How multicultural diversity is boosting our brain power

The complexity of life in multicultural cities like Dubai keeps the human mind razor-sharp and boosts our creative powers, argues Richard Crisp

Ask anyone to name the defining characteristics of a world city, and ‘multicultural’ will probably be there on the list. London, Singapore, Dubai: these are cities at the crossroads of global exchange, where hundreds of nations collide, reside and coexist.

It’s easy to think that these cities are multicultural because they are successful, attracting the best and brightest minds to the cutting edge of global commerce. But perhaps they are successful because they are multicultural. This is the intriguing idea that’s emerging from the very latest research in psychological science.

How multicultural diversity is boosting our brain power

The very notion of a multicultural society challenges a defined idea of what it means to be one thing or another

Richard Crisp, Professor of psychology at Aston Business School and author of The Social Brain

It’s all to do with our ‘social brain’, the part of us that helps us navigate the world of people and relationships. We use our social brains all the time, whether it’s interacting with our family and friends, driving to work, presenting to the board or teaching a class. Every action we take and reaction we have involves influencing others or being influenced ourselves. Even when we’re on our own, our thoughts, hopes, fears and aspirations are focused on and framed by the people we know, respect, love or hate. 

Managing these relationships is a gargantuan task, so the social brain has developed a strong preference for simplicity. If our communities and corporations are simple, uniform and homogeneous, if everyone has the same culture and background, the job of navigating this world is much easier. Ask any executive managing meetings between offices located in different parts of the world. When everyone is on a different cultural page, communication can rapidly descend into chaos.

For a social brain craving simplicity and structure, diversity can be chaos too. When everyone is different, when our worlds are full of exceptions to the norm, the social brain has to work 10 times harder. The very notion of a multicultural society challenges a simple, clear, defined idea of what it means to be one thing or the other. This makes diversity a hard sell to the uninitiated, untrained mind.

Does this, however, mean that our minds are fundamentally unable to deal with diversity? Absolutely not, and it’s the difficulty of diversity that defines its real value. When we are compelled to make that mental leap and embrace the unexpected, this initiates specific and very powerful psychological processes. These involve taking other groups’ perspectives, seeing things from different standpoints, making compromises and putting aside one’s existing prejudices. These leaps give the brain a ‘workout’. With a push and practice, the mind will work better, faster and more efficiently. Living and working in a diverse social environment constantly challenges cultural expectations, and keeps the mind fit, agile and adaptive.

Seeing things from different standpoints, making compromises and putting aside one’s existing prejudices. These leaps give the brain a ‘workout’

Richard Crisp, Professor of psychology at Aston Business School and author of The Social Brain

Evidence is revealing how these benefits accrue. In one recent study, participants were asked to solve a business negotiation problem. The researchers found that it was those people who had spent an extended time abroad who were most likely to find a solution. This relationship between diversity experience and problem-solving is rapidly resonating throughout the field. Diversity experiences enhance performance on logic problems, improve lateral thinking and even make people more creative.

Article 1 of the Unesco Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity asserts: “As a source of exchange, innovation and creativity, cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature.”

Psychology is starting to show this assertion to be true. Diversity may not only promote positive relations but help us to harness the creative potential that resides within us all.

Multicultural diversity may not simply be a by-product of a vibrant, energised and prosperous world city. It may be that it is one of its most essential ingredients.