Yesterday, I interviewed Katherine Phillips, an organizational psychologist out at the Kellogg School of Management, for an upcoming Inc. story on diversity. Phillips studies how diversity affects group performance, with what might just be the coolest lab studies ever. Basically, she uses murder mysteries: she sets up the mystery, breaks up her subjects into groups of various characteristics–and she watches their interaction and how successful they are at solving the mysteries.
She told me a lot of interesting things, but here’s what I’m thinking about right now: Generally speaking, most people don’t like to be around people who are different, because that makes them question who they are, and what they believe. Let’s face it, most people think an unexamined life is the only kind worth living.
But actually, she said, her research has found that the only thing that makes people more uncomfortable than being around someone who looks different, is being around people that they expect will be just like them —because of race, gender, or some other group identity –and that turns out to be totally different. "We see the most visceral reactions when people who look like us don’t agree with us," she says. "The biggest thing that shocks people in their lives is sitting down with two people and finding out that, wow, I have more in common with the person who doesn’t look like me, than the person who does. That is hard for people, because it starts to call into question: what does it mean to be who I am?" It’s much easier, she says, for us to deal with different attitudes from people who look differently from us, because…we’ve already written them off as bizarre and not-like-us
This isn’t just about race, by the way. She found that our urge to sort ourselves into groups is so strong, that we’ll use whatever we have around us to start categorizing. When she did one of her murder mystery experiments, she divided the group into people who lived on the north side of campus, and people who lived on the south side of campus. Now, this really shouldn’t mean anything, since campus location is basically random. But still, she found that many of her subjects predicted that the people who lived on the same side of campus with them would share their opinion on whodunit ! Of course this didn’t turn out to be true– so there were a bunch of uncomfortable people in Phillips’ lab that day.