Seeing members of minority groups everywhere? It's an illusion

May 22, 2022

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Seeing members of minority groups everywhere? It's an illusion

Attempts to build a more equitable and inclusive society has taken a step forward with the discovery of a “diversity illusion” by an international team of researchers.  

Their findings clearly show that within a social setting most people significantly overestimate the presence of a minority—and this overestimation is made not only by the majority but also by the minority themselves. Moreover, they found that this illusion is likely to hamper attempts to build a more equitable society, as it leads to less support for policies aimed at promoting diversity. Their findings were published in PNAS, the journal of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What the researchers say: “I believe that our work has immediate and real-life implications,” said the research team leader. To counteract this bias, he suggests two things must be done to improve decision making: the actual numbers of the minority need to be made known and people need to understand how they are affected by this cognitive bias. But being aware of the diversity illusion is just the first step, he explains, “we also need to be motivated to fix it. Then we can move towards the implementation of better policies.”

The team's first experiment focused on students at the Hebrew University, where the majority is Jewish-Israeli and the minority (around 12%) is Palestinian-Israeli (Arab). The students were asked to recall instances of walking through the main hallway of the university campus and estimate what percentage of Arab students there are at the university. Both Jewish and Arab students gave much higher estimates (Jewish students estimated 31% and Arab students estimated 35%).

“At first, we couldn't believe the results, so we ran the same experiment several times said the researchers.

These first surprising results were repeated in several other experiments, including one with American participants viewing a grid of 100 student faces, with 25% of African American faces randomly scattered among white ones. A vast overestimation of the minority (over 40%) was recorded by both White and African American participants, confirming that being part of the minority had no effect on gauging the correct estimate of fellow-minorities.

For an explanation of the diversity illusion, the team pointed to the well-established fact that “our cognitive system switches its focus to what it doesn’t expect. Just think of walking through the vegetable section of a supermarket and suddenly seeing a bottle of laundry detergent among the potatoes.” In a social setting, that focus can be on the minority group, and the shift of focus makes the event claim more importance in our perception and memories; the result is an overestimation of the minority.  

So, what? This illusion probably explains why so many White Americans are fixated by the “Great Replacement Theory,” and their fear of being overwhelmed and replaced by Blacks, Latinos, Jews and Asians.

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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