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Why Interesting People Don't Go to Harvard

Does interesting research imply an interesting researcher?

When I first started at Harvard, I expected everyone I met to be interesting. I hoped that everyone would have a unique and insightful view of how things worked. Harvard as an institution is where so much interesting research happens. Therefore, the constituents of that institution who do that work must be interesting as well, right?

Not necessarily.

I worked as a research assistant in a psychology lab at Harvard for two years, and I found that most people didn't have interesting things to say. People’s perspectives tended to fall within a narrowly prescribed span of accepted wisdom. The conventional is the enemy of the interesting, and Harvard is the apotheosis of convention.

The problem is that people at Harvard are too constrained by always having to give the “right” answer. I know that sounds like a strange criticism. What I mean is that people always stay within whatever position is most defensible under the current conventions and with the current data. They have the facts on their side, and the argumentation to back it up. The benefit of this is that it allows you to put down anyone who takes a different position.

But there is a drawback as well. Innovative ideas don’t come from working with the framework of currently accepted ideas, but breaking out of it to see what else you might be missing. The only ideas that survive at Harvard are the ones that are most lucrative right now. And the reason this yields a population of people who aren’t all that interesting is that rarely does anyone say something that strays from what's currently accepted. Challenging convention requires bringing in some oddballs to come up with ideas that don’t jive with the way everyone else thinks. Harvard doesn’t support oddballs.

This supremacy of convention surprised me at first. I talked about it with some colleagues, both undergraduates and other researchers, and found a healthy minority of people who felt the same way. It wasn’t until I read a study—run by researchers now at Harvard Business school, actually—that I started to get clarity about why the institution is like this.

The study was about the effects of diversity. We can all agree that there are moral benefits to having a diverse organization, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that diversity actually improves the organization’s output. In other words, the researchers were interested in the relationship between professional groups and social groups. If everyone in your professional group is also from the same social group, is that professional group more productive and creative?

To study this, the researchers set up an organizational simulation. They took several hundred business school students and gave them roles in “Looking Glass, Inc.” Each of the participants received a set of tasks to complete as part of their job in the firm. One of the tasks, for example, was about how to allocate costs for asbestos removal in one of the company’s factories. Another was a “Total Quality Management” task, in which they came up with ideas to improve the procedures or products at Looking Glass. The simulation went on for four hours, in which the participants could perform their assigned tasks, as well as collaborate with colleagues through a messaging service. The simulation allowed the researchers to measure, in a realistic environment, how productive each participant was in completing their tasks.

The participants were split into two kinds of groups. One group was homogenous, in which everyone was a white, U.S. born female. Another group was diverse, made of different racial and national backgrounds. The researchers wanted to know whether the more diverse groups came up with more creative ideas in, say, the Total Quality Management task. What they found was that the benefits of diversity were conditional. Were the diverse groups more creative? Well, it depends.

At the beginning of the simulation, each participant received a letter from the company’s “president.” The president’s letter encouraged one of two kinds of company cultures. The first was an individualist culture, where the success of the firm depends on single persons acting alone. The second was a collectivist culture, where the success of the firm depends on teamwork. The president also told participants that their performance would be evaluated either based on their individual contributions or the contributions of their group.

What the researchers found is that diversity improved participants’ creativity only when the organization subscribed to collectivist values. If the organization valued individualism, then diverse groups were actually less creative than homogenous groups. When everyone in a heterogenous group all works toward the same goal, diversity helps because you have a wider array of ideas. But when you have a heterogeneous group working toward different goal, diversity hurts because no one is on the same page.

The researchers write,

“Dissimilar people may have the requisite variety of ideas to achieve high levels of creativity but in an individualistic culture they may be inhibited from sharing these ideas because of their lack of trust in each other. In such a culture, sharing information and novel perspectives is risky because of the potential for social ostracism or dilution of individual credit for such ideas or information… Because creative ideas are typically not commonly held, they are less likely to be shared than are more common or obvious ideas.“

Harvard as an institution is hyper-individualist. Your success there is a function of you as an individual, not as a part of a team. It’s the epicenter of American individualism. That much, I think, makes sense; people go to Harvard in pursuit of their own personal success. It is perhaps less obvious how Harvard is diverse.

The diversity is not demographic, but ideological. Someone at Harvard is, almost by definition, one of the best at what she does. And in order to maintain this status, she has to be committed the idea that allowed her to gain influence in her field. Because her colleagues are also trying to maintain their status, she has to defend her position wholeheartedly. If she has a moment of equivocation, she’ll be bulldozed by her colleagues who are wholeheartedly committed to their own position. There is no room to consider an idea that is suboptimal under what we currently know, because it’ll be killed off by someone arguing for something more in line with what's accepted.

The result is that Harvard’s culture is both diverse and individualistic. That kind of environment may support professional success, especially for those at the top. But it doesn’t support interesting.


Originally posted on Psychology Today.

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