Politics: Ancient and Modern

ARKHON/archon/ἄρχων: ruler, lord or chief magistrate

Thus Athens went from strength to strength, and proved, if proof were needed, how noble a thing equality before the law is, not in one respect only, but in all.

Herodotus The Histories (V:78)

18.03.2014
Robert Lowry
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This is a DRAFT posting – interim comments most welcome The lack of awareness that Cognitive Biases and Groupthink impair judgement and decision making capabilities is a shameful part of modern political, diplomatic, moral and religious discourse. We are surrounded by biased opinions and we can – each and every one of us – be guilty of holding them without realising. Listening to or engaging in a debate on religion, a civil war, an independence referendum, a business plan or whatever, is an infuriating process when genuinely held beliefs contradict each other. To deal with this, we must do proportionately more to challenge the conditions that produce biased beliefs, rather than challenge the actual beliefs themselves. It has often been said that there is more than one truth to a narrative. However, some individuals or organisations blatantly ignore or unjustifiably belittle narratives that do not concur with their own agenda. In consequence, assertions from stances that lack any empathy with others tend to lead on to heated discourse at best, or violent conflict at worst. While it may often be more appropriate to counter the logical fallacies of an argument, it is the ignoring of Cognitive Biases or Groupthink conditions that paves the way either for never-ending clashes of partisan dogmas, or for the emergence of false consensuses that conceal the risks of failure. This omission does not aid the achievement of desirable long-term outcomes.  While I make no claims to be a psychology expert, I believe there are widespread benefits to raising awareness of Cognitive Biases and Groupthink, and in making use of this awareness so as to better understand root causes of differences, and to manage expectations in dealing with the issues arising. If you want to undermine a dogmatic stance, then it is worth recognising how a head-on, argumentative confrontation seems more likely to result in intransigent hostility than a change of opinion. Would it not be better to challenge the processes that have produced prejudice or entrenched doctrines? Raising awareness can be achieved by employing the lexicon of biases in discussions; challenging ourselves to be less vulnerable to biases than others; and then – only then – exposing our antagonists’ vulnerabilities to these same biases. Throw down the gauntlet. Rather than saying: “I’m right – you’re wrong”; or “I speak the truth – you lie”; or even: “I am good – you are evil”, you might say: “I believe I am more likely to be right than you are because my measures to cope with bias are better than yours, but if you think otherwise: prove it.” This is certainly not a pithy style of argument, but if the alternative is a vociferous exchange of entrenched assertions and counter-assertions, then it might be preferable. Moreover, it should help expose the narrow-minded for what they are, and undermine those who wish to participate in untenable blame-games or those who manipulate public debate with the distorted arguments of a propaganda machine. And with any luck, it should improve the rationality of one’s own arguments. So here are some Groupthink symptoms to be wary of: 1.      The unquestioning belief in the morality of a cause leading to the disregard of the consequences of actions;   2.      The direct pressure of conformity where questioning is seen as disloyal or heretical to the group; 3.      Self-censorship which, if not discouraged, will suppress ideas that might be seen to deviate from a perceived group consensus; 4.      The illusion of unanimity where silence is interpreted as consent; 5.      The existence of mind guards who suppress dissenting and inconvenient information; 6.      The stereotyping of opponents as evil or stupid will misinform and misdirect decision-making; 7.      The illusion of invulnerability that fosters misplaced optimism and risk taking; 8.      The collective rationalisation in which group members ignore warnings of failure. And here are a selection of Cognitive Biases to be wary of: 1.      Confirmation bias – a tendency to seek information that confirms preconceptions but discounts contradicting information; 2.      Self-serving bias – a tendency to emphasise one’s own successes rather than failures; 3.      Belief bias – where logic is adversely affected by belief in a conclusion ; 4.      Halo effect – where perceptions of somebody’s capabilities or opinions are influenced by unconnected facts (celebrity status for example); 5.      Availability heuristic – a tendency to draw conclusions based on more memorable events whilst possibly overlooking more pertinent events; 6.      Bandwagon effect – a tendency to act as others around you do; 7.      Positive Expectation Bias – a tendency to believe things can only get better; 8.      Negativity Bias – whereby more attention is paid to bad news; 9.      Ingroup Bias – a tendency to overestimate the capabilities of one’s own group; 10.  Projection Bias – a tendency to think others think like you.   [A non-exhaustive list of biases can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_biases_in_judgement_and_decision_making]   #BiasBingo So here is the idea: if you perceive an opinion that you genuinely believe is affected by conditions that encourage bias, point it out – helpfully and politely. The tag “#BiasBingo” with a little explanation would contribute to raising awareness of the issue across social media. We should also have the good grace to accept bias vulnerabilities being pointed out of ourselves. Remember it is not a question of stating: “I’m right – you are wrong”. It is more a matter of: “Please reassure that your views are not unduly affected by Groupthink or Cognitive Biases.” If not: “Your argument/decision would be perceived as more credible if there was greater evidence that its vulnerability to the following Groupthink or Cognitive Biases were less…” I would expect those people or organisations that are most vulnerable to bias to be those who are also the most riled by having it pointed out to them. However, this is not a scientifically-backed assertion and perhaps it is subject to my own biases – especially the Fundamental Attribution Error. It may also prove easier to point out the organisational and cultural conditions that foster Groupthink than trying to make verifiable accusations of Cognitive Biases. So sit back and watch an election campaign, TV debate or whatever, and highlight those biases. Tweet a #BiasBingo message if you feel like it, or perhaps draw up a score card and see if you can beat your colleagues at spotting a full set of biases, a pair, four of a kind, whatever. You define the rules, but be fair and never ignore your own potential bias blind spots. Just get out there and raise awareness.                                                                                                                Further reading: Dvorsky, G The 12 cognitive biases that prevent you from being rational http://io9.com/5974468/the-most-common-cognitive-biases-that-prevent-you-from-being-rational Janis, Irving L. Victims of Groupthink, New York: Houghton Mifflin (1972); and Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, New York: Houghton Mifflin (1982). Lowry, Robert M. Governance and Groupthink http://arkhonlowry.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/governance-and-groupthink.html Lubin, G 57 Cognitive Biases That Screw Up How We Think http://www.businessinsider.com/cognitive-biases-2013-8?op=1  Taylor, Jim The Power of Prime: Cognitive Biases v Common Sense http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/201107/cognitive-biases-vs-common-sense
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