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20181021 – In Defense of Troublemakers

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MAIN IDEA:

Author explicitly expresses the main idea of this book as such: “Consensus narrows, while dissent opens the mind. Both affect the quality of our decisions. The take-home message of the research presented in this book is that there are perils in consensus and there is value in dissent.” The dissent is often detrimental to the well being of dissenters and requires courage of conviction, but without dissent, the price paid by the group that suppresses it is often very high indeed.

DETAILS:

INTRODUCTION: FEAR CONSENSUS, LOVE DISSENT

Here author defines objective of the book as improvement in decision-making process. Interestingly enough, author defines dissent as necessary condition for good decision-making: “When we are exposed to dissent, our thinking does not narrow as it does when we are exposed to consensus. In fact, dissent broadens our thinking. Relative to what we would do on our own if we had not been exposed to dissent, we think in more open ways and in multiple directions. We consider more information and more options, and we use multiple strategies in problem solving. We think more divergently, more creatively. The implications of dissent are important for the quality of our decision-making. On balance, consensus impairs the quality of our decisions while dissent benefits it.” Author provides quite striking real live examples of necessity for dissent and stresses that correctness of it is pretty much irrelevant. Its value not in it, but in its ability to make people think beyond the consensus, resulting in evaluation of wider range of option an increase in possibility of better solution.

At the end of introduction author points out a number of books and ideas that are widely accepted, like “The Wisdom of Crowds”, but in reality, are of very little application due to the very constrained character of their effectiveness.

PART I MAJORITIES VERSUS TROUBLEMAKERS: THE ART OF PERSUASION

This part is about persuasion and how majority and minority use different tools to achieve it.

1 NUMBERS RULE

This is about human nature that in majority of cases makes people to comply with majority; whatever strange and/or weird is majority’s behavior or decisions. Author starts with example of “Face to the Rear in elevator” and proceeds to discuss ease with which majority persuades people to join. As real live example she refers to her jury consulting practice that demonstrated 90% certainly that initial majority will prevail. After that author describes conditions when majority has advantage – for example when individuals in crowd has diverse opinions that give better produce better average result than any individual’s opinion. Author also refers to Solomon Ash study demonstrating power of the group and then discusses mount of conformity and its dependence on multiple variables. The level of conformity with obvious error is usually around 75% with only 25% consistently non-conformist individuals. It is very interesting that even these individuals admitted that they majority probably correct but could and would not overcome their own perception of the truth. Autor also provides multiple examples when business and/or ideologues use this propensity to conform. At the end of chapter author discusses anonymity provided by computer networks as a tool to reduce conformity comparatively to face to face communications.

2 EVEN ONE DISSENTER MAKES A DIFFERENCE

This is an interesting chapter on break of unanimity when even one dissenter can unshackle people from conformity at any cost and dramatically change dynamic of the group. She describes a few experiments that demonstrated this point. One interesting experiment was with writing opinion on the paper vs. on the erasable board before learning majority opinion, which clearly increases commitment to one’s point. After that author discusses courage that is required to express dissent and experiment that demonstrates change of attitude of majority to dissenter, which could become quite harsh. Interesting thing here is that after rejecting dissenter, majority internalizes this behavior, resulting in quite dramatic decrease in conformity in the next setting of experiment – all the way down from 70% to 14% of conformity with clearly wrong opinion of majority.

3 DISSENTS AS AN ART IN CHANGING HEARTS AND MINDS

This is about technics that dissenter can use to change hearts and minds. It starts with Galileo and Sigmund Freud, then looks at Snowden, and eventually ends with recommendations if dissenter really wants to achieve results (could be posthumously). These are: be consistent; compromise sparingly – negotiate deal, but do not change attitude, compromise late: “It was the “late compromise” condition that had it both ways—both public and private attitude change. When a dissenter compromised at the last minute, he did two things. He appeared consistent and, at the same time, flexible enough to achieve an agreement. He did not change his position. He simply offered a concession. As a result, he achieved both outcomes. This was the “sweet spot.” He got the other participants to make public concessions and he changed their private attitudes.”. Finally, keep in mind that dissenter, even if losing, typically creates doubt in the minds of majority, and, if it is developed consciously and consistently, could turn things around. As example author discusses in detail “12 angry men”.

PART II CONSENSUS VERSUS DISSENT: CLOSED MINDS VERSUS OPEN MINDS

This part is about how different approach to persuasion by majority and minority stimulate different modes of thinking and deciding. The key difference between majority opinion and dissenter opinion is that majority opinion changes thinking in ways that are narrow and closed with main objective to comply with existing opinion, while dissent opinion opens range of thinking because objective if not to squeeze into existing mold, but rathe find the new one that would attract support.

4 CONSENSUS NARROWS THINKING—AND KILLS RATIONALITY

The starting point here is that consensus makes the majority formidable forcing people to seek ways to join it even if there is very little they agree with. Then author proceeds to review real life events and research supporting this point.  She starts with the story of suicidal cult of the Peoples Temple, analyzing how it happened that people voluntary committed mass suicide and concluding that it was result of strict maintenance of consensus. After that she reviews results of Berkley study that illustrated how majority opinion prompts people unconsciously seek confirmation information and reject contrarian. This has negative impact on problem solving because it limits the range of possible solutions under consideration. Author discusses multiple lab experiments like anagram solution demonstrating this dynamic. Similarly, majority opinion narrows focus, which become a liability when looking for solution of non-trivial problems. Author discusses experiment that vividly demonstrate this feature and then returning to the story of flight 173 that crushed due to the super narrow focus of the crew.

5 DISSENT DIVERSIFIES—AND STRENGTHENS THINKING

Here author moves to the necessity of dissent for effective problem solution and decision-making. It comes from the nature of dissent, which by definition means to go against majority opinion and therefore forces dissenter to look widely and deeply at the problem at hand in order to find convincing reasons to support dissenting opinion. The author refers to a number experiments when sole dissenting opinion suddenly dramatically changed levels of conformity, even if this opinion was obviously incorrect. One point that an author stress often and strongly is that correctness of dissent opinion is generally irrelevant. Its value is in its propensity to liberate people from conformity and prompt them to look outside the box of their biases. Also, very important insights author obtained watching jury deliberations. It was not that much opinion change that dissenters caused – they usually failed to cause any, but rather quality of deliberations that improved significantly by the presence of dissenter and need to respond to dissent opinion. Then author discusses a few of real life cases: about Snowden, drones, surveillance, and such. Finally, author looks in details at technic of brainstorming and critics its core rule of not criticizing new ideas.

PART III GROUPTHINK VERSUS GROUPS OF THINKERS

The final part is about groups, their complexity, how they obtain consensus, and how unsuppressed dissent increases the quality of decision-making process.

6 GROUP DECISIONS: OFTEN IN ERROR, NEVER IN DOUBT

Author starts with the statement that groups operate in “a way that “strains” for consensus”, which pretty much means groupthink. In reality it often means just compliance with opinions of group leader, so the lower positioned members of the group strive to accommodate to them, suppressing in process whatever doubts they have. As example author refer to Bay of Pigs story. Then she moves to result of research that demonstrates poor outcomes for direct leadership when leader offers his/her opinion upfront, limiting opportunities for discussion and making dissent costly. Another problem with groupthink is that it promotes search for consensus within at any cost and polarization against groups of others. When groups are generated within wider populations they tend to move in different directions. More risky individuals joined in a group become riskier than any of them while more cautions individual in a group also move to extreme caution. Author also goes through examples of manipulating people into doing something they would not necessary do themselves. Author discusses two theories of polarization: one is persuasive argument theory, and another is “social comparison” theory. She concludes that both have merit. Another interesting finding is that people in groups tend to share information that they have in common and hide information that could undermine consensus, resulting in decrease of quality of opinions and decisions. Author refers to meta-analysis of 65 studies that demonstrated that groups with openly shared information both positive and negative have eight times higher probability to find solution than groups were information is hidden.

7 BETTER DECISIONS: DISSENT, DIVERSITY, AND DEVILS ADVOCATES

This is about decision-making and how dissent or lack thereof impact quality of decisions. It starts with rejection of false diversity when instead of diversity of opinion people promote diversity of skin color or sexual orientation. As example author uses two trials of O.J Simpson – one, criminal, intentionally moved to locality where neither victims nor accused lives and far away from the place of crime occurred. The intention of move was to find sympathetic jury and it succeeded in acquitting OJ and another civil trial at actual location found him guilty. The point author makes that both decisions were poorly made, and both were based on tribal affiliation. This point is confirmed by the multitude of experiments demonstrating how easy it is to create competing groups even by randomly allocating similar people to teams and then observe in-group favoritism that starts immediately. Author discusses in details different types of diversity and different value of it for organizations and decision making, which is sometimes positive, but sometimes not. However regardless of whatever levels of type of diversity exists nothing could substitute value of dissent in decision making that would amplify positives of diversity and suppress negatives.

Another very interesting point author makes is that often used formal technic of “devil advocate” does not produce expected results mainly because in order to have impact the dissent should be real and passionate, formal moves just wouldn’t do that. Author discusses history of this technic and reviews a number of experiments analyzing its impact on quality of decisions.

8 CONCLUSIONS

In this chapter author summarizes massage of this book as twofold: danger of consensus for quality of decisions and necessity of real dissent for increase this quality. She also points out that it is not about anger, suppression of dissent, arguing, or contrivances. It is about authenticity and conviction, speaking up, protecting different views, and encouraging debates. Finally, it is all not for the sake of harmony or moral imperatives that people and organization should protect and even nourish dissent, but as indispensable tool for achieving high quality of decisions and better solutions for all kinds of problems.

MY TAKE ON IT:

It is nice to encounter book that provides lots of scientific and experimental support to the way one lives his live. Somehow, I often find myself in the state of non-agreement with whatever is discussed or whatever conventional wisdom is. This contrarian view at just about everything served me well because it forced me to compare different attitudes and approaches before making decision and prevented me from automatically accepting somebody else’s opinion. It has downside of complicating matters, slowing down process of about anything, and delaying action. Therefore, I can wholeheartedly agree with author of this book about value of dissent and danger of suppressing it. Such suppressing is especially dangerous at the level of society as whole because it leads to disappearance of dissent and consequently to dramatic degradation of quality of decisions and eventually quality of live. One can look not only at psychological experiments, but at huge real life experiment with Russian Empire in XX century when decades of suppressing dissent and killing or pushing out of country dissenters turned quite prosperous country of early XX century with world class writers, musicians, scientists, and intellectuals into miserable shadow of itself by the end of XX century.

 


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