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Kunalan Manokara
Careers and professional development, Developmental, Equality, diversity and inclusion

Being RAD

Kunalan Manokara with three steps for a young scientist to cultivate diversity of thought.

03 January 2023

I’m going to start by preaching to the choir: Diversity (of thought) is beneficial for scientists, science, and society. Collaborating with others who hold different views from our own enables us to view familiar phenomena through a less comfortable lens, essentially forcing us to contend with blindsides. This process rejuvenates stagnant thinking, enables the birth of richer and more comprehensive theories, and ultimately contributes to better science for all of us to learn from (Stirling, 2007).

But – there’s always a but – early career researchers may look at this piece and think ‘meh, let the older folks handle this’. And as a young scientist myself (racing against the clock to submit my thesis) I can empathise! We’re constantly chasing deadlines: the next special issue, the next grant application, the next marking assignment… the list goes on.

So, we have a conundrum. It’s fair to say that most young people are open to experiences that enable us to view the world in varied ways (Gregory et al., 2010) – let alone those of us who empirically investigate how human beings think and feel. But we also happen to be insanely time-pressed, which means seeking out experiences that cultivate diversity of thought takes a backseat. Especially during our PhDs, where we are very aware that funding will eventually dry up.

I propose that diversity of thought can be fostered in a RAD way: Recognise , Approach and Deal.

Here’s where I should suggest a novel and efficient solution to our problem. Except I don’t have one! To my knowledge – and based on the collective wisdom of other young psychologists I have spoken to – there isn’t a tailor-made playbook that allows us to accrue diversity of thought. It seems to be one of those things that we informally – and maybe less consciously – acquire along the way. Which leads me to the main point I’m hoping to make: that perhaps it’s worth being more effortfully aware about cultivating divergent ways of thinking.

I suggest three (not-so-easy) steps for young scholars, when navigating a world where a range of perspectives both collide and collude. Sticking with the esteemed scientific tradition of creating cool acronyms, I propose that diversity of thought can be fostered in a RAD way: Recognise (being aware of how diverse one’s environment truly is), Approach (proactively seeking out experiences), and Deal (managing expectations and emotions when in such situations).

Recognising

Recognising diversity in our environments is a delicate process (Bastian, 2019). Just as there are many forms of culture (Cohen, 2009), there must be multiple layers to diversity, and some awareness of these intersections (Coaston, 2019) would go a long way in recognising how diverse our everyday environments in (psychology) academia are. Some examples that have stuck with me:

  • Learning firsthand from friends about working-class struggles in predominantly (upper) middle-class academia, while having dinner at swanky conference restaurants. The most dangerous thing about privilege is that we don’t realise we have it (Marciniak, 2022). 
  • Realising that higher tiers in academia are dominated by people whose gender represents that of only half our population (inspired by portraits hanging on the walls of a conference room).  
  • Recognising linguistic differences, even across predominantly English-speaking cultures. A friend from the US told his British housemate that he liked her pants – they never spoke again.

 

The point I’m making is that in any group of individuals – no matter how homogeneous or heterogeneous they may look or sound – there will be both commonalities and differences. And it remains important to recognise which forms of diversity are present – and absent! – in our immediate environments. A first step to seeking out experiences that enrich our minds is to recognise where we might be missing them. Perhaps an activity for the next lab meeting?

 Approaching

Actively approaching experiences is a critical next step in cultivating diversity of thought. This is particularly difficult for young scholars who are time-poor (and cash-strapped), and so the solution must not rely on the need to conjure up additional resources! However, there might be a few experiences in our everyday academic environments that are ripe for the picking. I’ve tinkered with a few, to varying degrees of success:

  • When friends told me that Business School was a ‘different world’ I didn’t quite take them seriously… until I did a research assistantship at one. Whether in terms of empirical aims or work norms (or even the types of computers used), there was a jarring difference from what I was used to in Psychology. It made me realise that what we consider ‘conceptually important’ really depends on who the audience – or the consumer – is. I’m just going to state the obvious (which took me a while to learn): Taking a step back from the norms of our own (sub)fields, and immersing ourselves in the ways of another’s, can be a deeply rewarding experience.  

  • Somewhat controversially I’d like to suggest that taking up service roles can have concrete benefits. Some of the most meaningful and thought-provoking conversations I’ve had were in these contexts: I’ve learned that when can depend on where – e.g. when to defend your thesis depends on where you’d like to apply for a grant. And whether can depend on who – whether an administrative decision is contentious depends on who you’re talking to. 

  • Stepping into the shoes of another person is a great way to cultivate varied modes of thinking, and for young scientists, acting as a reviewer may be a great way to do this. The process is iterative and reciprocal: We learn from the perspectives of the authors and editors, think along with them to grow the submitted work, and perhaps begin to view the flaws and workarounds in our own thinking.

Dealing

Let’s imagine we find ourselves at a dinner table where we are joined by people of varied political leanings and associated opinions (think awkward family gathering). How do we deal with comments and questions that may run contrary to what we believe in? I don’t have an answer, but I’m thankful that this is a robust line of inquiry in psychological science (Kivikangas et al., 2021)! I’m not going to get into the weeds of how to deal with specific situations, but I’ll highlight a couple of things that jumped out at me when I was trying to educate myself:

  • Tone matters: No-one likes to be told they’re wrong, particularly when they don’t believe they are! Having a chat about diverging and sometimes conflicting theoretical perspectives has almost always been an enriching experience for me, even when both parties have vested interests in their respective frameworks. By asking questions with the intent of genuinely learning more, thereby indicating an open mindset, we can facilitate respectful dialogue – and even make papers out of these conversations (Cowan et al., 2020).

  • Topic matters: discussing theoretical frameworks is one thing; having a chat about the ‘liberal bias’ in academia is another. Some conversations cut to the core of our very being and can become heated very quickly. In these situations, perhaps it’s worth recognising how we feel. We can’t control how others choose to express their emotion, but we do have some amount of regulatory capacity over our own (Ford & Feinberg, 2020).

  • People matter: At the end of the day, it’s worth recognising that we’re all individuals with our own minds, which means we can agree to disagree. Seeing debates as just another day in the office might be worthwhile. One of my most intense conference friendships is with a person who operates from a very different school of thought than I do, and that hasn’t hampered the way we treat each other! 

The disclaimers go here, and so I’ll end by acknowledging the breadth of individual variation in what works for people. Caveat emptor and see what floats your boat! If you would like to add to my list of bullet points, please reach out! My hope is to get us thinking more actively and critically about cultivating diversity of thought, and this is but one approach: being RAD.

About the author

Kunalan Manokara (he / him / his) is a final year PhD at the University of Amsterdam (Social Psychology of Positive Emotions), and the current President of the APS Student Caucus. His journey as an ECR includes RA-ships in Australia, Britain, and Singapore, and he’s soon moving to Canada for a Postdoc.

References

Bastian, R. (2019, May 13). Why we need to stop talking about diversity of thought. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/rebekahbastian/2019/05/13/why-we-need-to-stop-talking-about-diversity-of-thought/?sh=676882b267c3

Coaston, J. (2019, May 28). The intersectionality wars. Vox.  https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination

Cohen, A.B. (2009). Many Forms of Culture. American Psychologist, 64(3), 194-204.

Cowan, N., Belletier, C., Doherty, J.M., et al. (2020). How do scientific views change? Notes from an extended adversarial collaboration. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(4), 1011-1025.

Ford, B.Q. & Feinberg, M. (2020). Coping with politics: The benefits and costs of emotion regulation. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 34, 123-128.

Gregory, T., Nettelbeck, T. & Wilson, C. (2010). Openness to experience, intelligence, and successful ageing. Personality and Individual Differences, 48(8), 895-899.

Marciniak, S. (2022, August 11). Social class and me… reflections on the role of social class in my life. www.bps.org.uk/blog/social-class-and-mereflections-role-social-class-my-life

Kivikangas, J.M., Fernández-Castilla, B., Järvelä, S., Ravaja, N. & Lönnqvist, J.E. (2021). Moral foundations and political orientation: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 147(1), 55-94.

Stirling, A. (2007). A general framework for analysing diversity in science, technology and society. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 4(15), 707-719.