Attempts to build a more equitable and inclusive society have taken a step forward with the discovery of an “illusion of diversity” by a team of researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI). Their results clearly show that in a social context, most people greatly overestimate the presence of a minority – and this overestimation is made not only by the majority but also by the minority itself. Moreover, they found that this illusion is likely to hinder attempts to build a more equitable society, as it leads to less support for policies aimed at promoting diversity. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“I believe our work has immediate and real implications,” said research team leader Professor Ran Hassin of the Department of Psychology at HUJI and the Federmann Center for the Study of Rationality. To counter this bias, he suggests that two things need to be done to improve decision-making: the true numbers of the minority need to be known, and people need to understand how they are affected by this cognitive bias. But being aware of the illusion of diversity is only the first step, says Hassin, “we also need to be motivated to address it,” and then we can move towards implementing better policies.
The HU team’s first experience focused on university students, where the majority is Jewish-Israeli and the minority (about 12%) is Palestinian-Israeli (Arab). Students were asked to recall instances of walking in the main hallway of the university campus and to estimate the percentage of Arab students at the university. Jewish and Arab students gave much higher estimates (Jewish students are estimated at 31% and Arab students at 35%).
“At first, we couldn’t believe the results, so we did the same experiment several times,” says Dr. Rasha Kardosh, a postdoctoral student. It was actually Dr. Kardosh who originally suggested this research project. She had been surprised to discover that she had never been researched before. As a social psychologist from a minority group (namely, Arab), she was able to bring new perspectives to the field.
These startling early results were repeated in several other experiments, including one with American participants viewing a grid of 100 student faces, with 25% African American faces randomly scattered among the whites. A vast overestimation of minority (more than 40%) was recorded by both white and African American participants, confirming that being part of the minority had no effect on the correct estimation of other minorities.
For an explanation of the illusion of diversity, Dr. Kadosh points to the well-established fact that “our cognitive system focuses on 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, this focus may be on the minority group, and the shift in focus causes the event to claim more prominence in our perception and memories; the result is an overestimation of the minority. She and Professor Hassin now plan to investigate the impact of this effect on our perception of other minorities.
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Material provided by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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Researchers find that people overestimate the presence of minorities around them, hampering efforts to build a more equitable and inclusive society – Psychology and Psychiatry News
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