Diversity is the Answer

  • Martin A. Samuels
    Requests for reprints should be addressed to Martin Allen Samuels, MD, Department of Neurology, Harvard Medical School, 60 Fenwood Road, Room 04076, Boston, MA 02115.
    Department of Neurology, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, Mass
    Search for articles by this author
      In biology, it is clear that access to more genes leads to greater overall health. This is true because it allows for a greater likelihood that a genetic defect can be compensated for by a gene from a different pool. This is the reason that inbreeding leads to more genetic diseases and explains the evolutionary forces that led to sexual reproduction. This same phenomenon exists in social science. Complex social networks are healthier than narrower (constrained) ones. For example, it has been convincingly shown that people are more likely to get to the emergency department in time to receive a clot-busting therapy for stroke if they are part of a more complex, rather than constrained, social network. The probable reason for this effect is that the diversity of ideas that are available in the complex social networks is greater than in the narrow ones. Despite these advantages, human beings tend to resist diversity, depending instead on a competing drive to create cliques and clubs (eg, sororities, fraternities, country clubs). Why do people vote in manners that seem to be contrary to their own self-interest? In fact, this is not a paradox, but rather simply a competition between 2 deeply ingrained human traits; one biological and the other sociological. As an organization embraces diversity, there is inevitably a transitional state in which there are multiple microcultures, very much analogous to fraternities and social clubs that preceded the effort to diversify. If the process stagnates at this stage, there has been no real progress in that a new culture of cliques has replaced the old one. However, if the organization can encourage, by leadership models or incentives, the actual mixing of the subcultures, then the new one will be stronger and more resistant to stress and conflict.
      The phenomenon of professional burnout is a case in point. It is generally defined as a sense of cynicism, depersonalization, and ineffectiveness. Some believe that we are in the midst of an epidemic of burnout, affecting as many as half of medical doctors. The causes of burnout are protean, but at the core of the problem is the perception of unfairness; that one is the subject of a form of bias or prejudice whereby certain resources are unfairly distributed by a powerful force, such as the employer or the government. Any individual or group may be subject to this perception. Much of the conflict that is being expressed around the world can be understood as an analogue to professional burnout, in other words, caused at its root by a perception of unfairness. From where does this perception arise?
      It is useful to employ a theory of mind. By theory of mind, I mean the capacity to put oneself in another's position. It is different from sympathy or even empathy in that it allows one to understand other viewpoints without actually experiencing them oneself. There is neuroscientific evidence that there are some nerve cells in the brain (mirror neurons) that are specialized to respond to actions performed by another individual. These cells may or may not exist in humans, but it is definite that certain neurological conditions damage the theory of mind, making it difficult or impossible to perceive the perspectives and feelings of others. In related conditions, one may even become disconnected from one's own body or thoughts, such that even major deficits, such as paralysis, cannot be perceived, a condition called anosognosia (denial of deficit). In other words, we live in virtual reality. What the brain experiences is, in fact, reality.
      Diversity is the solution to the apparent paradox. If one cannot perceive an aspect of the world, it can be helpful for another person to provide that insight. The more an individual, a group, or society can provide diversity, the stronger it will become. This principle is not limited to one or another group. It is a basic biological and sociological trait of humans. Rather than a “Republican” or “Democratic” pollster, as they are always identified, what is needed is a diverse representation of the largest possible numbers of opinions, views, and perspectives. Such an approach is the most effective immunization against burnout and its core cause, the perception of unfairness. The counterpoint to the narrow (constrained) network is the complex, diverse one. Wouldn't it be nice if our media and our leaders could embrace this simple solution?
      In the words of Robert Burns:And would some power the gift would give usTo see ourselves as others see usIt would from many a blunder free us,And foolish notionWhat airs in dress and gait would leave usAnd even devotion