Is Diversity Less Important than We Think?

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"Love is the power to see similarity in the dissimilar."
- Theodor Adorno

Ah, the moment of connection.

You know you've felt it. You start talking with someone new. You mention your hometown, your job, and that obscure Croatian band you love. But, then something strange happens.

They like the band too.

In a moment, the power of a rare similarity changes your dynamic. You start speaking rapidly, frothing as you uncover new similarities. They like beets? You like beets. They like fleetwood mac? You like fleetwood mac. They're vegetarian? You've seen a carrot.

Similarity: The most powerful social connector on earth.

Over the past 20 years, society has emphasized the importance of diversity. Colleges have set up affirmative action programs, companies like Goldman Sachs have created internships for minorities, and the "Lean-in" movement has pushed for a stronger female presence in tech. In this sense, diversity is great; it helps fight structures of inequality certain people face.

In another sense, overemphasizing our differences overlooks the power of a common bond. Research shows we are more compassionate, caring, and supportive of people similar to ourselves. This effect holds even when we think we share a similarity. Harvard researcher Hunter Gehlbach showed that when simply reminded of similarities, we work harder for others. In his study, "Creating Birds of a Feather," Gehlbach found that teachers who were reminded of shared interests with students pushed their students academically. The result: students did better in school.

Valuing both diversity and similarity might feel like a contradiction. But, it doesn't have to. John F. Kennedy, for example, created a cabinet filled with political outsiders. He did so to generate different opinions, new ideas, and make better decisions. But, when Kennedy spoke with his constituents, he emphasized the commonalities they shared: a similar focus on family, values, etc.

Tiptoeing the line between diversity and similarity requires discipline. It means searching for the common traits that matter, finding the similar in the dissimilar, and creating shared memories with others.

Seek Out The Similarities That Matter
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In 1985, psychologists Richard Kopelman and Dorothy Lang found the surprising secret to love: similar names. As their research showed, we are more attracted to people with similar names to us. This unconscious bias holds true in other fields. In a study of Kiva, a microfinance firm, individuals were more likely to finance projects led by individuals with similar initials. These are examples of superficial similarities. There is no evidence that your initials predict your chance of repayment. Similarly, changing your name won't dramatically improve your relationship with others. When making decisions about who to like, be conscious of these unnecessary (and unhelpful) biases.

On the other hand, certain type of similarities - such as similar core-values - are extremely important for relationships. Lilian Eby of the University of Georgia showed that the single best predictor of a successful mentoring relationship is similarity. Though superficial similarities - such as race, hometown, etc. - helped begin relationships, similar core-values best predicted long-term success. In this case, similarity is incredibly important. The more similar your values are with your mentor, the better the chance of success for your relationship.

Uncover The Similar in the Dissimilar:
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Similarity predicts relationship success. So, try to find the similarities you have with others. Ask open-ended question about other people's lives. Make few assumptions about their interests. Similarities don't have to be concrete things. Instead, they can be a mindset. You might not geek out on physics; but, you can appreciate what it's like to enjoy something different.

You can be unique and find similarities with other people. To do this, you have to keep an open mind, cultivate new experiences for yourself, and constantly ask questions of others. In the words of Isabel Allende, "Tend to see the differences, not the similarities in others".


Create Similarities

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Have you ever had a secret handshake, an inside joke, or a family tradition? Each of these are developed similarities. They didn't occur naturally, instead they were cultivated over time. To develop similarities, think about creating shared memories. This could involve going on an adventure, trying out something new, or starting a tradition with a friend.

Another way to create similarities is by simply asking "What do we have in common?". Verbalizing shared traits is a great way to bond with others. In a study popularized by the New York Times Essay "To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This", experimenters tried to recreate intimacy by having partners ask each questions. One type of questions, focused on recognizing similarities. By actively recognizing similarities, you bond in a way you otherwise wouldn't.

We live in a world that emphasizes diversity. Be yourself, make your own path, and don't follow others. Though there is wisdom in the advice, we need to understand when it isn't helpful. Sharing something with someone else - a common bond - is one of the most powerful connectors on earth. It leads people to fall in love, form deep friendships, and empathize with each other.

So, seek diversity. Be yourself. Make your own path. But, also seek out common bonds. Look for kindred values. And create the memories you'll share for a lifetime.

In the words of M. Scott Peck,

"Share our similarities, celebrate our differences."