cognitive diversity, actual diversity, and the benefits of both

pages 204-208 in resilience have two really fascinating cases that make two astounding points:

cognitive diversity on a team can compensate for and even create better outcomes than intelligence on a team, and actual diversity and cognitive diversity together can be mutually reinforcing and beneficial. so what does all that mean? i’ll explain.

cognitive diversity

scott page is a professor of complex systems, political science, and economics and the university of michigan. he defines cognitive diversity as such: the distribution of different kinds of thinkers within a group.

kevin dunbar, a psychologist at the university of toronto, studied cognitive diversity and its impacts on team performance. turns out that having a team with a high (but not too high) level of cognitive diversity can create higher levels of performance.

dunbar took two scientific research labs and studied them in their actual research environments. team x had a high level of overall intelligence but a relatively narrow range of scientists. team y had a much more diverse set of scientists (i’m not sure how the intelligence level compared). the labs have no connection to each other.

at one point, teams x and y ran into a similar problem. team y, the cognitively diverse team, solved the problem in two minutes at a single meeting. team x was still struggling with the problem two months later. i can only imagine how much time and progress team x wasted trying to solve a problem that team y solved in minutes.

dunbar’s theory is that having different ways to think about a problem allows more access to alternative thinking about potential solutions. when people in a group think similarly, for example, they tend to use similar and more complex metaphors to describe situations because they have shared understanding of the knowledge required to make sense of them. teams with different thinking and backgrounds tend to use more basic but wide ranging types of metaphors in order to spam knowledge gaps between members. this allows more diverse ways of thinking about the same problem which seems to lead to solution faster.

now all of this said, there are certainly tradeoffs to having more diverse teams over similar teams. as with everything, there’s a balance.

teams with low cognitive diversity have low startup costs because they share language and knowledge. the means they can probably move faster when things are going well.

teams with high cognitive diversity have high communications cost. they can’t easily explain their thinking to others without shared backgrounds so they spend extra time doing so. however, the benefit that that creates is ability to blast through problems quickly, as opposed to getting bottle-necked by a lack of ability to think outside the box.

actual diversity

in a similar way, “actual” diversity (gender, class, race, etc.) also has benefits. the example used in the book was about gender.

when men find lab surprising lab results, they tend to assume they know why and keep moving forward (in my opinion, this is an effect of socialization, not physiology). either way, this pattern has the effect of sending teams down wrong pathways. incorrect early assumptions lead to wasted time down the road and makes it difficult to backtrack to find mistakes.

women, however, tend to try to stop and explain surprising results by doing more rigorous testing. by looking for ways to recreate the results, they generate more firm data and thus a higher ability to explain results.

now, from the outside, this may look like women are slower or less aggressive researchers. however, in reality, women are just as aggressive about their research; they just go about the work in completely different ways.

holy shit, that took 30 minutes to write. :O