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What this U.S. Supreme Court Justice Gets Wrong About Diversity

Differences spawn new ideas.

This article originally appeared in Fortune on December 16, 2015. 

By Willemien Kets

The Supreme Court recently heard the latest challenge to an affirmative action plan at the University of Texas at Austin. While the debate is complex and ongoing, it has changed dramatically in the past decade: affirmative action in university admissions started in the late 1960s as an effort to stimulate racial integration and foster equal opportunity. In the 2003, landmark case Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court hardly discussed discrimination and fairness, but instead focused on whether promoting diversity is a “compelling interest.”

In the present Supreme Court case, this shift away from discrimination and fairness is even more pronounced. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. seemed unconvinced of the value of diversity in at least some settings. “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” he asked last Wednesday.

My research with Alvaro Sandroni suggests an answer: Diverse groups are less conformist and more willing to go against the status quo if that leads to better outcomes. Whether a physics graduate goes on to work at a tech company, becomes a scientist, or ends up as a manager, it will be critical for her success as well as her employer’s whether she is an original thinker.

We used a mathematical model to study the effects of diversity. The basic idea is simple: Diversity can push people out of their comfort zone, and the resulting uncertainty may make them more open to try out new ideas.

Think about it. If all students have the same background, a student may be hesitant to raise his hand in a class discussion and share a crazy idea. He knows how the other students think, and can see exactly why they would dismiss it.

In a more diverse group, it may be less clear what ideas people are receptive to. That may create an openness to new ideas that is absent in groups with congruent expectations. If a student can’t predict how others will react, then perhaps he’d be more willing to share a crazy idea.

Companies such as Pixar thrive because they understand the value of unpredictability. After releasing three blockbuster movies, the animation company brought in Brad Bird, a director who had just come off a movie that had been a financial failure “to come shake things up.” The strategy was successful: the team produced a movie, The Incredibles, that went on to win two Oscars.

True, Bird is not an outsider in the sense of being a minority or a woman. Nonetheless, he was an outsider — in the sense that he came to Pixar from Warner Brothers and was the first director who was not from the homegrown Pixar farm team. He engaged the black sheep and hired people who had no experience with Pixar’s animation technology. In diverse groups, everyone is a bit of an outsider. That makes it harder to anticipate how others will react. That can lead to more conflicts and misunderstandings. However, if there is no clear group norm, we are also less likely to hold on to outdated practices.

To be sure, mathematical models have their limitations. It is impossible to include all factors that play a role in real life, so our analysis is necessarily abstract. However, the predictions are consistent with extensive data that suggests that diversity pays off precisely when it is critical to be innovative. Also, experiments have demonstrated that people are more likely to voice unique perspectives and less likely to conform when there is more diversity, consistent with our model.

If diverse groups are less conformist than more homogeneous ones, then the benefits of diversity may apply much more broadly than previously thought. It is well-known that cognitive diversity – differences in skills and information – can lead to superior performance, as Chief Justice Roberts suggested. However, our research suggests that even if different groups have exactly the same skills and knowledge, diversity pays off. So, class diversity benefits students in all fields. And, the benefits apply equally to all groups – both minority and majority groups gain.

Improving diversity is a direct way to challenge conformity and make us all a little bit more open to trying out new things. That is a “compelling interest” indeed.

Willemien Kets is an assistant professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.