Variation is the stuff of life. So why can it make us uncomfortable?

Embracing difference is vital for our success as a species, but it places extra demands on the brain. Here’s how to get better at it. 

By Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett.

Most people enjoy variety. We like to eat different foods from meal to meal. We wear different clothes. We like to try new activities and visit new places, which may be hard to remember right now in our tiny, socially isolated rooms, but it’s true. Likewise, with too little variety we become bored. Your favourite food might be duck à l’orange, but you wouldn’t want to eat it for three meals a day, every day.

Nevertheless, there’s one place we tend to dislike variety, and that’s in each other. We often have a hard time with people who look different from us, practise different rituals, wear unfamiliar clothes, or hold beliefs or values that we do not share.

There are biological reasons for this discomfort. When you’re exposed to new and different things, your brain works a bit harder than usual. Your neurons require more resources when you’re learning, such as water, salt, glucose and various other chemicals. This extra metabolic activity can feel unsettling and unpleasant. And it can feel worse if your nervous system is already under pressure, such as right now in the midst of a pandemic.

This sort of variation may be uncomfortable for individuals, but it’s actually critical for the survival of any species. If all finches were identical, for example, and their environment changed in some significant, detrimental way, such as an increase in temperature or a decrease in water, all of them would be equally vulnerable and the species might become extinct. But if finch bodies and brains have enough variety, then some individuals may be more suited to a hotter climate or more parched surroundings, and the species is more likely to survive. This insight about variation comes from Charles Darwin, and it’s known as population thinking. Most people associate Darwin with his evolutionary theory of natural selection, but population thinking may be an even greater scientific achievement. The idea of “survival of the fittest” implies that individuals must vary. Some are more suited than others for a given environment, making it easier for them to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Variation is therefore a prerequisite for natural selection to work at all.

Human variety is also important in our everyday lives. Take the workplace, for example, where variation is more commonly called “diversity.” “Companies with more diverse workforces perform better financially,” notes a well-cited 2015 research report by McKinsey. Data suggests that “companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above national averages”. This isn’t a huge surprise, given that staff with a range of perspectives will be able spot a wider array of both problems and opportunities, helping the organisation to thrive.

A range of perspectives is vital to our trust in science as a way of learning about the world, too. The historian Naomi Oreskes writes: “A community with diverse values is more likely to identify and challenge prejudicial beliefs embedded in, or masquerading as, scientific theory.” Science is more objective and useful as a tool for living when people from different backgrounds, with different starting beliefs and different experiences, interrogate their observations through free and open debate.

Moreover, variation is crucial for the survival of a culture. A working democracy, for example, is necessarily a compromise among diverse views. Too much sameness may breed authoritarianism or even totalitarianism. The founders of the United States understood this, and they built checks and balances into the governance of their fledgling country to encourage debate and compromise among its citizens. (Except for certain people who weren’t granted a voice at all. Tolerance of variety in 1787 had its limits.)

Variation is even wired into our brains at a microscopic level. All humans share a single, basic brain plan with about 120bn neurons and two hemispheres, right and left. But the neurons inside every skull wire themselves differently depending on the environments they are raised in – varied environments that are curated by our varied fellow humans. In this manner, we wire the brains of the next generation, passing down our values, behaviours and norms. It’s a major reason we can maintain a wide variety of cultures around the world, and survive and thrive in so many physical environments. A single brain plan creates many kinds of minds.

Even within a single mind, variation is a good thing. For example, people vary in how finely they experience emotions. Some people experience surprise, amazement, astonishment, bewilderment, consternation and awe as distinctive instances of emotion, whereas others experience them all as equivalent. The ability to construct finer-grained emotions, called higher emotional granularity, is linked to better mental and physical health, and faster recovery from physical illness. The more tools you have in your emotion toolbox, the more precisely your brain can plan your actions and shape everything you experience.

Human variety is vital for our species, so it’s important for us to learn to deal with the more challenging kinds of variation that we find in each other. This is particularly relevant in today’s polarised world, where people with different beliefs or opinions have difficulty even being civil to one another.

So I offer you a challenge. Pick a controversial political issue that you feel strongly about: religion, immigration, the climate crisis, Covid-19 lockdowns, Brexit, or perhaps a local issue that’s important to you. Spend five minutes a day deliberately considering the issue from the perspective of people you disagree with – not to argue with them in your head, but to understand how someone who’s just as smart as you can believe the opposite of what you do. I’m not asking you to change your mind, just to truly embody someone else’s point of view.

If you can honestly say, “I absolutely disagree with that view, but I understand why people might believe it,” then you’re actively helping to create a less polarised world.

Dealing with the vast variety of humankind can be demanding and unsettling, and even maddening at times, but it’s a good investment, sort of like exercise for your brain. When you meet someone who looks or thinks differently than you, treat your discomfort as a cue to be curious and learn, not as a signal of a problem or that the other person should be silenced. Ultimately, this mindset can make you more flexible in adapting to challenging situations, more resilient in the face of change.


Tags: communication , stereotypes , intercultural training , behaviour, society, perception, cultural intelligence , emotional intelligence , neuroscience , psychology

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