Life Science

Racial Diversity: a Matter of “Survival?”

Racially diverse groups make better decisions

December 4, 2006
Racial diversity of groups can influence decision making. [Flesh colored crayons.  CREDIT: CROSSROADS OF FREMONT, CA]
Racial diversity of groups can influence decision making. [Flesh colored crayons. CREDIT: CROSSROADS OF FREMONT, CA]

When producers integrated racially segregated teams on the television show “Survivor,” they may have done the contestants a favor. A recent study has shown that despite initial tensions, racially diverse groups make better decisions.

In a study of mock juries, published in the April issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that both black and white jurors in racially mixed juries performed better than members of all-white juries. Jurors in the diverse jury raised more facts about the case, made fewer factual mistakes, and acknowledged the role of race more often than jurors in the all white jury.

“Survivor’s” producers drew sharp media criticism when they announced this summer that the 13th season would begin with racially divided teams. Politicians and columnists from around the country worried that it would promote divisiveness and racial stereotypes.

Before the show aired, Thomas Pettigrew, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz who has studied racial prejudice for more than fifty years, said that pitting races in competition against each other could actually generate and promote prejudice.

Samuel Sommers, author of the jury study and an assistant professor of psychology at Tufts University, found the controversy surrounding the show more interesting than the segregation itself. By dividing groups by race, Sommers said he thought that “Survivor” was just artificially replicating what seems to happen naturally, noting that we normally find ourselves in groups of people like ourselves.

In Sommers’s study, he assembled mock juries that watched 30 minutes of televised courtroom footage. A black defendant was accused of sexual assault against a white woman, but there were no other race-related facts in the case. Before the deliberation began, Sommers asked each juror whether he or she thought the defendant was guilty and how likely it was that he had committed the crime.

To his surprise, Sommers found that white jurors in all-white juries were significantly more likely to vote “guilty” than white or black members of integrated juries. The jurors had not discussed their verdicts with other jurors, which meant, according to the study, that their decisions could only be attributed to the racial composition of their group.

Sommers also found that diversity impacted more than the jurors’ initial perceptions of the case. Three of his assistants watched videotapes of each jury’s deliberations. They measured different indicators of jury performance, such as the number of case facts raised, the number of factual inaccuracies, and how often race was mentioned in deliberations.

On average, all-white juries made twice as many factual errors and deliberated for 12 minutes less. Sommers suggests that they were vulnerable to “groupthink”—a pressure to conform to what they thought was the group’s consensus without taking the time to weigh the facts.

It is difficult to generalize Sommers’s results to other settings—particularly that of a TV show like “Survivor”—because the jury situation forced participants to work together towards a consensus and placed a premium on making a just decision. In contrast, on “Survivor,” the prize is awarded to one person, so contestants make decisions for personal gain even when they compete in teams.

Because “Survivor” integrated the teams early in the show, it’s hard to compare the differences in decision-making between segregated and racially diverse teams. Even if diversity helped teams work together effectively, they were still full of conflict, at least initially. Sommers acknowledges this initial tension, but argues that “a little bit of conflict can be a good thing—especially to make the right decision.”

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About the Author

Josh comes to science writing in New York City after studying astronomy and physics in Arizona. While he misses never wearing real shoes, Josh relishes the opportunity to read about science, politics, arts and culture on his daily subway rides. A former college-radio DJ, he is often found late at night in a half-empty, downtown bar listening to a noisy, experimental band with no record deal. He is fascinated with the boundaries of science, where it must intersect with politics, art, religion, or human nature.

Discussion

5 Comments

Josh Romero has captured what many in the legal profession have observed but not quite been able to understand and explain. This is an excellent article. I look forward to more articles by this gifted writer.

Carol Johnson says:

Outstanding! Keen insight.

Nancy Brown says:

I really enjoyed the viewpoint of this article and hope that it gets read by a large audience. People need to stop and think.

When people talk about integration and race issues, so much emotion is used so if more people understood the points:

1. A recent study has shown that despite initial tensions, racially diverse groups make better decisions.

2. “a little bit of conflict can be a good thing—especially to make the right decision.”

Aegir Hallmundur says:

The article only mentions all-white juries’ verdicts compared to ‘integrated’ ones. Were all-black juries measured too? Would all-black juries be more likely to give a verdict one way or another, or provide verdicts closer to the integrated jury?

Josh Romero says:

Aegir,

All-black juries were not measured in this study. In his article, Sommers noted that, “Though such juries are rare in many jurisdictions, including the county in which this study was conducted, they are not unusual in urban locales such as Atlanta, Detroit, or Washington, DC.”

He speculated that all-black juries might suffer from a lack of information exchange or be vulnerable to groupthink like the all-white jury.

He also wrote that the presence of an all-black jury might lead to increased scrutiny in the case.

“Other research has indicated that White and Black jurors bring to the courtroom different race-related motivations, with Blacks less worried about appearing prejudiced and more concerned with institutional bias,” wrote Sommers.

Until someone does another study, it all remains interesting speculation.

Josh

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