On diversity and the potential to leverage intercultural contact

This post also began as a research “memo” (written to myself as part of my PhD journal) entitled “on the effects of diversity”. I was prompted to write it by Richard Crisp’s book The Social Brain: How Diversity Made the Modern Mind (Robinson Books, 2015) – also see an earlier blogpost.

In contrast to the more pessimistic tone of my last research memo this one considers the positive potential of intercultural contact (which can also be termed “inter-tribal contact” in evolutionary terms) in terms of enhanced cognitive performance.

Specifically, Crisp notes that whilst “intercultural contact can – but need not – lead to conflict” it can also encourage people to “not only be more tolerant but also more flexible and creative” (p.85). The latter aspects – enhancing cognition and flexibility – may be especially important (see the arguments in my previous post). He writes:

If creativity has its origins in our ancestors’ need to think differently and innovatively about intercultural contact, then we should see a correlation between intercultural contact and creativity in modern behavioural science [he then presents such evidence such as from studies of bilingualism, studies of the impact of exposure to minority viewpoints, studies of the cognitive benefits of extended travel abroad, etc.]. (p.89)

Particularly relevant to my research and work is the discussion of exposure to alternative and minority viewpoints. Crisp writes that this often “creates conflict and demands efforts to resolve that conflict” (p.93), but it can also “encourage and generate divergent thoughts and new ideas” (p.93). This was evident in the case I’ve been studying. The positive potential is summarised as follows:

People considering a minority opinion will pay attention to more aspects of the situation, engage in more divergent thinking, and stand a greater chance of detecting novel solutions and coming to new decisions than those exposed to majority viewpoints (p.93).

So, all this suggests that greater exposure to different cultures enhances creative cognition.

I find this intriguing and exciting. Intriguing because my own experience both confirms and seems to challenge such findings – I think international travel in my early 20s enhanced my creativity, but in my work I’ve also found that diversity often produces conflict. Indeed, Crisp notes that “conflict remains pervasive in the modern world – the default position in intercultural relations” (p.100). Exciting because I see opportunities to leverage research on diversity and intercultural contact for purposeful ‘interventions’.

Crisp clearly points to key challenges that need to be overcome, in particular outgroup avoidance and threat detection. This urge to avoid different cultural groups (e.g. due to threat detection), and related ingroup biases, is described by Crisp as being “the default way of thinking for the modern mind” (p.101). Acculturation process can also result in negative outcomes. For example, “where people’s different cultural ‘frames’ conflict (in terms of norms, ideologies and worldviews)” Crisp argues “there will be the potential for negative outcomes” (p.104). I, too, have seen this.

But he also points to positive potential such as through techniques such as leveraging the human capacity for prospection (mentally projecting oneself into a different time/place, particularly the future) in a technique Crisp terms imagined intergroup contact (see Chapter 8). Related to this the book includes an interesting chapter entitled “The Power of Prospection”.

Different intergroup contact characteristics are also outlined which are argued to be important for processes of intercultural adaptation and enhanced cognition. Three are emphasised:

  • Immersive intercultural experiences (think living abroad for a year Vs a short visit)
  • Dual engagement: engaging with both familiar and unfamiliar cultures (e.g. both home and host cultures) with an integration mindset – i.e. “the individual must be motivated to integrate her existing cultural perspective with that of the other group” (p.134). Such dual engagement is argued to be central to enhancing creativity and mental flexibility.
  • High cultural distance/differences (i.e. the cultural distinctiveness of groups/categories): the degree to which values, customs and other cultural characteristics diverge. Specifically, Crisp argues that “intercultural contact has to be difficult in order to stimulate the advanced cognitive processes needed to overcome intercultural differences” (p.134).

These characteristics could be considered during process design for interventions (e.g. prospective exercises) and for facilitation, where/if enhancing creativity and cognitive flexibility is a goal. For example, you could seek to maximise the cultural distinctiveness of group members (or subgroup members) during a process in order to stimulate advanced cognition.

Related enabling social conditions include the opportunity for in-depth immersion (rather than short intergroup contact), motivation (to engage in intergroup contact) and willingness to challenge existing assumptions, low time pressure, and supportive organisational norms and ideologies (e.g. such norms may promote or militate against positive intercultural communication).

These also point to important considerations. For instance, the immersion condition is unlikely to be satisfied by a short multi-stakeholder exercise or a limited number of workshops.

Further suggested reading:

Crisp, R. 2015, The Social Brain: How Diversity Made the Modern Mind, Robinson, London, UK

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