settings. In other words, this result suggests, social and emotional intelligence rises as we interact with more kinds of people.
  • Finally, separation fuels intergroup discrimination, conflict, and violence—while embracing diversity seems to reduce it. People who live in homogenous communities, who have few opportunities for contact with outside groups, tend to resist diversity, which in turn seems to negatively affect their well-being.

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How Do I Cultivate It?

“Consider that not one of us is born learning how to drive, and yet by the time many people are adults, we find ourselves not even thinking about it even as we expertly maneuver the car,” write Jeremy Adam Smith and Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton in their essay “How to Stop the Racist in You.”

“One day, with practice, egalitarianism might be like driving a car: a skill learned over time but eventually so automatic as to be second nature.”

Here are some research-tested strategies for learning to cultivate diversity in your life, your workplace, and your community.

  • Practice mindfulness. New research is starting to find that cultivating non-judgmental, moment-to-moment awareness seems to reduce racial bias—an insight that may apply to other kinds of prejudice. University of San Francisco professor Rhonda Magee has turned mindfulness practices into exercises specifically targeted at cultivating diversity and resisting prejudice.
  • Through mindfulness practices like the ones Magee describes, you can cultivate awareness of your own biases. Rather than pretend that you are ignoring differences, try to acknowledge them.
  • But you should also recognize that unconscious bias is no more “the real you” than your conscious values. You are both the unconscious and the conscious. Your implicit biases matter, but so do your conscious goals and values. They exist in tension and dialogue with each other.
  • Seek out friendship with people from diverse groups, in order to increase your brain’s familiarity with different people and expand your point of view. Travel, if you can, and open your eyes and ears and heart to how others live. Scientists call this the “contact hypothesis,” the idea that simple contact with others improves your ability to deal with differences—and it’s a hypothesis that has been validated by hundreds of studies, and in children as young as three months old.
  • Be vulnerable around different kinds of people. In a 2011 analysis of research on intergroup friendships by Kristin Davies and colleagues, the time individuals spent together and their levels of self-disclosure with out-group friends were what most changed their attitudes toward others, suggesting these are important elements of intergroup friendships.
  • It’s natural to focus on how people are different from you, but try to consciously identify what qualities and goals you might have in common. There are specific exercises on our website Greater Good in Action that can help with this, such as Put a Human Face on Suffering and Shared Identity.
  • When you encounter examples of unambiguous bias, speak out against them. Why? Because that helps create and reinforce a standard for yourself and the people around you, in addition to providing some help to those who are the targets of explicit and implicit prejudice.

 

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