3 Ways Cognitive Science can Help Diversity Efforts Succeed

These days, many schools, businesses, and associations make efforts to recruit and retain women and minorities. Yet, much of the press surrounding these efforts focuses on the various failures of these programs. Behind the scenes, discussions can also center on failures, rather than making plans to succeed. Finally, many of the approaches used by organizations seeking diverse candidates overstate their message, leading to disaffection of the recruited candidate.

There are a number of ways these efforts can be improved, leading to more diverse student bodies and workforces. In this post, I explore how organizations can use findings from cognitive science (primarily psychology) to improve the results of their efforts.

  1. Reframe your themes

In psychology, the framing effect refers to our tendency to make decisions based on how information is presented to us, rather than on an analysis of the content. This occurs because our brains naturally take context into account, rather than analyzing information in isolation. A study conducted in 1981 demonstrated this tendency. Participants were asked to choose one of two treatments for a deadly disease affecting 600 people. The first treatment would produce a certain outcome: 200 people would live and 400 people would die. The second treatment would produce a less certain outcome: there was a 33% chance that everyone would live and a 66% chance that everyone would die.

Here’s how the options were presented to the participants:

Positive Frame: Treatment A – will save 200 lives. Treatment B –  a 33% chance of saving all 600 people, and a 66% chance of saving no one.

Negative Frame: Treatment A – 400 people will die. Treatment B – 33% chance that no people will die, and a 66% probability that all 600 will die.

Here’s what happened:

Although the choices are identical, how the choice was framed significantly impacted what decision participants made.

By now, you may have figured where I’m going with this, and you’re right – your own language can sabotage your efforts to reach your goals. When you are looking for ideas on, say, how to add more light to a room but your event title is “Why Lawyers Can’t Screw in Lightbulbs,” you can be sure that more time will be spent talking about how lawyers aren’t handy than will be spent preparing to buy extra lamps. At diversity improvement meetings, this often translates into a discussion of obstacles instead of ideas. Furthermore, repetition helps to cement ideas in our mind. This can cause us to carry a frame forward into the next conversation about the same topic.

There are three small things you can do to help keep your diversity meetings on topic:

Watch your words. Frames are created by the words you choose to express an idea. When it comes to a meeting, they help participants know what to expect. Therefore, choosing words in your program title and agenda that help set the tone you want is essential. If you want to discuss how bad something is, words like “problem” and “crisis” may be appropriate. If you want participants to discuss ideas to improve your efforts, words like “issue” and “opportunity” may help keep participants on track.

Save time to discuss the negative. The best laid plans consider how things can go wrong. Even if the potential issues considered by the team never happen, the exercise helps prepare your team to handle the unexpected things that always happen.

Though it can be useful to bring up some negative aspects during the course of a meeting (for example, if the suggested idea is impossible or illegal), it is also useful to evaluate fully formed ideas. However, it is not useful to get stuck discussing potential issues when you’re still trying to form ideas. Therefore, I suggest setting aside specific portions of time to discuss what could go wrong, and make sure (1) that the idea is ultimately feasible and (2) that you’ve thought ahead about potential realistic obstacles.

With respect to potential obstacles, the team leader should ask the group for a list of potential obstacles. Once this list is in the air or on the board, the team should then figure out what they will do if these specific issues happen. The team will not come up with everything that could happen, but when something does, the team will be prepared to effectively work through it.

Create a penalty system. One way that groups enforce behavioral norms is through punishment. Humans have created many forms of punishment, from teasing to gossip to jail. Each of these serves the purpose of keeping individuals in line with group norms. For example, you are likely with familiar swear jars, where group members put money into a jar each time they swear. This helps to promote the norm of not swearing. Paying money into the jar reinforces the idea that one is not supposed to swear.

If you want to create a group norm of not getting bogged down in the discussion of obstacles, first, everyone in the group must clearly understand that this is expected behavior in the group. Second, the punishment should be something the group considers fair (I also like funny, but that’s just me). Finally, if the undesirable behavior occurs, the punishment rule should be enforced. If it is not, then the rule is likely to fall by the wayside.

  1. Aim high, but stay grounded

In law school, I organized events for the Black Law Students Association. The job description didn’t contain a set of goals, so I created one – fill the room to capacity. I immediately figured out a way to make this happen – get President Obama as a speaker. So, I called the White House and asked what the procedures were to request the President as a speaker. They sent a list, and I followed it to the letter.

Here’s the thing – Presidents get lots of speaking requests. We were definitely having the event, but the White House would probably tell us he wasn’t available. So we requested other high profile black lawyers, all with the same expectation that they might be unavailable. Ultimately, President Obama wasn’t available. We expected that. We were still able to come up with a great concept, find notable and interesting speakers, and draw a healthy sized crowd.

Similarly, diversity efforts often begin with someone saying, “We need more ______ in [our office, this field, etc.]!” This is commendable, but as an example, let’s imagine that every law office wants a proportional amount of African-American attorneys, today:

Proportion of African-Americans

Clearly, that’s impossible. Sure, you could poach students from master’s programs in ethnic, gender, and cultural studies and Ph.D. programs in education , where African-Americans and other minorities are overrepresented. However, these programs don’t have enough students to result in a proportional share of law students, let alone creating equal proportions in every industry. Considering these facts, here’s what you can do:

Be realistic. Realistic goals have the best chance of success, and encourage people to try harder tasks. In my example, I attempted to get President Obama as a speaker. This was realistic because the White House had a dedicated set of procedures to request his time. However, it was also unlikely because of the demands on his time. Therefore, I had to accept both the small possibility that he might say yes and the large possibility that he might not be available. Based on that analysis, it made sense to try and recruit other speakers.

Likewise, your diversity effort may be aimed at making your organization reflect the demographic makeup of the United States, but at present this is also unlikely. To compensate, your organization can create two goals: (1) to get as close to parity as possible, and (2) if that is not possible, at least have the organization reflect the current demographic makeup of the field. Adjusting your goals as things change can help keep your organization on track.

Shoot for the stars anyway. I knew from the start that booking President Obama to speak was unlikely, but I still went for it. After all, booking the President wasn’t my main goal – filling the room to capacity was. Therefore, it was worthwhile to spend time asking, because this exercise allowed me to consider approaching people I might not have otherwise considered.

Like many others, I value being recruited for what I bring to the table. I have little interest in being recruited just so that someone check off a box or two on a list. Ultimately, the value in diverse candidates lies in the varying perspectives of people with different backgrounds. So, by all means, even if a prospect may have a good enough résumé to garner offers from every organization in your industry, go for him or her. Try to get the demographics of the company the way you want them. Not because you want to check off a box, but because these people bring value to your company. If you can shoot for this star, surely you’ll land on a cloud.

Be flexible. Let’s say you’re realistic. You shot for the stars. And then all of your top prospects took offers at other organizations. What do you do then? Think of something else.

Flexibility is simply the ability to change course when needed. In this context, there are actions that are now considered traditional recruiting methods. But you also can take actions that are truly traditional recruiting methods – developing your own talent.

One variation on this idea is the apprenticeship. In theory, an organization can hire a diversityperson who has entry-level skill and an interest in the work of the company. The prospect could be hired on contract – he or she would work for the organization for a set number of years while pursuing the necessary credentials to take on certain jobs in the organization. This way, an organization doesn’t have to fight for the same prospects as its competition. The prospect gains valuable skills. Finally, this type of program helps to avoid worker/intern situations that provide no value for the intern or the company.

This is only one possible example of flexibility. There are surely more ways to work around the current lack of diverse candidates in a field. Organizations could use a variety of flexible approaches to diversify their workforce.

  1. Help increase the supply

Okay, I fibbed a bit in the title – this tip is economics, not cognitive science. But it’s important.

Economic theory holds that if there is a demand for a product or service, the market (individuals acting on their own or through entities such as corporations) will add supplies to fill that demand. Today, there is a strong demand for diverse candidates in many fields, but there are not enough candidates to fill those seats. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case, but that’s a subject for another post.

For now, let’s focus on one idea – the best way to increase your chance of finding diverse candidates is to increase the size of the pool of diverse candidates. There is, of course, an obstacle to making this happen – the candidates themselves. Consider this: a potential candidate must (1) know that a job, school, or program exists; (2) obtain the necessary skills and credentials to gain entry; (3) believe in their skills and credentials enough to apply; and (4) obtain the position. This is a lot of work for one person, which is why schools have career counselors, companies have created test preparation programs, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics created the Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Because there is so much information, and because people tend to follow the lead of others in their group, organizations and industries seeking diverse candidates should find ways of making things easier for their candidates. Ideally, this effort should be taken up by organizations, schools, parents, students, and other stakeholders. However, until this type of coordination happens, let’s think about how the organization can contribute to increasing the size of the pool.

Be present. If you want people to know you exist and that you’re looking specifically from them, it pays to be where they are. Sure, plenty of organizations attend job fairs, school fairs, etc., but consider the recruiting tactics of the military, credit card companies, and bar exam review companies.

In the past, credit card companies were criticized for their on-campus recruiting efforts. Generally, these organizations would set up a table in the school or on its property once or twice a month. Students would pass by, talk to the recruiter or salesperson, and some would sign up to join the military or for a credit card.

Organizations seeking diverse candidates can do the same thing. Have someone come by, set up a table, tell students about the industry, the company, what kind of jobs they hire for, and the type of skills the candidate needs to develop to achieve that goal. The representative need not take résumés – just obtaining the correct information can help an aspiring candidate perform better and keep them striving toward a goal.

Alternatively, consider training diverse employees to teach introductory classes at colleges. A 2013 study found that many students choose a major based on the quality of their introductory class. Compelling professors can spark interest in a field, while mind-numbing professors can cause a student to lose interest entirely. Diverse students may be more comfortable addressing certain concerns about the field to someone of the same race, ethnicity, or gender. The professor can help allay these concerns by giving them detailed, specific information about the environment in the field.

No matter how it’s done, having someone with knowledge who can explain to prospective candidates and those who haven’t made up their mind can greatly benefit the organization’s efforts. It can also help students to choose between fields based on their strengths, rather than because everyone else is doing the same thing.

Inform. Specific information is always more useful than general information. Say, for example, you want to be a lawyer. You ask someone how to get into law school. They say, “you have to get a good score on the LSAT.” That’s a useful piece of information, but imagine if your advisor also explained what subjects the LSAT tested, how the scoring works, what’s considered a good score, and why law schools use the LSAT to begin with. This specific information is far more useful than the general information in the first example. It allows a person to make goals, something you can’t do if you don’t have specific information.

Your organization can help make this type of information available to groups they wish to hire. The table idea above is a good way to disseminate this kind of information, but so are pamphlets, websites, commercials, and appearances. All of this communication can help a prospective candidate to see that they are the kind of person you’re looking for, not just based on diversity, but based on their skills and interests. And this knowledge can start them on the path to finding your organization.

Normalize. People are influenced by persons who they perceive to be members of their group. If it is normal for group members to seek out a particular career, you may start to see overrepresentation of a group in a field. If there are no members, your potential candidates may think that your organization is “not for them.”

Using the above example as a starting point, be sure to have representatives on hand who are members of the group you wish to recruit. Actually speaking to someone who can address a candidate’s concerns is more effective than any stock photo.


Cognitive science can give diversity officers and committees a variety of tools to use in their efforts. Often, we mistakenly begin these efforts with a discussion of what makes a person of another gender or culture different. Instead, we should look first to the processes all humans have in common, the same way that illusionists have been for thousands of years. Understanding these fundamental processes can help organizations do a better job of finding and retaining the currently available talent. It is also a first step at increasing the total pool of talent. While this post is not even close to a complete rundown on the aspects of humanity that organizations can consider, hopefully it can be a starting point for including cognitive science in your efforts.

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A Quick Rundown on the United States

The United States is a country of countries. Don’t believe me? Check the dictionary:



And now, “country.”



Not convinced? The colonies that became the United States first created the Continental Congress via a document titled the Articles of Association, stating

We, his majesty’s most loyal subjects, the delegates of the several colonies . . . deputed to represent them in a continental Congress, held in the city of Philadelphia, on the 5th day of September, 1774, avowing our allegiance to his majesty, our affection and regard for our fellow-subjects in Great-Britain and elsewhere . . . .

The Articles of Association was a “non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreement” meant to call Great Britain’s attention to the grievances of the colonies regarding the administration of the colonies.

Let’s skip to 1776, and to the end of the Declaration of Independence:

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. (emphasis added)

There are a few things to notice here. (1) That escalated quickly; (2) The reference to Great Britain as a state; (3) The use of the plural when the colonies, now states, refer to themselves; and (4) The declaration that they now have the powers to do all the things other states, such as Great Britain, can do.

Not enough, you say? In 1778, two years after the states signed the Declaration of Independence, and notably, while the war was still going on, they created the federal government in a document titled The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.

Article 1 formally names their union “The United States of America.” However, what we’re really interested in here is Article 2:

Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.

Yes, you’re reading it correctly – the states created Congress, and gave it some of their powers. Among these powers were the power to declare war and coin money. To further their “league of friendship,” they also created open borders, extradition, and gave full faith and credit to the decisions of the courts in each state.

“But, what about the Constitution,” you ask. The Articles of Confederation was ratified in 1781. It created a weak central government – laws could only be passed with a unanimous vote –  and Congress’ only major accomplishment was the Northwest Ordinance. Furthermore, Congress could not levy taxes. By 1786, the treasury was almost depleted, the national debt was large, and the country was on the brink of economic disaster.

Contrary to popular belief, the Congress issued a formal call for a convention to amend the Articles, resulting in the Constitution of the United States, which begins with the words,

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union . . . . (emphasis added)

which only makes sense if something preceded the Constitution.

What changed under the Constitution? Congress gained the powers to tax, to regulate commerce among the states, and to protect ideas through copyrights and patents. The President would now be elected by the people Electoral College, instead of by Congress. The Supreme Court became its own body, instead of Congress deciding disputes between states and a few other matters that are subjects for another time.

What didn’t change? Citizens were still entitled to the privileges and immunities of the citizens of the other states. States still had to recognize each other’s laws and judicial rulings. But, importantly, the Constitution doesn’t repeal the Articles of Confederation. Abraham Lincoln used this argument during his first inaugural address to justify his position that the Southern States could not secede, saying

But if destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the States be lawfully possible, the Union is ‘less’ perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity.

It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; that ‘resolves’ and ‘ordinances’ to that effect are legally void, and that acts of violence within any State or States against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances.

Though much of the Articles of Confederation has been abrogated, the perpetual union of sovereign, independent states that gave some of their power to a central government remains. However, this doesn’t explain the vast influence of the federal government today, so let’s take another look back, starting with the Constitution.

One of the main arguments in favor of ratifying the Constitution was that if the union dissolved, and three, four, or 13 countries came out of that dissolution, these new countries would not exist very long. After all, there were much larger enemies on all sides, and a big union of three or four states might become a threat to the rest.

One of the main arguments against was that the states just left a powerful central government, and they didn’t want a repeat of what happened with Great Britain. To that end, the Constitution included several provisions to limit the federal government’s power.

For example, slaveholding states benefitted from 11 different clauses, even though none of them use the word “slave” (though this is a topic for another time). Delegates also insisted on the Bill of Rights. Initially, the prohibitions against government power only referred to the federal government. The Tenth Amendment specifically reserves rights not given to Congress to the states – in words mirroring Article 2 of the Articles of Confederation.

Though the arrangement between the states hasn’t changed, the Interstate Commerce Clause and the Fourteenth Amendment have allowed the federal government more influence over the states since the Civil War. The Fourteenth Amendment was the first to explicitly limit state power, starting in clause 2: “No state shall . . . .” Using the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court has applied many of the restrictions of the Bill of Rights to the states. Before this, a state could have theoretically, for example, had its own religion.

The Commerce Clause, on the other hand, gives the federal government powers in areas it might not otherwise have. For example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 depended on the Commerce Clause to end discrimination by disallowing stores that sold goods that travelled between states or hotels servicing interstate travelers to discriminate against racial minorities. The federal government can also give money to the states on the condition that the states implement rules (such as highway speed limits) in exchange for the funds.

With that in mind, I think it’s fair to say that the power relationships between the states and the federal government are a bit complicated. Though the base of the relationship is a limited transfer of power to the central government, the states have given the federal government more power through making deals with it while limiting some of their own power through Constitutional Amendment. This makes our country of countries more like a web than a ladder.


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The Hardware Problem

A few years back, I was running errands when I ran into a friend. At some point the conversation turned to religion. This went about as well as you might imagine. The tone – initially chummy – shifted to debate mode. Each of us staked out a claim, stated our positions, then stood our ground.

After fifteen minutes of repeating our positions, I realized that the resolution of our debated hinged on the definition of one word. If the word meant what I thought it meant, then my understanding of the passage in question was correct. If it meant what he thought, then his understanding was correct.

Fortuitously, we were standing outside of a library. I suggested we go in, look at a dictionary (smartphones hadn’t been invented yet, and even then, I just upgraded last year), and find out who was right. He wouldn’t go in.

I tried to persuade him. Cajole him. Induce. Coax. Urge. Challenge him. Bring him around to the idea. Sell him on the idea that he could easily win the debate. Prevail upon his thirst for knowledge.

Thirty minutes later, we were still standing outside the library.

We agreed to disagree, parting ways to finish whatever errands we had been running when we ran into each other.

What happened there, aside from the fact that I shouldn’t have brought up the subject in the first place? How did I end up spending 30 minutes trying to convince my friend to look in a dictionary rather than five minutes actually looking in a dictionary?


My first mistake was assuming my friend and I shared the same goals during our debate. My primary reason for suggesting we check the dictionary is that I had a strong accuracy motivation. (Admittedly, I was also being competitive.) When we operate under accuracy motivation, we are looking to form beliefs that reflect the true state of the world.1 To do this, we search for and evaluate information in an even handed manner. I wanted to know if I was right. Had I learned I was wrong, I would have updated my belief and gone about my business.

I don’t know what my friend’s motivations were. It is possible that he was concerned about losing the argument. It is also possible that he had a strong directional motivation and didn’t want to face information that would challenge his personal religious beliefs. Additionally, there are a range of reasons that he could have had but I never considered.

My larger mistake is what I call a hardware problem. Hardware problems are issues that are better analyzed by looking at our brains than the filters we view the world through. Here, I mistakenly based my ideas about my friend’s motivations on my own. In the larger world, similar acts cause us not to see the forest for the trees – that is, to be so caught up in one or more small details that we can’t see the larger picture.

This type of incongruity between what we think and reality is common. After all, our brains work differently than we imagine. Among a variety of other findings, people who study how our brains work have learned that we do much of our thinking automatically, without conscious input2; our memories can be influenced by cues from other people in the room3; children as young as five can pick which candidate is more likely to win an election; and we can be tricked into seeing motion where none exists. In my example, a few additional questions could have helped me to discover my friend’s motivation. This additional information might have given me more useful options, including not trying to “win.”

Hardware problems aren’t a new idea. Indeed, the term is just my way of contrasting fields such as psychology and neuroscience, which study how we really act with my business and legal training, both of which start with the idea that all of us are rational actors. Time and again, I have applied logic to a situation only to bump into another person’s psychology, which, as shown above, didn’t work too well. My usual reaction was, “if only they could see what I’m trying to show them….” Today, I try to keep in mind how people are likely to respond to what I’m saying, rather than spending an hour trying to convince someone to check out the other side of one tree in a forest.

Digging this deeply isn’t always worthwhile. Sure, our brains make mistakes and can be fooled, but few situations require perfection. However, spending more time understanding the hardware can help us improve the software that runs our interpersonal relationships.


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1. Flynn, D. J., Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2016). The nature and origins of misperceptions: Understanding false and unsupported beliefs about politics

2. Khaneman, D. (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow

3. Bradfield, A. L., Wells, G. L., & Olson, E. A. (2002). The Damaging Effect of Confirming Feedback on the Relation Between Eyewitness Certainty and Identification Accuracy


Hi, I’m Dwayne. When I was young, I found myself growing up in a poor neighborhood but attending school in an affluent neighborhood. The school I attended was considered better than the school back home, and one question I started asking around the time I was eight years old started to stick in my head: “The kids at home are just as smart as the kids at school, so why aren’t they attending the same school?”

Some version of this question has followed me throughout my life. In high school, many of my friends from home began to face death and jail time from selling illegal drugs while many of my friends from school began to prepare for their SATs. During law school, I was dismayed to learn that the poor and minority students failed the bar exam at higher rates than all other examinees.

My first attempts at finding answers to my questions (back in high school) were pretty weak. I did a lot of asking “why” but I didn’t bother to try and research the answers to my questions. My second attempts were similarly weak – I simply parroted the explanations I heard on TV and in the movies.

However, these explanations didn’t make much sense. Statistics were presented without context. History denied its victims agency, positing that some outside force was solely responsible for the circumstances being discussed. Law revolved around one statute or one case, ignoring what might have been 20 years of small steps to come to a seminal conclusion.

The first time I really researched a topic was out of frustration. A friend had told me that it was legal to drive without a driver’s license, and that the U.S. Supreme Court said so. I looked around. Nearly everyone who was driving had a license. You could get a ticket for not having one. But I didn’t want one if I didn’t need one.

I looked on the internet and found a few websites making the same claim, but not much else. And they all seemed to be using the same language, which didn’t help either. They did provide the name of and a citation to the case my friend referred to, but didn’t provide a link (Google Scholar wasn’t a thing then). Annoyed, but determined to find out whether I needed a license, I went to a law library and asked for some help finding the book that the case was in so I could read it. I found this dusty book from the early 1900s, opened it, and proceeded to read a case about whether a horse drawn carriage could be on a highway.

Though I was a bit bummed out to learn that I did have to get my driver’s license, I took my first steps toward learning that it was possible to research any claim, and that the full story was usually more interesting than what someone else would have me believe. Over time, I learned that subjects we often consider separately can be used to answer different aspects of the same question. History and law can tell you who the players are, what happened, and sometimes why. Statistics can give you an overview of how these events affect populations. Psychology can give insight on how people in various situations are likely to act.

This variety not only allows one to figure out how we got to now, but can also provide insights on how to make positive changes in the future. The title of this blog, Equal Results, comes from an observation in School, Society, and State by Tracy L. Steffes that the United States chose education as a way to meet the challenges of the Industrial Revolution, opting for equal opportunity rather than equal results. It also comes from a project I’ve been working on the past few years to help poor and minority law students achieve equal results on the bar exam. In both the prior and future iteration of this project, I have taken tips from various fields to help achieve my goals.

This blog is an extension of this work. I won’t limit my discussion to race or law school or education. Rather, I plan to look at current issues through this wide lens. I hope you’ll enjoy what I have to offer.



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