Why Can’t Things Just Be the Same?

For DEI to thrive and survive, they simply can’t By BRYON ROBIDOUX

Photo: iStock.com/469826642

There is a tug-of-war, I believe, between diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and the innate desire for sameness (homophily). A common misconception is that we are born to be accepting of diversity and are taught segregation and prejudice. It may be hard to hear, but according to a 60 Minutes report, we are born to segregate and differentiate—we must teach the value of DEI. In my opinion, moving DEI forward with meaning and longevity can only happen if we understand the massive headwinds presented by the desire for sameness.

Our brains evolved into superb prediction engines requiring little energy and information. When we are born, we know very little of anything. As we explore and learn, we abstractly model the world around us.1 We constantly sample between our external environment and internal models, which determines how we perceive the world. To deal with a radically uncertain world, we must quickly predict—based on our perception—friend or foe, threat or safe. The rules of self-preservation are:

  • If the result matches our prediction, then we feel safe.
  • If it is relatively close to our prediction, we are curious.
  • After a point, the dissimilarity to our forecast is categorized as a threat.2

In other words, predictability gives us the impression of certainty, and unpredictability provides us with the feeling of uncertainty. Uncertainty threatens our survival.

Cellular automata is the study of how agents with simple instructions and decentralized control, such as ants, can compute and display complex behaviors. Like cellular automata, our simple rules for self-preservation lead us to the complex behaviors of seeking out people with brains that work like our own. These complex behaviors increase the predictability of the other person’s behavior, making it easier to mirror their behavior.3 These complex behaviors can be witnessed through a cognitive bias known as affinity or similarity bias. You may be tempted to think that this self-preservation behavior can be easily overridden. Still, it is nearly impossible to separate emotions from logic, and it’s very hard to unlearn ingrained behaviors.

Separating logic from emotions

A common misconception is that logic can be easily separated from emotions. We have what I like to call our crocodile brain, which is our amygdala, and our human brain, which is our prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is responsible for our emotional memory and fight-or-flight responses. All senses are routed through the amygdala before they get routed to the prefrontal cortex. This routing means the crocodile gets the first crack at the incoming inputs. People who have damaged their amygdala cannot make decisions because they do not care about the outcome or will endlessly mull over the decision. Therefore, feelings are typically indispensable to rational decisions.4 For example, you will immediately have an emotional response when something happens to you. Only through conscious activation of your prefrontal cortex can you override this emotion.

The difficulty of unlearning

When it comes to learning, we have white and gray matter in our brains. The white matter is for tasks that we have already learned. It makes up our brain’s information superhighway. Our information superhighway allows us to process data quickly. Our gray matter works much more methodically because it is responsible for learning new concepts and tasks.5 As we learn, we migrate from gray to white matter. Once learned, a concept is difficult to remove from the white matter and unlearn.6

The inconvenient truth

The complex behaviors derived from self-preservation are hard to unlearn because they are part of our internal programming. Fear and anxiety are strong emotions that can easily overwhelm us when our predictions fail. Instinctively, we run back to safety and familiarity, which is the basis of the desire for sameness.

We like to think that we are logical beings in full control at all times, but most of the time, we are running on emotions and overlearned responses. Not only is the desire for sameness deeply ingrained at the micro level, but it is also built into our macro-level social networks.

Can’t Things Just Be the Same?

In Matthew O. Jackson’s book, “The Human Network: How Your Social Position Determines Your Power, Beliefs, and Behaviors,” the macro-level issues are summarized in a section titled “Homophily as the Fabric of Our Lives.”

“[I]t will help to keep in mind the multitude of forces that push humans toward others with similar characteristics: bias in patterns of location and contact, shared challenges and goals, ease of communication, predictability, and understanding of behaviors and norms, real or perceived intergroup competition and resulting prejudice and racism, as well as our basic socio-psychological tendencies to identify with groups. Cascades in behavior … amplify the divides among groups; feedback from diverging norms and behaviors reinforces and deepens our schisms.

Homophily is so fundamental to human networks, and we are so familiar with it that it fades into the background. While homophily makes our lives and the behavior of those around us predictable, it is also very divisive. The splits in our social structures are so deep, pervasive, and resilient that they play primary roles … in understanding polarization in beliefs and opinions as well as persistent inequality in opportunity, employment, and well-being. Forgetting about these basic network divides can lead one to propose ineffective policies when one tries to fix such problems.”7

At both the micro level and the macro level, there is a natural tendency for people to favor others like themselves. After realizing this, I no longer believe that the internet and social media are causing divisiveness. I think they are just tools amplifying divisiveness and making it more transparent. Hate and prejudice are just extreme forms of differentiation and environmental control to gain a perceived certainty in the outcomes. Furthermore, hate is an extreme expression of perceived vulnerability and panic of uncertainty. Dominance is an outward expression of fear and the need for control.

We must remember that, for most of human existence, we were hunter-gatherers in small groups. If you were not part of the group, you were perceived as a threat. Today, we are stuck trying to find our group among 8 billion people. What used to be a small, relatively localized problem has now been scaled globally. I do not think we have evolved to handle the technology we created.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

To embrace diversity is to embrace uncertainty, because the other groups’ behaviors and customs are hard to predict and understand. Furthermore, you do not know how they will perceive your behaviors and customs. Chaos can ensue when differences in customs are large and misunderstood. Therefore, we must fight back against the desire for sameness if we are to move forward and embrace diversity.

In Adam Grant’s book “Think Again,” he addresses ways to address the desire for sameness. He explains that, in a perfect world, humanizing a person within a group would be a transitive property, humanizing all the people of the group and thwarting stereotypes. But unfortunately, once a single group member is humanized, there is a propensity instead to disassociate that person from that group. To address the desire for sameness, people must question their beliefs about the entire group, which requires deeper self-awareness.

Grant found an excellent way to question stereotypes through counterfactual thinking and motivational interviewing, defined here:

  • Counterfactual thinking involves imagining how our lives could have been different and examining the origins of our current opinions.
  • Motivational interviewing is asking questions to guide interviewees into examining their beliefs sincerely and empathetically.

These approaches allow people to challenge their stereotypes and how they came about. They are not a cure-all, but they significantly push the ball in the right direction. (Grant says not to preach, persuade or be insincere because people will automatically shut down and dig their heels in deeper).

I believe counterfactual thinking and motivational interviewing sound like the basis of design thinking. “Creative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create, and Lead in Unconventional Ways” is an excellent reference for design thinking. It contains 81 exercises from the Stanford school of design. Design thinking opens and expands your mind to dissect issues and iterate through solutions by forcing you out of your usual mode of thinking. Design thinking could make everyone more accepting of diversity. It also assists in developing better insurance products by helping organizations improve their:

  • Empathy
  • Creativity
  • Problem-solving

To be a good designer, you must be highly open-minded and empathetic to your customers. The best designs come from groups of people with wildly diverse backgrounds because they can see the problem from multiple angles and have varied perspectives.8

The bottom line

To successfully implement DEI, we must move away from the comfort and safety of the familiar. But as I have shown, the love of sameness is deeply ingrained in us and, thus, our social networks—it’s our default mode of operation. Therefore, diversity cannot be tackled in isolation of homophily. The minute you let off the DEI gas, the desire for sameness will take hold due to the propensity for safety, comfort and certainty. DEI requires vast resources and effort to keep its efforts alive. Counterfactual and design thinking, as well as motivational interviewing, are activities and exercises that can help make DEI feel more natural. Work is exciting and fun when embracing diversity with emotional safety.

Bryon Robidoux, FSA, CERA, MAAA, is a consulting actuary at Milliman in Chesterfield, Missouri.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

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