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The Benefits of Diversity: How Exposure to Contradictory Perspectives Fosters Optimal Development

Posted by Shira Goldsmith on

Exposure to diverse perspectives impacts identity by changing cognitive processes and opening one’s world to perspectives outside of one’s personal environment. Provided that individual understandings of the world are reflected by cultural values, people that do not engage in conversations with other cultures limit themselves to views specific to the place in which they are situated, which hinders their ability to comprehend deeper societal issues. In other words, without a desire to understand another person’s world, people restrict themselves from taking on a critical analysis of institutional practices and from forming genuine connections with others.

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So often we discover that people are prejudiced because they do not engage in conversations with “the other.” Social psychologists have found that the less knowledge we have about other cultures, the more prejudiced we are towards them. These individuals simply remain in their personal bubbles and perpetuate the master narratives that have been passed down from generation to generation. I argue that listening to others’ stories, which requires a willingness to hear about their pain and suffering caused by the experiences these individuals have faced, allows people to not only open their minds to how people make meaning of their experiences, but to appreciate those differences and extend those understandings to all human beings.

My own cultural immersion experiences have positively shaped my identity, both in the way I think about others and what I find to be valuable in life. I remember when I was twelve years old I was extremely fearful to travel to Costa Rica and live in a tiny village, called Boruca, with people who did not speak my language and who I knew would be extraordinarily different from me. What I gained from that experience was something I could never have acquired without that person-to-person contact. I was correct---the Borucan people were so incredibly different from me, but those differential aspects were what made them special. I began to reflect on my own culture and the perspectives I preserved, which I had thought were universal ideologies. I had not realized that there were other people out there, whose beliefs told me something about the world that differed so radically from what I had known to be true.

This experience made me question my own understanding of the world and the narratives I had been told. The Borucans had very few materialistic objects, because objects were not significant to them. Instead, their culture valued community, family, and friends. That is not to say that I found Americans did not appreciate those elements of life, but rather that the level of importance we placed on individual success took away from all the important things that had gone unnoticed. At the same time, there were parts of their culture that I did not respect. They believed lying was acceptable because telling the truth could hurt someone, and hurting someone was far worse than being genuine with them. Although I did not appreciate this aspect of their cultural narrative, which is a result of my own personal beliefs transmitted by the larger society, I recognized that they had their own reasons and their own stories that caused them to feel the way they did, and who was I to tell them they were wrong? After I returned home I struggled to integrate what I learned from the Costa Ricans into my own life. However, I knew that this lived experience had changed me, and I realized that others who had never left their comfort zone would never learn about the world in the same way I had.

Ultimately, interacting with the “other” allowed me to accept people who may think in ways that differ from how I think, and that acceptance of diverse perspectives has allowed me to take a step back, to be open minded, and to understand that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to live. Although not everyone will be provided the opportunity to leave the country and become fully immersed in another culture, there are ways in which we can promote diversity in schools, which, on a smaller level, can alter people’s attitudes, behaviors, and skills. When we engage in the same conversations, our worldly perceptions become extremely limited. Therefore, we must encourage schools to adopt curriculums that expose children to diverse perspectives so that they have a better understanding of how other people think. Furthermore, personal interactions with people from diverse perspectives allow us to challenge our own beliefs and understand that there is not a single way of knowing that exists in the world.

Granovetter (1973, 1983 in Clarke & Antonio, 2012) developed a weak ties theory, which suggests that attention be placed on microstructures for the flow of information and diffusion of ideas between individual and larger social systems. He explained that ties between individuals provide connections between otherwise disconnected parts of a network, which speaks to the importance of relaying diverse information on the individual level so that those modes of thought can be extended to others in his or her social network (Clarke & Antonio, 2012). Thus, one individual can bridge ties between two otherwise disconnected individuals, which allows people to access the exchange of information from differently located social structures. Exposure is essential to the reduction of prejudice, and because we live in a pluralistic society, the importance of understanding where people come from is essential to the promotion of positive contact between distinct individuals.

What Diverse Perspectives Provide Youth

When youth are exposed to diverse perspectives, their image of the world expands. According to Kugler (2002), students who closely interact with people from different backgrounds learn that reality extends beyond their own limited experiences. Bennet (1993), defined a monocultural perspective as “assuming the worldview of one’s own culture is central to all reality” (p. 30), whereas an intercultural perspective is “the acceptance of, adaptation to, and integration of cultural difference” (Paige, 1993, p. 16) (Peterson, 1997). Youth learn from one another when they interact with each other, but that intercultural perspective can only be obtained provided that individuals are taught something that contradicts their own beliefs or challenges them to think in ways that go beyond their current understandings of the world. Youth engage in diverse subjectivities, so when they are exposed to differing perspectives they engage in a type of agency and concern for others by co-creating conversations that promote intercultural alliances and inform their learning processes (Qualiada, 2009). A student demonstrated this sense of agency when she explained how the reciprocity of openness allowed her to develop awareness of her own stance and to actively influence others’ perspectives (Lee, Williams, & Kilaberia, 2012).

The importance of narrative is important to examine here, because it is through these conversations and interactions that personal discoveries are made. When we hear other’s perspectives we absorb their words, and that sparks our imagination, which broadens our vision of the world. In a first year seminar, the opportunity to exchange stories about meaningful personal objects facilitated respect, built trust between students, and effectively broke down barriers that inhibit interactions among strangers (Lee, Williams, & Kilaberia, 2012). One student explained how the narrative experience allowed her to build connections with others: “the most important part of the sharing that I took away from it was the fact that people are more than they appear” (Lee, Williams, & Kilaberia, 2012, p. 206). These sharing experiences allowed students to broaden their understanding of the world---to recognize that values and perspectives are shaped by individuals’ complex identities, while at the same time providing students opportunities to apply novel information to their own lives, experiences and views (Lee, Williams, & Kilaberia, 2012).

In addition, diversity allows individuals to self-reflect in a way that is only made possible with exposure to novel ideas, unfamiliar contexts, and diverse social groups. Because youth, in particular, have an extremely limited understanding of the world, their realities are constructed through language (Class Notes, 2014). Thus, language plays a role in how individuals perceive their social domains, which speaks to the importance of obtaining diverse forms of language because it allows these youth to alter their current perceptions of reality. For instance, Pichler (2009) discovered that youth from different sociocultural backgrounds within Europe, including Madrid, London, Oslo, and Kaunas, negotiated their identities through discursive practices. Results indicated that participants’ specific lifestyles and consumption practices influenced their language practices, and when those diverse language practices were in interaction, the youth became retrospective and reexamined their own personal identities (Izon, 2011).

Pichler’s study speaks to the ways in which interacting with people from different cultures is imperative to one’s ability to think in different ways, not only about the world, but also about themselves. One student explained that his interaction with diverse individuals was a two-way street experience, where he learned more about himself and about others’ lives (Lee, Williams, & Kilaberia, 2011). Similarly, students who discussed dimensions of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and class were provided opportunities to learn about and to interrogate their own privilege (Danowitz & Truitt, 2011). These students needed that contact with the other in order to reevaluate their own personal beliefs and values, which speaks to the importance of engaging in diverse conversations. Without engagement with another’s perspective, people are limited within their own cognitive sphere, which restricts them from gaining personal insights and a more holistic picture of the world.

Given that the United States is an extremely pluralistic society, embracing diversity is a value in of itself. Research has shown that it is common to accentuate similarity within groups and maximize difference between groups, which may come from the uncertainty-identity theory--- that uncertainty motivates people to identify with their clearly defined groups (Hackett & Hogg, 2014). In other words, when people are uncertain of others, they surround themselves with like-minded individuals, which causes them to limit their interactions with people that differ from themselves. Peterson (1997) explains that in a monocultural category, difference is assumed to be threatening, whereas in an intercultural category difference is non-threatening and even desirable.

In this sense, diversity is valuable to youth because it allows them to become less threatened by others, an idea that is crucial to adopt in the U.S provided the number of diverse groups that exist in American society. Once individuals are able to move past the threat of the other, promoting cooperative, inclusive social relations becomes more realistic—students who engage in diverse practices see a greater importance to global issues, and feel a greater responsibility to understand experiences that at one time had seemed irrelevant to them (Lee, Williams, & Kilaberia, 2012). They are inspired to become more engaged in research for the public good, and their knowledge on diversity and inclusivity transforms the way they think about the world and engage in their professional roles (Danowitz & Truitt, 2011).

Cognitive Outcomes from Engagement with Diverse Perspectives

One of the ways that diversity benefits young people is that it allows these individuals to come away with greater cognitive abilities and new perceptions. Many researchers have examined the role of engagement with diverse perspectives and have found that students depart with different modes of thought. There has been an overall consensus that participating in conversations with diverse individuals and learning about diverse perspectives affects individuals’ critical active thinking processes. Patricia Gurin conducted research that looked at specific conceptual mechanisms that are activated by diverse interactions and found that racially diverse interactions stimulated active thinking processes such as effortful action and perspective taking (ie. viewing the self in a larger context)(Clarke & Antonio, 2012). Patricia marked a contrast with those who did not engage in diverse practices and found that those individuals engaged in mindless action. In this sense, novel information, discrepant views, and divergent attitudes nudged students to abandon default modes of automatic thinking and mindlessness (Clarke & Antonio, 2012). Along with more thoughtful and active thinking processes, Kożusznik & Kożusznik (2014) indicate that people become more innovative when they engage in diverse cross-cultural contexts by having a greater ability to regulate their own influences.

In addition, engaging in diversity increases cognitive sophistication and complexity. Antonio, Chang, Hakuta, Kenny, and Milem (2004) conducted an experiment varying the racial and opinion framework in small discussion groups to test for the effects of differing perspectives. The results indicated that integrative complexity was found when groups had racial and opinion minority members and when they reported having racially diverse friends and classmates. In this sense, students were able to integrate knowledge in a more mature fashion because they engaged in conversations that forced them to find patterns and build relationships between different concepts.

Other researchers have similarly found that exposure to diversity enables individuals to engage in complex modes of thought when they are placed in new situations that challenge their current, comfortable modes of thought (Loes, Pascarella, & Umbach, 2012)--- “cognitive growth is fostered when individuals encounter experiences and demands that they cannot completely understand or meet, and thus must work to comprehend and master the new (or at least not completely familiar) and discontinuous demands” (Gurin, Nagda, and Lopez, 2004, p. 20). In this sense, engagement with differing perspectives provides young individuals ways to think more complexly when they find themselves in new, uncomfortable situations.

Finally, surrounding oneself with diverse individuals allows one to access divergent thinking, which aids problem-solving and creativity. Solutions that have previously been useful become dominant, so when people are exposed to different thoughts they can think about alternatives and refrain from adopting the dominant solution or the first thing that comes to mind (Nemeth, 1986). Nemeth also explains that “minority views can stimulate considerations for the nonobvious” (p. 29). In previous studies by Nemeth & Wachtler (1983) and Nemeth & Kwan (1985), subjects exposed to minority views were able to detect novel solutions, use more varied strategies, and think in more original ways (Nemeth, 1986).

In this sense, when the majority is exposed to differing views, they are stimulated with divergent thought processes; when they are surrounded by an initial majority, they are fostered with convergent thinking (Nemeth, 1986). Hoffman and Maier (1961) have acknowledged how pressures for uniformity impede good problem solving, and how people differing in category provide diverse approaches to problems, which results in improved performance (Nemeth, 1986). Thus, exposure to diverse views is important for young individuals because it broadens their thought processes, provides avenues to search for alternate solutions, and helps them think about issues more complexly.

Diversity’s Impact on Intercultural Sensitivity and Reduction in Prejudice

Engaging in diverse conversations and practices additionally allows individuals to gain a better understanding and sensitivity of other people, thus reducing their prejudice towards groups that differ from themselves. As the United States becomes more multicultural, the ability to continue as a democratic society requires that people tolerate and respect cultural difference. When analyzing the intercultural sensitivity of young students, those who had the highest levels of sensitivity came from urban locations where they had a lot of exposure to the “other” (Peterson, 1997). Children from more rural areas, in contrast, did not possess “a highly developed intercultural schemata and therefore processed and understood intercultural experience differently than those students who experienced daily intercultural exchanges” (Peterson, 1997, p. 18). Having that contact exposure with different types of people allowed these young individuals to have a greater sensitivity for people who differed from themselves, which supports the idea that diverse experiences have positive outcomes for the ability to understand and respect others.

Maintaining a greater cultural sensitivity has proven to be effective for students---in a study that looked at the ways in which personal value of diversity would moderate the negative relationship between perceived discrimination against minorities, participants high in personal value for diversity had stronger negative reactions to mistreatment of minorities than those who showed low personal value for diversity (Triana, Wagstaff, & Kim, 2012). This research exemplifies how seeing the value of diversity would not only lessen people’s apprehension of others, but would additionally reduce their prejudice towards them. Also, in a freshman seminar that emphasized the importance of diversity, students explained that they began to reconsider their assumptions about other groups and became less judgmental (Lee, Williams, & Kilaberia, 2011). Ultimately, this experience allowed them to build positive relations with people that differed from themselves.  

One way in which this cultural sensitivity occurs is through one’s ability to comprehend others’ perspectives, which one acquires by engaging in diverse practices. In a study by Gurin, Nagda, and Lopez (2004), individuals who participated in a four-year multicultural program showed greater motivation to take the perspective of others, and nearly all of them had democratic sentiments and engaged in civic participation. White students who had experienced diversity in the classroom, at events, or in dialogues more often than other students who did not engage with diversity asserted that: “difference is not inevitably divisive but instead can be congenial” (Gurin, Nagda, & Lopez, 2004, p. 28-29). Thus, they acquired an understanding of other individuals and recognized that this understanding can build positive relationships between dissimilar people. The broader study also showed that diversity experiences increased participants’ sense of commonality in values about work and family with groups other than their own.

In addition, students who engaged in diverse practices reported feeling a greater social responsibility. Over the course of four college years, participants in the multicultural program thought more about their own group membership and were more committed to helping their community and promoting racial/ethnic understanding (Gurin, Nagda, & Lopez, 2004). Furthermore, Parker and Pascarella (2013) conducted a similar study and discovered diversity experiences positively affected socially responsible leadership in students. The dimensions of social responsibility that were tested for were: consciousness of self, congruence of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, commitment, collaboration, common purpose, controversy with civility, citizenship, and change.

Interestingly, as Gurin et al. (2013) posited, simply putting students in diverse groups did not guarantee positive outcomes. Rather, it is the particular interactions within these diverse groups that affected their experiences (Parker & Pascarella, 2013). Parker & Pascarella (2013) found that informal and interactional diversity experiences, such as exchanging conversations with diverse peers, were the greatest factors influencing leadership development. Again, the narrative component of interaction is crucial to examine in this context, in which the process of using language to question one’s own beliefs and listen authentically to others provided the greatest alterations in participants’ attitudes and behaviors.

Cultural Immersion: Going Beyond Conversations

As we can see, engaging in conversations with people who have different viewpoints is beneficial to individuals because it impacts their ability to think creatively and develop compassion for diverse perspectives and experiences. On the other hand, by actually experiencing another culture, these skills become even more attainable. Leung, Maddux, Galinsky, and Chiu (2008) discovered five ways that multicultural experiences impact an individual’s level of creativity: 1) they learn new ideas and concepts because they are exposed to a range of behavioral situations and problems, 2) they recognize that the same behavior has different functions, 3) they learn to adapt their own thoughts and behaviors to a new environment, 4) they show an increase in psychological readiness to seek out diverse sources, and 5) they are readily exposed to new values that conflict with their own culture. It is through this immersion process that these skills are truly enhanced, because these individuals actively witness the cultural aspects that may only be discussed in class, which allows them to negotiate their own identities on an even deeper level.

In this sense, the cultural immersion experience enables students to identify aspects of their cultural heritage and personal values on an even greater level because it “provides an opportunity for the individual to understand a different community, to experience what it is like to be an outsider, and to understand one’s values, biases, and assumptions” (Nieto, 2006 in Smith-Augustine, Dowden, Wiggins, and Hall, 2014, p. 471). It appears that this direct contact is the aspect of cultural immersion that has the greatest impact on optimal development. The challenging ideas that people speak about in the classroom do afford self-reflection and the formation of new attitudes and behaviors, but the immersion process provides the opportunity to live for a period in an unfamiliar environment, which facilitates cultural competence.

Students have indicated that actively experiencing another culture resulted in greater cultural appreciation and cultural sensitivity. The following are excerpts from Smith-Augustine, Dowden, Wiggins, and Hall’s (2014) study that looked at the impact of cultural immersion on cultural self-awareness:

     - “I learned that I have a very westernized sense of independence. I am used to being on my own, not having to depend or wait for, or even really care about anyone else who I did not want or need to.”

     - “This cultural immersion has forced me to look at things from a different lens. It taught me to truly examine a culture before I decide to voice how I think they should change. It taught me that what I may see as an issue or a problem, may not truly be an issue or problem in that culture.”

     - “This week has made me realize that I complain too much without being sensitive to the condition of those around me. I don’t think about how people may be offended by my complaining about something that could also be affecting them but in a severe manner.”

In this sense, students were able to reflect in a particular way that was only made possible by experiencing another culture, interacting with individuals within that culture, and feeling a sense of discomfort from that interaction.

The importance of gaining sensitivity and appreciation of other cultures is essential to the reduction of prejudice and discriminatory practices. Our master narratives are structural and provide knowledge about cultural themes of difference, power, and history. These master narratives and personal narratives are bidirectional and are constantly being co-narrated (Class Notes, 2014). Therefore, by engaging in more diverse practices (which ideally would be the process of actively experiencing another culture), individuals can change their mindsets, develop compassion for differing perspectives, and can transmit those views to others, which affords social change. The first step, however, is to gain an understanding of the importance of diversity in our lives, which comes from direct engagement with other perspectives and a willingness to have uncomfortable conversations and interactions with individuals of different social groups.

Conclusion

To conclude, engaging in diverse practices, whether in the classroom or in an authentic cultural environment, is important for the development of creative thinking processes and intercultural sensitivity. Having conversations with people that hold ideas radically different than one’s own forces one to think in new ways and gain new perspectives on the world. The importance of developing these skills is crucial in America because the United States is becoming more and more multicultural. Without these skills, people continue to perpetuate the dominant narratives, which reinforces oppression. Diverse engagement allows individuals who would otherwise be constrained by their normative ideals to form alternative viewpoints and understand the value of diverse relations, which ultimately reduces the types of discriminatory acts that are in place.

Although there is no question about whether diversity is important for one’s social and cultural intellect, it is important to acknowledge that there are certain settings in which individuals feel safe to share their differing ideas. If we can create classrooms that allow people to feel comfortable with their peers, the benefits of diversity may flourish. If people at a certain level are willing to challenge themselves and place themselves in a foreign environment, then these benefits are enhanced. We need to understand that we live in a world with many different people, who have many different views, and lacking cultural competence impedes our ability to understand others and be effective global citizens. 

This article was written by Shira Goldsmith, a Connecticut College graduate, experienced Central American traveler, and future child psychologist. 

Sources

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