The Power of People Who Aren’t Like You

I’ve been reading a terrific book called Messy, by Tim Harford. It details the ways that being tidy/neat is overrated, and the various ways that having a “messy” life can help us both personally and professionally.

One of my favorite chapters so far is about collaboration and diversity.

It cites a piece of research that was really troubling. A group of researchers challenged groups of students (4 people per group) to solve a murder mystery:

“In some cases the groups comprised four friends — members of the same college fraternity or sorority. In other cases, the groups were made up of three friends and a stranger.”

It won’t surprise you since the chapter is about diversity that the groups which included a stranger performed better. Okay fine, but also…

“The problem comes when we ask… how well the members of the group thought they’d done.

Members of diverse teams didn’t feel very sure they’d gotten the right answer, and they felt socially uncomfortable. The teams made up of four friends had a more pleaseant time and they also tended to be confident–wrongly–that they had found the right answer.

Yikes. So the teams that did better felt worse and vice versa.

You might ask why non-homogenous groups tend to perform better: the author says it’s because we’re less likely to question and push back on people who are similar to us.

It’s a weird mix of groupthink (“I innately trust these people to make good decisions because they’re similar to me”) and valuing the relationship more than solving the problem at hand.

This is true of my own experience. Discussing ideas and problems with people who aren’t like you is uncomfortable and non-linear. You don’t know where the discussion is headed, and it’s hard to tell whether you’re on the right track.

You often have to dig deeper to the foundational facts to have a good conversation, which can feel unsettling.

Which of course is the entire point.


This was just a single story in this one chapter. The rest of the chapter details a bunch of other ways that we’re more homogenized today: we live by people like us, we marry people like us, we work with people like us, we hang out online with people like us, and on and on.

And this is happening in the age of the Internet, when we have access to a wider diversity of ideas and people than ever before.

I’m going to try to meet more people who aren’t like me.

Speaking of which, we should meet on on Twitter