Collective Conservatism

Collective Conservatism

Groupthink is one of the most dangerous phenomenon that our world faces today. Families, companies, and governments can all find themselves stuck in groupthink, unable to adapt to a world that no longer fits the model and expectations that drive traditional thinking. When everyone has the same thought processes and members of the group discount the same information while adopting a uniform perspective, the world of possibilities becomes limited.

 

In Nudge, authors Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write about a particular element that is common when groupthink takes hold, collective conservatism. While discussing groups that follow tradition the authors write,

 

“We can see here why many groups fall prey to what is known as collective conservatism: the tendency of groups to stick to established patterns even as new needs arise. Once a practice (like wearing ties) has become established, it is likely to be perpetuated, even if there is no particular basis for it.”

 

In a family household, collective conservatism might take the form of a specific way to fold towels. Perhaps towels had to be folded a certain way to fit a space in a previous house, and the tradition has continued even though towels no longer need to be folded just right for the space. Nothing is really lost by folding towels just so, but it might be time consuming to make sure they are folded in order to fit a constraint that no longer exists.

 

Within companies and governments, however, collective conservatism can be more consequential than the time and effort involved in folding towels. A company that cannot adjust supply chains, cannot adjust a business model in response to competition, and that cannot improve workspaces to meet new employee expectations is likely to be overtaken by a start-up that is more in tune with new social, technological, and cultural business trends. For a government, failures to adjust for technological change and employee motivations are also risks, as are changes in international relations, social needs, and more. Being stuck in a mindset that cannot see the changes and cannot be more responsive can be dangerous because peoples actual lives and needed services and supports could be in jeopardy. Collective conservatism feels safe to those who are in decision-making roles and who know what worked in the past. However, collective conservatism is a form of group think that can lead to inept operations and strategies that can be economically costly and have negative impacts in peoples’ real lives.
Confident Nudges & Strong Opinions

Confident Nudges & Strong Opinions

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler describe an experiment in their book Nudge where people were placed in a group in a dark room with a small point of light. Due to an illusion with the brain processing visual information, the small point of light appears to move slightly, even though it is stationary. The lead investigator on the study placed a member of his staff in the room who would express strong confidence in the distance that the light supposedly moved, or express doubts about the groups conclusion for how far it moved. What the study showed is that strong confidence or strong doubt from one person can greatly shape the overall beliefs of the entire group.

 

Individually, people in the study would not arrive at matching or correlating guesses for the distance that the light moved. But when in groups, individuals begin to converge over a common distance (again, the light never moved – study participants only perceived motion due to an optical illusion). When one person in the group was either very sure that the group had the right estimate, or expressed strong doubt that the groups conclusion was accurate, participants tended to agree and move toward their estimate. A high distance guess stated strongly would pull everyone’s estimates up while a low estimate would shrink them. If the group had someone who was very confident in their answer, the participants became more confident, while if someone expressed strong doubts, the remaining participants level of doubt also rose. As Sunstein and Thaler write, “A little nudge, if it was expressed confidently, could have major consequences for the group’s conclusion.”

 

Most of us probably have to work in groups on a regular basis. This study is important because it shows how much one person can set the expectations and shape the assumptions of everyone in the group. We have all had projects that start out with little coherent information. Everyone has an idea for where the project could go, what shape the final output could take, and what factors will be the most important to include. If one person is has strong opinions in any given area, they can greatly influence the group’s decision-making. The authors continue, “the clear lesson here is that consistent and unwavering people, in the private or public sector, can move groups and practices in their preferred direction.”

 

These people may be right and may have good insights, but they can also be very wrong. A strong personality expressing confident opinions can push an entire group toward conformity. They can downplay the real threats or weaknesses of a plan, and can be overconfident with the prospects of success. For these reasons it is important to build in mechanisms that check groupthink. It is important to have someone play devil’s advocate, to ask how a plan could fail, to get the group to think about the strengths and weaknesses of a plan in honest terms. Without finding a way to check overconfident or strongly expressed opinions, a group can be derailed from the very start, with everyone conforming to the strong opinions of a single individual.
Overcoming Group Overconfidence

Overcoming Group Overconfidence

Overcoming group overconfidence is hard, but in Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman offers one partial remedy: a premortem. As opposed to a postmortem, and analysis of why a project failed, a premortem looks at why a program might fail before it has started.

 

Group communication is difficult. When the leader of a group is enthusiastic about an idea, it is hard to disagree with them. If you are a junior member of a team, it can be uncomfortable, and potentially even disadvantageous for you and your career to doubt the ideas that a senior leader is excited about. If you have concerns, it is not likely that you will bring them up, especially in a group meeting with other seemingly enthusiastic team members surrounding you.

 

Beyond the silencing of a member who has concerns but doesn’t want to speak up is another problem that contributes to overconfidence among teams: groupthink. Particularly among groups that lack diversity, groupthink can crush the planning stage of a project. When everyone has similar backgrounds, similar experiences, and similar styles of thinking, it is unlikely that anyone within the group will have a viewpoint or opinion that is significantly different than the prevailing wisdom of the rest. What seems like a good idea or the correct decision to one person probably feels like the correct idea or decision to everyone else – there is literally no one in the room who has any doubts or alternative perspectives.

 

Premortems help get beyond groupthink and the fear of speaking up against a powerful and enthusiastic leader. The idea is to brainstorm all the possible ways that a project might fail. It includes an element of creativity by asking everyone to imagine the project is finally finished, either successfully but well over budget, way late, after a very turbulent series of events, or the project was a complete failure and never reached its intended end point. People have to describe the issues that came up and why the project did not reach the rosy outcome everyone initially pictured. Imaging that these failures had taken place in real life gets people to step beyond groupthink and encourages highlighting roadblocks that particularly enthusiastic members overlook.

 

Because premortems are hypothetical, it gives people a chance to speak up about failure points and weaknesses in plans and ideas without appearing to criticize the person the idea came from. It creates a safe space for imagining barriers and obstacles that need to be overcome to achieve success. It reduces groupthink by encouraging a creative flow of ideas of failure points. As Kahneman writes, “The main virtue of the premortem is that it legitimizes doubts. Furthermore, it encourages even supporters of the decision to search for possible threats that they had not considered earlier.”

 

Overcoming group overconfidence is possible, but it needs the right systems and structures to happen. Groupthink and fear are likely to prevent people from bringing up real doubts and threats, but a premortem allows those concerns to be aired and seriously considered. It helps get people to look beyond the picture of success they intuitively connect with, and it helps prevent enthusiastic supporters from getting carried away with their overconfidence.
Rarely Stumped

Rarely Stumped

Daniel Kahneman starts one of the chapters in his book Thinking Fast and Slow by writing, “A remarkable aspect of your mental life is that you are rarely stumped. True, you occasionally face a question such as 17 × 24 = ? to which no answer comes immediately to mind, but these dumbfounded moments are rare. The normal state of your mind is that you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way.”

 

When I read this quote I am reminded of Gus, the father, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. He is always ready to show how every word comes from a Greek root, even a Japanese word like kimono. He is sure of his intellect, sure that his heritage is perfect and is the foundation of all that is good in the world. He trusts his instincts and intuitions to a hilarious extent, even when he is clearly wrong and even when his decisions are gift-wrapped and planted in his mind in an almost Inception style.

 

His character is part caricature, but it is revealing of what Kahneman explains with the quote above. Our minds are good at finding intuitive answers that make sense of the world around us, even if we really don’t have any idea what is going on. We laugh at Gus and don’t consider ourselves to be guilty of behaving like him, but the only difference between most of us and Gus is that Gus is an exaggeration of the intuitive dogma and sense of self value and assurance that we all live with.

 

We scroll through social media, and trust that our initial judgment of a headline or post is the right frame for how to think about the issue. We are certain that our home remedy for tackling bug bites, cleaning windows, or curing a headache is based on sound science, even if it does nothing more than produce a placebo effect. We find a way to fit every aspect of our lives into a comprehensive framework where our decisions appear rational and justified, with us being the hero (or innocent victim if needed) of the story.

 

We should remember that we have a propensity to believe that we are always correct, that we are never stumped. We should pause, ask more questions, think about what is important to know before making a decision, and then deeply interrogate our thoughts to decide if we really have obtained meaningful information to inform our opinions, or if we are just acting on instinct, heuristics, self-interest, or out of groupthink. We cannot continue believing we are right, pushing baseless beliefs onto others when we have no real knowledge of an issue. We shouldn’t assume things are true just because they happen to align with the story we want to believe about ourselves and the world. When it comes to crucial issues and our interactions and relationships with others, we need to think more critically, and recognize when we are assuming we are right. If we can pause at those times and think more deeply, gather more information, ask more questions of our selves, we can have more accurate and honest interactions and relationships. Hopefully this will help us have more meaningful lives that better connect and better develop the community we all need in order to thrive.

Cogoverning

A key aspect of new localism, as described by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak in their book The New Localism, is cooperative governance. The national government and many state governments today are characterized and plagued by partisan gridlock, however local governments are able to function and get beyond gridlock through principles of new localism. Cogoverning is a term that the authors use to describe the new system of governance that is in action at city and metropolitan levels across the nation today, and that seems to be able to help communities thrive in a globalized world.

 

The authors write, “Cogoverning also helps explain why New Localism is nonpartisan. The regular engagement of business, civic, and academic leaders elevates pragmatic thinking and commonsense discourse and crowds out the inflammatory rhetoric associated with partisanship and ideology. This creates a healthy group psychology that rewards creative tinkering (the essence of problem solving) rather than obstructive action (the essence of partisanship). Localities, in other words, engender group innovation; legislatures reward groupthink.”

 

At a local level, our common interests are more clear. We can more clearly see that a rising tide in our city or metro will lift all boats, and we can get on board to make big advances. Having the leaders of businesses, civic groups, and academic research facilities coordinate together helps bring elements that might normally oppose each other and cause friction into alignment to GSD (get shit done). On a national level, we lose our common interest, and we revert to a form of tribalism where we look for the group that reflects our identity, and lose an ability to GSD as we become recalcitrant partisans, only favoring legislation if we gain without the possibility of a loss.

 

A key distinction at the local level between new localism and business-as-usual is that new localism brings together leaders from different arenas. It is not just a single business leader who dominates or a single industry that holds the loudest voice. Placemaking requires the input of people living in the place, and it requires that those with money and authority also work with those who can bring a civic perspective and cultivate local support for initiatives. By incorporating these voices and working together, business leaders can find new innovative solutions to problems that will actually be supported and aligned with the spirit and interests of the local community. Creative tinkering cannot be a top-down process that is guided by business and government agencies alone, it requires a bottom-up element that incorporates the desires and values of the local population. New localism incorporates this bottom-up element in a constructive way, by bringing the top leaders of organizations and groups together in structures and situations that demand decision-making and not just deliberation.

The Base of Mob Mentality

In his book 59 Seconds I found Richard Wiseman’s section about group think versus individual think to be incredibly interesting.  Wiseman discussed the ways in which groups shift an individuals behavior and thoughts by moving an individual away from the center or moderate behavior towards actions that are more polarized or extreme.  I have also written about discussions in groups, and how strong-willed people will dominate and drive group discussion, encouraging those who do not agree with them to at least appear to align with their thoughts.  Wiseman adds another element of interest to the group versus individual dynamic with the following quote, “compared to individuals groups tend to be more dogmatic, better able to justify irrational actions, more likely to see their actions as highly moral, and more apt to form stereotypical views of outsiders.”  The quote paints a fairly negative image of groups that I think we can easily imagine playing out in politics, extreme religious organizations, and even smaller groups that we may belong to.  When I review Wiseman’s observations regarding group and individual behaviors and actions I see the importance of self awareness and reflection and also the importance of having a strong moral leader or guide for groups.

 

Mob mentality is something that came up in many of my classes throughout college, although I never studied it directly.  When we act in a mob we have a sense of autonomy and anonymity that empowers us to make extreme decisions.  When we look at the actions of mobs in America over the last few years and consider Wiseman’s evaluation of group behavior and group think, we are able to see how easily individuals can give up their personal moral stance and adopt the characteristics of an angry and amoral mob.  The feeling of unanimity generated from stereotypical views allows individuals to feel as though they are in complete control of themselves and the situation by being part of a greater group of individuals. The sense of unanimity also lends itself to the mob believing that they are on the moral side, and that their irrational actions can be justified by the injustices that set them into a frenzy.  Exaggerated behavior is encouraged in the group, and adherence to a particular viewpoint helps build a mindset of “us versus them” throughout the mob.  From the outside we can all see how negative this mob mentality is, but I think that Wiseman shows that these behaviors have the potential to occur not just on a large scale, but also on a very small scale (in a less violent manner) regardless of what group we are in. Comparing Wiseman’s observations of small group actions to mob mentality helps me see the importance of guiding groups in a positive and creative way.

 

I also think that individual identity and decision making are important to consider when we are examining the individual versus the group.  One of my favorite bloggers, Paul Jun, recently posted on his blog about our decision making.  He explained that one of the ways we make decisions is by considering our identity, and how a choice fits in with the particular identity we are trying to build.  If we want to identify or see ourselves as part of a particular group, we will envision the decisions and actions of members of that group, and apply that to our own lives. Instead of making decisions based on what we want, we consider what someone with the identity we want to project would do, and make a decision that aligns with those actions.  Depending on the group we are in, and the identity of the group we want to associate with, our actions and behaviors in the group will be drastically different.