For people in diverse areas, community identity supersedes racial, ethnic differences

June 7, 2020

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For people in diverse areas, community identity supersedes racial, ethnic differences

In an increasingly polarized world, many see people who are different from them as “outsiders,” or even a threat. Yet, around the world, this tends to be more common in traditionally homogenous societies, according to a new series of studies.

The analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that people living in more diverse areas were more likely to perceive themselves and others as being part of the same local community—e.g., New Yorkers—regardless of ethnic and cultural differences. This finding held true globally, nationally, and individually. People living in more homogeneous areas, however, maintain racial, ethnic and religious stereotypes that are less accepting of people outside of that identity.

What the researchers say: “This is a hopeful and optimistic message, showing that people can get used to anything. In other words, the ‘melting pot’ lives,” said the lead researcher.

“They can adapt to being in quarantine, or living in a neighborhood with different people,” she added. “What probably disrupts this process, however, are divisive political leaders who purposefully try to agitate or polarize and exaggerate the differences between people.”

The researchers began the study with conflicting hypotheses. Some researchers thought the more diversity you have, the more you realize how different everyone is, but others thought the opposite –that diversity could bring people together.

The authors analyzed a range of sources comprising data from 46 countries around the world, data from 50 states in the U.S., and longitudinal data from American university students who were followed during the entire period of their time in college.

In the worldwide study, participants were asked to list up to 20 different social groups they could spontaneously recall. They then ranked each group on competence and warmth, two key variables in shaping stereotypes. The scores were combined, revealing what the researchers called “stereotype dispersion,” or differentiation, between ethnic groups.

A similar methodology was followed in the U.S. study, which asked more than 1,500 participants online to rate 20 immigrant groups on competence and warmth. They were then instructed to describe their perceived diversity of their home state on a five-point scale. Like the first study, the researchers combined the scores to calculate the stereotype dispersion between states.

In the third and final study, the researchers turned their focus to American college students who were asked questions about campus diversity and perceived stereotypes for Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. They were also asked questions about life satisfaction and well-being. The scores were again combined.

Across all three studies, the findings held consistent: Social diversity challenges people to think in new ways, and those people end up seeing other social groups as more similar. This is associated with more positive attitudes toward other groups and positive well-being outcomes. The researchers say this is an optimistic finding, especially during uncertain times.

“If you can gather people together, you can encourage cooperation and equal status,” said the lead author. “It’s not going to happen everywhere, and it’s a delicate situation to set up, but the idea that mere exposure to diversity can improve relationships is hopeful news.”

So, what? This study confirms others previously reported in TR which show that the more people develop commonality—living in the same city and sharing the same problems for example—the more they grow together. I would argue, however, that this is a fragile state.

Already the COVID-19 experience, which should bring people together, is in fact creating more distance. This has been seen in increasing anti-Asian violence in the US—particularly directed at Chinese Americans. There is increasing Black v. White tension in many of the “red (republican) states.” Much of this has been stoked by right-wing politicians—as the researchers observe—seeking to bolster their reelection prospects. Unfortunately, the US is not alone in this.

Historically, there is the case of Bosnia where Muslims and Christians who had been living peacefully together in towns and villages for centuries, turned on each other as soon as the war began. Mutual hate became the norm—again, right-wing nationalist politicians were largely to blame. Or consider the equally tragic case of Rwanda. The anti-Tutsi genocide during their 1994 civil war has been well documented. Further back in time during the Black Death in Europe, pogroms against Jews and other minorities were common. Finally, of course, there’s the case of Germany under Hitler and the unleashing of the Holocaust.

Politics divides people, religion divides people, culture divides people. Only science and the pursuit of truth and the acceptance of diversity unites people.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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