Marshall Adult Education

Racial Diversity Stimulates Complex Thinking

When White college students were placed in discussion groups with a Black student, they displayed higher levels of complex thought.  

A study published in the recent issue of Psychological Science is the first to directly measure the positive effects of racial diversity and minority opinions on thought.  Previous research has shown that racially diverse educational e! nvironments led to positive intellectual outcomes, but they had relied on quasi-experimental or self-reported data.  In this study, researchers measure the integrative complexity (IC) of 357 White college students (135 male and 222 female) from three selective research universities.  “Simple reasoning (low IC) occurs when a single dimension (e.g., good-bad) is used to consider an issue… at the highest level of IC, there is recognition of the trade-offs among perspectives and solutions,” the article explains.  

Prospective students were given a survey collecting information on their race, background (including contact with racially diverse people), and opinions on several social issues.  Those who agreed with the most prevalent position on one of two target issues (against child-labor practices in developing countries and in favor of the death penalty) were selected to participate.  Students were then assigned into small discuss! ion groups, consisti ng of three White participants and one Black or W hite collaborator.  During the first fifteen minutes of each meeting, every individual wrote an essay expressing his or her position (agreeing or disagreeing) on the first social issue.  Each of the four participants then verbally stated their opinion followed by a fifteen-minute round-table discussion.  During these discussions, the collaborator followed a script written to express agreement or disagreement to the opinions previously expressed on the students’ pre-selection survey.  After the discussion, another fifteen-minute essay (the post-discussion essay) on the same topic was administered.  The entire process was then repeated using the second social issue.  Afterward, three independent judges rated the pre- and post-discussion essays.

The researchers found that for two of three conditions, racial diversity (the presence of the Black collaborator) had a positive effect on IC.  Although the findings also indicated that! the presence of a minority opinion (a collaborator who disagreed with the other particpants') stimulated IC, the presence of a racial minority led to a greater sense of novelty regarding the collaborator's opinions as well as higher IC.  Furthermore, students with racially diverse close friends and classmates were consistently associated with higher IC.

This study is published in the current issue of Psychological Science.  

The flagship journal of the American Psychological Society, Psychological Science publishes authoritative articles of interest across all of psychological science, including brain and behavior, clinical science, cognition, learning and memory, social psychology, and developmental psychology.

Anthony Lising Antonio, Ph.D., is a professor at Stanford University.  He has been stud! ying racial diversity among college students since 1998.  The aut hor is available for questions.  Please email him at