Follow The Science We’re Constantly Told: Research Shows Diversity Training is Typically Ineffective

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OK LCPS, Now Follow the Damn Science Already

In wake of George Floyd’s killing and the protests that followed, many colleges and universities have been rolling out new training requirements – often oriented towards reducing biases and encouraging people from high-status groups to ‘check their privilege.’  The explicit goal of these training programs is generally to help create a more positive and welcoming institutional environment for people from historically marginalized and underrepresented groups.

As I have explained elsewhere, there is a long literature on the benefits of diversity on knowledge production. However, many of the approaches to training people how to navigate and utilize diversity were implemented by corporations, non-profits and universities before their effectiveness had been tested rigorously (if at all).

Although the precursor to contemporary diversity training, sensitivity training, actually dates back to the mid 1940s,  diversity training became especially important beginning in the mid-80s to early-90s. Why? Starting in the late 70s through early 80s, universities began enrolling significantly higher numbers of women, minorities, and people from middle-class and lower-income backgrounds. Soon thereafter, employers found themselves with a much more heterogenous labor pool. They had to face, often for the first time, some of the challenges that come along with the benefits of diversity — as people with increasingly divergent backgrounds and perspectives were put side by side and tasked with common goals.

Beginning in the mid-90s, however, it became increasingly clear that, due to their lack of validation, many widely-used interventions could be ineffective or harmful. An empirical literature was built up measuring the effectiveness of diversity-related training programs. The picture that has emerged is not very flattering.

The limited research suggesting diversity-related training programs as efficacious was based on things like surveys before and after the training, or testing knowledge or attitudes about various groups or policies. And to be clear, the training does help people answer survey questions in the way the training said they ‘should.’ And many people who undergo the training say they enjoyed it or found it helpful in post-training questionnaires. 

However, when scientists set about to investigate whether the programs actually changed behaviors, i.e. do they reduce expressions of bias, do they reduce discrimination, do they foster greater collaboration across groups, do they help with retaining employees from historically marginalized or underrepresented groups, do they increase productivity or reduce conflicts in the workplace — for all of these behavioral metrics, the metrics that actually matter, not only is the training ineffective, it is often counterproductive.  

Training is Generally Ineffective at Its Stated Goals

The stated goals of these training programs vary, from helping to increase hiring and retention of people from historically marginalized and underrepresented groups, to eliminating prejudicial attitudes or behaviors to members of said groups, to reducing conflict and enhancing cooperation and belonging among all employees. Irrespective of the stated goals of the programs, they are overwhelmingly ineffective with respect to those goals. Generally speaking, they do not increase diversity in the workplace, they do not reduce harassment or discrimination, they do not lead to greater intergroup cooperation and cohesion – consequently, they do not increase productivity. More striking: many of those tasked with ensuring compliance with these training programs recognize them as ineffective (see Rynes & Rosen 1995, p. 258).

Resources on these points:

Training Often Reinforces Biases

Often, when people attempt to do fact-checks, they begin by underscoring the falsehood, and then proceed to try to debunk that falsehood. This can create what psychologists call an ‘illusory truth effect,’ where people end up remembering the falsehood, forgetting the correction – and then attributing their misinformation to the very source that had tried to correct it! A similar effect seems to hold with antibias training. By articulating various stereotypes associated with particular groups, emphasizing the salience of those stereotypes, and then calling for their suppression, they often end up reinforcing them in participants’ minds. Sometimes they even implant new stereotypes (for instance, if participants didn’t previously have particular stereotypes for Vietnamese people, or much knowledge about them overall, but were introduced to common stereotypes about this group through training intended to dispel said stereotypes).

Other times, they can fail to improve negative perceptions about the target group, yet increase negative views about others. For instance, an empirical investigation of ‘white privilege’ training found that it did nothing to make participants more sympathetic to minorities – it just increased resentment towards lower-income whites.

Encouraging people to ignore racial and cultural differences often results in diminished cooperation across racial lines. Meanwhile, multicultural training — emphasizing those differences — often ends up reinforcing race essentialism among participants. It is not clear what the best position between these poles is (such that these negative side effects can be avoided), let alone how to consistently strike that balance in training.   

Resources on these points:

Training Can Increase Biased Behavior, Minority Turnover

Many diversity-related training programs describe bias and discrimination as rampant. One unfortunate consequence of depicting these attitudes and behaviors as common is that it makes many feel more comfortable expressing biased attitudes or behaving in discriminatory ways. Insofar as it is depicted as ubiquitous, diversity-related training can actually normalize bias.

For others, the very fact that the company has diversity-related training is proof that it is a non-biased institution. This perception often reduces concerns about bias and discrimination – by oneself or others. As a consequence, people not only become more likely to act in more biased ways, but they also react with increased skepticism and hostility when colleagues claim to have been discriminated against.

Meanwhile, those who are discriminated against become more likely to rationalize mistreatment by others in the institution after undergoing diversity-related training (for the same reason, because they believe the institution must be fair in virtue of its commitment to diversity-related training; indeed, minority employees are often called upon to lead diversity reviews themselves). Consequently, they become less likely to actually report or address wrongdoing.  As a result, problems persist unabated — often leading to higher turnover among the very groups the programs were ostensibly designed to render more comfortable.

Resources on these points:

Training Often Alienates People from High-Status Groups, Reduces Morale

Diversity-related training programs often depict people from historically marginalized and disenfranchised groups as important and worthwhile, celebrating their heritage and culture, while criticizing the dominant culture as fundamentally depraved (racist, sexist, sadistic, etc.). People from minority groups are discussed in overwhelmingly positive terms, while people from majority groups are characterized as typically (and uniquely) ignorant, insensitive or outright malicious with respect to those who are different than them. Members of the majority group are told to listen to, and validate, the perspectives of people from historically marginalized or disadvantaged groups — even as they are instructed to submit their own feelings and perspectives to intense scrutiny.

In short, there is a clear double-standard in many of these programs with respect to how members of dominant groups (typically men, whites and/or heterosexuals) are described as compared to members of minority groups (i.e. women, ethnic/ racial minorities, LGBTQ employees). The result is that many members from the dominant group walk away from the training believing that themselves, their culture, their perspectives and interests are not valued at the institution – certainly not as much as those of minority team members — reducing their morale and productivity.

 The training also leads many to believe that they have to ‘walk on eggshells’ when engaging with members of minority populations. By calling attention, not just too clear examples of harm and prejudice, but just as much (or more) to things like implicit attitudes and microaggressions, participants come to view colleagues from historically marginalized and disenfranchised groups as fragile and easily offended. As a result, members of the dominant group become less likely to try to build relationships or collaborate with people from minority populations.

Resources on these points:

Focus On: Implicit Attitudes

Implicit attitudes are one of the most commonly relied-upon constructs in contemporary diversity-related training. However, there are severe problems with these constructs – as hammered home by meta-analysis after meta-analysis: it is not clear precisely what isbeing measured on implicit attitude tests; implicit attitudes do not effectively predict actual discriminatory behavior; most interventions to attempts to change implicit attitudes are ineffective (effects, when present, tend to be small and fleeting). Moreover, there is no evidence that changing implicit attitudes has any significant, let alone durable, impact on reducing biased or discriminatory behaviors. In short, the construct itself has numerous validity issues, and the training has no demonstrable benefit.

Resources on these points:

Focus On: Microaggressions

Contemporary diversity-related training often draws significant attention to microaggressions – small, typically inadvertent, faux pas involving people from historically marginalized and disadvantaged groups. The cumulative effects of microaggressions are held to have significant and adverse impacts on the well-being of people from low-status groups. However, although the microaggressions framework goes back to 1974, there is virtually no systematic research detailing if and how microaggressions are harmful, for whom, and under what circumstances (indeed, there is not even robust conceptual clarity in the literature as to what constitutes a microaggression). There is no systematic empirical evidence that training on microaggressions has any significant or long-term effects on behavior, nor that it correlates with any other positive institutional outcomes. 

In fact, when presented with canonical microaggressions, black and Hispanic respondents overwhelmingly find them to be inoffensive – and we have ample reason to believe that sensitizing people to perceive and take greater offense at these slights actually would cause harm: the evidence is clear and abundant that increased perceptions of racism have adverse mental and physical consequences for minorities. In short, not only is there no evidence that training on microaggressions is valuable for improving the well-being of people from historically marginalized or disadvantaged groups, there is reason to believe it could actually be counter-productive to that end.

Resources on these points:

al-Gharbi, Musa (2020). “Who Gets To Define What’s ‘Racist’?” Contexts, 15 May.

Lillienfeld, Scott (2017). “Microaggressions: Strong Claims, Inadequate Evidence.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 12(1): 138-69.

Mandatory Training Causes Additional Blowback

Although diversity-related training programs are generally ineffective, and often bring negative side-effects, they tend to work better (or at least, be less harmful) when they are opt-in. Mandatory training causes people to engage with the materials and exercises in the wrong frame of mind: adversarial and resentful. Consequently, mandatory training often leads to more negative feelings and behaviors, both towards the company and minority co-workers. This effect is especially pronounced among the people who need the training most.  Yet roughly 80% of diversity-related training programs in the U.S. seem to be mandatory.

If an institution is going to include diversity-related training, it should offer it as a resource for those who want to learn more. To encourage more people to volunteer for the training, its value and purpose should be linked to specific organizational and development goals. Small incentives could be offered for those who take part, rather than the current norm of sanctioning those who do not.

Resources on these points:

Training Comes at the Expense of Other Priorities

We are in a period of educational austerity. Creating, implementing and ensuring compliance with diversity-related training programs is expensive. In a world where these training programs consistently advanced diversity and inclusion goals within an organization, or enhanced intergroup cooperation and overall productivity, then these costs could be justified – even during a time of belt-tightening. However, it’s a different dynamic when the training is typically ineffective or even counterproductive. Worse, it often crowds out much more substantial efforts that could be undertaken to actually enhance diversity and inclusion within institutions. 

Why do many rely on diversity training despite its demonstrated ineffectiveness? The short answer is that, even if training is expensive and doesn’t work, it is relatively easy to implement – and it allows institutions to show (including, often, in court) that they are doing something to address prejudice, discrimination and inequalities… even if what they’re doing is, in fact, pointless.

This is sort of empty signaling is bad across the board. However, it is particularly egregious for universities – institutions that regularly claim to embody and inculcate such values as evidence-based reasoning, respect for facts, commitment to truth, etc. Schools are doing a bad job at modeling those values for students insofar as they force upon them (and upon the faculty who are supposed to be instructing them!) pedagogical materials that are demonstrably ineffective or even counterproductive.  

Indeed, it seems antithetical to their pedagogical purpose to dump increasing sums of money into these programs, even as many departments are seeing hiring freezes or budget cuts, and contingent faculty are being laid off en masse (disproportionately people from historically underrepresented and disadvantaged groups).

It insults, rather than honors, the memory of George Floyd to offer empty gestures like these in his name. As Cyrus Mehri aptly put it, “When you keep choosing the options on the menu that don’t create change, you’re purposely not creating change. It’s part of the intentional discrimination.”

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