Diversity: it’s good for your brain

Exercise for your mind: the Diversity dance troupe. Photograph: Steve Meddle/Rex Shutterstock

I recall, a few years ago, being on a flight to Ancona in Italy. As we began our descent the (female) pilot came on the intercom to give the customary report on progress. As she signed off, the passenger next door smiled at me nervously and said, “Oh, a woman… that’s unusual.” It was, by the way, a textbook landing.

Of course, stereotypes abound in daily life, and they’re often imbued with inherent beliefs about ability. We know there’s no scientific basis for gender differences on things like piloting ability, business acumen or midwifery skills, yet people still seem surprised when they encounter someone who doesn’t fit the expected gender profile. Nothing brings societies’ stereotypes into sharper focus than those that buck the trend.

Research from psychological science has shed some light on why we have difficulties embracing diversity. It’s all to do with our “social brains” (that part of us which deals with relationships). The social brain has a lazy disposition: it just wants an easy life – for everything to be simple, structured and homogeneous. Challenging notions of what it means to be a pilot or a midwife disrupts that sense of order. People who don’t “fit in” mess with the mind’s model of how the world works, and if there’s one thing we’ve gleaned from 100 years of psychological science, it’s that the mind hates uncertainty.

The same principles underlie the debate over immigration. The very notion of a multicultural society challenges that simple, clear, defined idea of what it means to be British. Beyond any political, ideological or social policy stance, psychological science suggests that bubbling below is the brain’s fundamental discomfort with “messy” concepts.

But before any political points are scored, take a moment to consider that the brain is part of the human body, and physiologically behaves in precisely the same way. We’re all told by doctors that exercise is good for us – so we do it. But what if we lived on a desert island with no way of knowing about the decades of research linking exercise to a better, healthier and longer life? As millions of people discover each year, that first New Year’s resolution run really hurts. If all we had to go on was how good it felt to start doing exercise, why on earth would we continue?

The brain is just the same – it doesn’t like hard work, even though it’s good for it. Crucially, the hard work that comes with dealing with diversity gives the brain a brilliant work out.

This is exactly what the latest psychological science tells us: experiences that challenge our stereotypes about different groups make our brains perform better. One study at a US business school found a striking positive correlation between the amount of time students had spent abroad and their success at solving a classic negotiation problem. My own studies in the UK have found that both creative ability and problem-solving success are enhanced following experiences with people who challenge stereotypes, such as those female pilots and male midwives. Living in a diverse society is like taking a daily run – it constantly challenges our social perception, and keeps the mind fit, agile and adaptive.

Regardless of political, humanitarian or ideological goals, social diversity is good for our minds; for our capacity to innovate and our ability to grow. This has huge implications for a whole range of domains that use the brain’s capacity to see beyond what’s gone before, whether it be in business, health, education or the arts.