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Cultural Diversity Makes You Smarter

Cultural Diversity Makes You Smarter

Being surrounded by other cultures can bring a great deal of benefits: new research has shown that living in a culturally diverse community can even make you smarter!


According to Gregory Rodriguez, humour is very important to Americans. In his article on the Washington Post he explains US citizens use humour to make living in the sometimes puzzling American society a little easier. The classic American joke that starts with “An Irishman, a Jew, and a Mexican walk into a bar” can thus be seen as a way to handle the cultural diversity in the country, Rodriguez says.

In a remarkable study Robert Putnam published eight years ago, the political scientist revealed that social trust can be lowered by cultural diversity. Rodriguez states that the study showed people living in diverse communities don’t trust their neighbours, for example, and don’t have much faith in the leaders of the community. In addition, he says, Putnam also discovered people living in a culturally diverse environment spend more time watching TV!

Rodriguez, however, feels Putnam should have gone a little further: he wonders how people can conquer the social distrust that cultural diversity can cause. He gives the example of a very devout friend of his who claims it would have been much easier to practice Catholicism if she stayed in her home country Nicaragua. Her US congregation consists of Filipinos, Mexicans and African Americans, to name a few cultures, which can be difficult at times. When the priest asked the congregation to vote for a new devotional figure in the church, Rodriguez’ friend didn’t vote for the Nicaraguan favourite, Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, but for the Holy Child of Atocha, the devotional figure loved by many Filipinos. She made this decision because she felt the Filipinos should be rewarded for their dedication.

According to Rodriguez, this example shows that people in diverse communities think about their decisions quite thoroughly. People in homogenous communities, he says, don’t need this extra brainpower, as their shared background means they agree on what certain institutions and practices mean.

It gets interesting when these values are called into question in culturally diverse societies, he says. Conflicting world views can be confusing for anyone and can cause two reactions: either people abstain from participating in collective life, or they become quite vocal in ventilating their world view to anyone who has a different one.

As the US has always been a country with a lot of immigrants, Rodriguez believes the difficulties that arise in diverse communities have always been part of American society. In fact, historian Timothy L. Smith even called migration to the country a “theologizing experience” in which newcomers have to adjust their behaviour in a culture that features many different subcultures. 

Rodriguez thinks that one of the reasons Americans are known for their direct behaviour can be explained by the fact that they had to find their way in an unfamiliar and changing society. As achieving an unspoken cultural consensus in a diverse community where people are continually migrating can be difficult, people have to express their opinions in a straightforward way to make sure others understand them correctly.

Even though diversity is a key feature of American society, many scholars that have studied cultural diversity have taken homogeneity as the norm. As Rodriguez, believes this a wrong assumption, he is glad that this year, a research team from MIT, Columbia University and Northwestern University wrote a paper that questions this practice. In their paper, the researchers referred to another study showed that when solving a problem, homogenous groups are more confident about their skills that they should be. The confidence of individuals in non-homogenous groups, however, is on par with the actual performance of the group. Thus, the researchers stated, diverse groups have a better objective index of accuracy.

Next to this study, the researchers also cited an experiment conducted in 2006, which revealed homogenous jury’s make “more factually inaccurate statements and considered a narrower range of information” than culturally diverse ones. The researchers believe that this outcome and that of other studies suggest people in diverse groups can look at things for a different perspective more easily and are less likely to unconsciously assume others share their opinion.

Thus, Rodriguez says, living in a diverse community makes you smarter. However, he still believes cultural differences are not easily overcome. People in culturally diverse environments question their worldviews, belief and institutions.

According to Rodriguez, “American ingenuity isn’t simply born of the fusion of peoples into your favorite metaphor for mixture Whether we realize it or not, it’s the good-humored hard work of living with people different from us that has always been the source of America’s genius.”

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