Seeking Common Ground

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If you were offered a choice between snacking on Cheerios versus Graham Crackers, which would you pick?

Frankly, neither is very appealing to me, but, between the two, I’d have to come down firmly on the side of a nice crunchy Graham Cracker. As an adult, that choice has little significance, but, if I were a five-month-old baby in a clinical study and my preference were observed by psychologist Karen Wynn, director of the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University, she would use that tiny choice to uncover something very interesting about the fundamental nature of human beings. Namely, the fact that, even as infants, we tend to like people whom we perceive to be similar to ourselves.

Here’s how she found figured that out. First, Dr. Wynn and her colleagues observed the preference that individual babies had between Cheerios and Graham Crackers. They then observed the body language of the babies as they were shown puppets who acted out a preference for the same or a different snack. The body language included such elements as where the babies looked, when they reached out, and what caused them to smile. In the vast majority of cases, the babies liked the puppet who had similar culinary tastes.

Looking on the Bright Side of the Cracker

If you look at the “60 Minutes” coverage of Dr. Wynn’s work, you’ll learn that the researchers view this tendency to favor people like ourselves has having terrible consequences; among them, hatred of “the other,” that is, of those who are different from ourselves.

While “hatred” might be too strong a term to apply in most cases, I’ll have to agree that we tend, at the least, to favor those who are like ourselves. Of course, one way to get around this problem is to convince people that “the other” isn’t so bad after all and that all members of groups different from our own are not all alike. We do this through our work around the reduction of conscious and unconscious bias.

But, there’s another solution too. If we don’t like people who are different, why not find ways in which we are alike?

Of course, the goal is not to become identical and I hope at this point in the game, we all realize that valuing diversity is an asset and a necessity. At the same, time, however, human beings are far more alike than we realize. By identifying and focusing on that “alikeness” we get the best of both worlds – the “liking” that goes with alikeness and the valuing that goes with the difference. (Two sides, if you will, of the same inclusion coin)

The beauty of this approach is that the area of commonality does not have to be significant to make a difference. In the case of the babies, the commonality that drew them to one puppet over another was whether the puppet chose a Cheerio or a Graham Cracker. For adults, of course, that wouldn’t do the trick, but a shared interest, value, or challenge can go a long way to shifting our thinking and our attitude toward other human beings.

Another Benefit

But, there’s more. When we emphasize what we have in common – while valuing difference – not only are we more apt to like the person, we also tend to see them as a unique individual with unique qualities. A man no longer, for example, is apt to lump a younger female colleague together with an amorphous “different” category like “woman,” or “social media savvy,” or “Generation Y.”

In other words, the biases that accompanied our thinking of the person as a member of a different group tend to fade because that group is no longer the point. We are now human beings, alike in some ways, different in others. And, isn’t that the way it should be?

©, published on July 17, 2014

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