The Volokh Conspiracy

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Does Diversity Training Work? Does Anyone Know?

A Princeton phsychologist suggests there is little evidence that corporate DEI programs do much to enhance diversity or inclusion.


Princeton psychology professor Betsy Levy Paluck has an op-ed in today's Washington Post pointing out the dearth of research showing that diversity training programs do much to enhance diversity or inclusion within organizations.

The piece begins:

In early June 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests flowered across the United States following the murder of George Floyd, businesses and other institutions rushed to enhance their diversity efforts. Chief diversity officer hires tripled among the largest publicly traded companies, enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion offerings for which U.S. companies paid an estimated $3.4 billion to outside firms that year.

What have we achieved with all this effort? In 2022, this question has special significance, as measures to increase diversity and racial equity have come under political attack, often by people who believe those shouldn't be goals in the first place. But even among people who believe in the basic mission, common questions about diversity training have shifted from "Which training is best?" to "Is the training even a good idea?" and "Does the training have negative effects?"

The problem is that the real answer to all three of these questions is: We don't know.

Professor Paluck bases this conclusion, in part, on a literature review she co-authored, "Prejudice Reduction: Progress and Challenges," published in the Annual Review of Psychology. The abstract for that paper reads:

The past decade has seen rapid growth in research that evaluates methods for reducing prejudice. This essay reviews 418 experiments reported in 309 manuscripts from 2007 to 2019 to assess which approaches work best and why. Our quantitative assessment uses meta-analysis to estimate average effects. Our qualitative assessment calls attention to landmark studies that are noteworthy for sustained interventions, imaginative measurement, and transparency. However, 76% of all studies evaluate light touch interventions, the long-term impact of which remains unclear. The modal intervention uses mentalizing as a salve for prejudice. Although these studies report optimistic conclusions, we identify troubling indications of publication bias that may exaggerate effects. Furthermore, landmark studies often find limited effects, which suggests the need for further theoretical innovation or synergies with other kinds of psychological or structural interventions. We conclude that much research effort is theoretically and empirically ill-suited to provide actionable, evidence-based recommendations for reducing prejudice.

Professor Paluck ackowledges that measuring the impact of such programs is difficult, but she does not believe that is the problem. Rather, she suggests there is something of a collective action problem. Meaningful research would require collecting data across multiple firms and corporations that contract for DEI programs are reluctant to share data or information (including employee opinions that they fear could produce PR or legal risks).

She concludes:

Collective action problems require collective solutions. Studies that combine multiple corporations and trainings could shelter participants from legal and PR risks. My research team and other behavioral and social scientists are eagerly waiting to help design these kinds of trials. Because if we don't study what works when it comes to diversity initiatives, we know what will almost surely follow: another crime of hate, followed by a surge in diversity trainings that might not help at all.