21 June 2019: Thinking about multiple identities boosts children’s flexible thinking.

Diversity, diversity, diversity. Diversity in societies, workplaces, families, you name it – diversity enables problem-solving. That’s why the world is in such a sorry state, because we keep recruiting the same kinds of people, people like us, because of whom we know how they tick, we know we’ll work well with them, we identify, probably unconsciously, and thus prefer those like us to those who could do the job best, who could bring fresh perspectives, special insights, unique twists of thought. If employers were smart, they’d recrute those least like them. Then, The Problem, whatever it is,would be considered from all sorts of points of view, we’d have lots of solutions to lots of potential issues arising. That’s, by the way, why we have sex between two different creatures with different sets of genes, because a diversity of genes enables survival, while creatures like bacteria that multiply rapidly by cloning themselves (and thus always remaining the same) will not be prepared for changes in the environment and die in the billions. Just a little bracket here.

So. Diversity. Multiple identities. Kids from inter-cultural families are famously smart and open-minded (blowing my own trumpet here, being half-Iranian, half-German), as are those who have travelled a lot. They have (had to?) developed flexible thinking and problem-solving techniques. A new study has now explored how this same kind of mental ability can be fostered by encouraging children to think about several kinds of their identities at the same time. For instance, being a daughter, a girl, a friend, and a helper. At the same time. Researchers then ended the thinking sessions with beautiful wrap-up enthusiasm: ‘that’s so cool that you are lots of things at the same time’. And those children did significantly better on problem-solving tasks than those in the test-group.

This reminded me of the pedagogical approach typical to early modern humanism: in utramque partem debating. At school, you’d impersonate someone and think yourself into their motives, feelings, thoughts, in order to write a good speech of defence, or argument, or accusation. You might impersonate a pregnant woman whose brother-in-law has written her out of her great-grand-father’s will, or you might be the hero Achilles, grieving over the death of his bromance friend Patroclus. Good preparation for your subsequent law career. But also good preparation for a particular sensitivity towards things, motivations, personal contexts. Circumstances. When you are trained to think and feel yourself into other people who are vastly different from you, you become more alive to others. Mind-reading. Empathy. Then, making decisions becomes hard. Everyone has a legitimate reason to do what they do. And this kind of  elastic flexible roving thought and feeling pervades early modern culture, I find, be it Donne’s sermons carefully weighing every syllable of a psalm, or Sidney having Pamela reflect on suicide in the New Arcadia.

Now we know, thanks to science, what the Renaissance always did. That to think about yourself in different ways means opening yourself up to the world. And that is A Good Thing.

You can find the digested article here.

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