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
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
be wary of:
The unquestioning belief in the morality of a cause
leading to the disregard of the consequences of actions;
The direct pressure of conformity where questioning
is seen as disloyal or heretical to the group;
Self-censorship which, if not discouraged, will
suppress ideas that might be seen to deviate from a perceived group consensus;
The illusion of unanimity where silence is interpreted
The existence of mind guards who suppress
dissenting and inconvenient information;
The stereotyping of opponents as evil or stupid
will misinform and misdirect decision-making;
The illusion of invulnerability that fosters
misplaced optimism and risk taking;
The collective rationalisation in which group
members ignore warnings of failure.
And here are a selection of Cognitive Biases to be wary of:
Confirmation bias – a tendency to seek information that confirms preconceptions but
discounts contradicting information;
Self-serving bias – a tendency to emphasise one’s own successes rather than failures;
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;
effect – a tendency to act as others around you do;
Expectation Bias – a tendency to believe things can only get better;
Bias – whereby more attention is paid to bad news;
Bias – a tendency to overestimate the capabilities of one’s
10. Projection Bias – a tendency to think
others think like you.
non-exhaustive list of biases can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_biases_in_judgement_and_decision_making]
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.
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…”
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.
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
Irving L. Victims of Groupthink, New York: Houghton Mifflin (1972); and Groupthink:
Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, New York: Houghton Mifflin
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
Jim The Power of Prime: Cognitive Biases v Common Sense
These are subversive words,
So I won’t tell you again:
Stop reading now
And put down your pen.
But you’re reading on:
You dare to defy;
You doubt my wisdom
And question me why.
I know I’m right
And you are wrong,
Though I won’t explain:
It would take too long.
I’m not being arrogant
Or dictatorial you know.
It’s just for the best
You stop reading and go.
Accept my superior insight:
There’s no need for debate,
But continued defiance
Will make me irate.
Have I upset you?
Oh, how can it be:
You think your opinion
Matters to me?
Now stop reading this.
It’s time to
Obey my orders
And desist from dissent.
Don’t consider complaining:
I’ll ignore your views,
Suppress your rights
And freedom to choose.
Don’t dare discuss this:
You already offend;
And don’t think you win
By reaching the end.
William Shakespeare were following news of Egypt’s presidential machinations he
might notice a familiar reticence to declare leadership of the people.
Army chief of staff Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi reportedly told the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Siyasah that he “could not reject the
demand” of the people that he should run for president. However, the military
have claimed that Al-Sisi’s words were misrepresented in the 5 February report.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has effectively given
its public support to Al-Sisi’s undeclared candidacy amid calls that the “choice
of the people” be heeded. SCAF promoted Al-Sisi to Field Marshall in January.
Al-Arabiya News puts it “Despite his promise that the military does not seek to
rule Egypt, he [Al-Sisi] seems primed to ascend to the position. If in power,
his backers say his status as a national hero will help him rebuild the
the history repeating itself is all Egyptian. Zahi Hawass, a former antiquities
minister, told the 2 January Guardian
newspaper that the upheavals mirror the century of chaos that preceded the accession of Mentuhotep II to the Egyptian
throne in 2046BCE.
"We need an elected officer – a strong man – to
control the country. And in my opinion, Sisi is our only hope,” said Hawass. As
pharaoh, Mentuhotep restored order to Egypt and “Sisi is really Mentuhotep II."
still some might hope Al-Sisi could be a Kleisthenes figure. Kleisthenes of
late 6th century BCE Athens did not want his city state to revert to
the bad old ways of political chaos. He won over the people by offering citizen
rights to the masses – giving equality
before the law,
and importantly he weakened the power of factionalism that stifled progress. “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,” wrote the father
of history, Herodotus [The Histories (V:78)]
if Al-Sisi does follow Caesar’s lead, who’s up for Mark Antony’s role? Former Luxor
governor Major General Samir Farag, and former Assistant Secretary of Defence for
Finance and Administration, Major General Mahmoud Nasr will be running Al-Sisi’s
presidential campaign according to some reports.
here are a couple of extracts from Act I Scene 2 of WillIiam Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
Flourish, and shout
What means this shouting? I do fear, the people choose Caesar for their king.
Ay, do you fear it? Then must I think you would not have it so.
I would not, Cassius; yet I love him well. But wherefore do you hold me here so
long? What is it that you would impart to me? If it be aught toward the general
good, Set honour in one eye and death i' the other, and I will look on both
indifferently, for let the gods so speed me as I love the name of honour more
than I fear death.
Was the crown offered him thrice?
Ay, marry, was't, and he put it by thrice, every time gentler than other, and
at every putting-by mine honest neighbours shouted.
Who offered him the crown?
Tell us the manner of it, gentle Casca.
I can as well be hanged as tell the manner of it: it was mere foolery; I did
not mark it. I saw Mark Antony offer him a crown; yet 'twas not a crown neither,
'twas one of these coronets; and, as I told you, he put it by once: but, for
all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it. Then he offered it to him
again; then he put it by again: but, to my thinking, he was very loath to lay
his fingers off it. And then he offered it the third time; he put it the third
time by: and still as he refused it, the rabblement hooted and clapped their chapped
hands and threw up their sweaty night-caps and uttered such a deal of stinking
breath because Caesar refused the crown that it had almost choked Caesar; for
he swounded and fell down at it: and for mine own part, I durst not laugh, for
fear of opening my lips and receiving the bad air.
countries or companies fall apart, you often want to ask: why have unfolding
events come as such a nasty surprise? Or if these weren’t a surprise, then why were
attempts to mitigate the ill-effects so inadequate? Political processes,
diplomatic projects or commercial ventures that do not include preparations for
diverse possible scenario outcomes are at far greater risk of failure than
those that do.
Was ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak surprised
or merely ill-prepared when he lost power? In Damascus, did Bashar Al-Assad
make too many assumptions about his regime’s authority, or was Syria’s civil
war inconceivable to him? Did either president have any competent contingency
plans for the smooth transition of power? After all, no one lives forever.
For captains of industry to presidents of countries,
effective planning for the future is essential, but it is often constrained by Groupthink [see http://arkhonlowry.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/governance-and-groupthink.html].
Adopting Scenario Planning procedures can help to overcome this as well as improve
the prospects of managing complex possible futures.
Honest and open discussions are of paramount
importance for Scenario Planning to
be effective. Political and business arrangements or cultures that do not
enable open debate cannot expect full potentials to be attained, and may be incapable
of recognising impending disasters in sufficient time to respond effectively.
At the core of the Scenario Planning process is a
brainstorming SWOT Analysis of the Key Facts and Factors, as well as the Actors
and Entities involved in a Scenario.
These are the Drivers of the system.
Categorising the Drivers’ influence on the system as strengths, weaknesses,
opportunities and threats, helps identify various Possibilities within the narrative of a Logic Path that makes up a route map of a potential scenario. A
note of the Motivations of the
Actors and Entities may also be included in addition to noting the Parallels, Precedents and Trends relevant
to the system. Where the Logic Path comes to a major Branch Point/Critical Uncertainty it may be necessary to create a
separate scenario or mini-scenario.
Provided there is adequate feedback within a system,
then preparations can be made to deal with various outcomes, and early warning
of the unfolding of a specific scenario can be conveyed when certain Critical Events occur or Branch Points are
reached. These are the Early Indicators.
Where consensus is illusive concerning the nature of
Drivers, or the desirability or plausibility of a scenario, it may be prudent
to draw up parallel scenarios and highlight the Branch Points where it would be
possible to discount one or more Logic Paths. However, it is best to focus on
only four or five scenarios, but crucially these should cover the range of possible
outcomes (desirable to disastrous) rather
than just those deemed the most likely to occur. The most likely scenario
should be included as a base line. During the process, it is useful to note
what Assumptions have been made, the
Implications and the level of Certainty or Controversy concerning
Categorising drivers as Enablers or Inhibitors
of a Scenario helps in the development of the Logic Path, and, as far as
developing Action Plans are
concerned, will highlight whether action is needed to Mitigate or Capitalise
on a Driver’s impact on a system. This is especially true with Transformative Scenario Planning (TSP).
The key to TSP is to identify what a Desirable Scenario outcome is. Next it is
necessary to identify the Key Drivers required to construct a Logic Path and initiate
the Critical Events needed to attain that Desirable Scenario outcome.
Scenario Planning should be an ongoing process that
allows for frequent updating and reassessment so that Contingency Plans are more effective and Groupthink is avoided.
are many ways to set out the phases of a TSP process. Here is one:
the Facts, Factors, Entities and Actors that are the system Drivers;
SWOT Analysis of the Drivers;
Possibilities including the Assumptions made, and note the Implications of each
any Possibilities that are deemed Critical Events.
a range of Scenarios from desirable to disastrous;
out Logic Paths and note the Early Indicators/Branch Points for each Scenario.
Transformative Scenario Planning
each scenario, identify the Inhibitors and Enablers;
an Action Plan that steers the system away from undesirable scenarios and
towards a Desirable Outcome.
In his book Transformative
Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future, (2012 San Francisco,
Berrett-Koehler), Adam Kahane sets out five steps of the transformational process. These are:
Convene a team from across
the whole system;
Observe what is happening;
Construct stories about
what could happen;
Discover what can and must
Act to transform the
Please send an email to arkhonlowry[@]gmail.com if you would like to
find out more about establishing
Scenario Planning for a range of settings including political, diplomatic,
humanitarian, environmental, economic and business arenas. A Dynamic
Transformative Scenario Planning process can also be set up to enable the easy
and continuous review and updating of the process by subject-area experts and
stakeholders who may even be unavailable at the same time or in the same place.
undermines the efficacy of any government: ignorance of how best to determine an
optimal policy and how best to implement it. The risk of poor decisions
emanating from ignorance is greatly increased where issues of groupthink are
in a democracy, oligarchy, monarchy or even a theocracy is vulnerable to groupthink.
This includes the politically savvy and the religiously well-versed. To deny vulnerability
is to demonstrate vulnerability. Indeed, to anyone claiming there was once a
time of perfection – a golden age – to which we should aspire, then it may need
pointing out that the mere fact that imperfections are present today would suggest
vulnerabilities to groupthink in the past. To claim infallibility of a past or
present system of government is demonstrably delusional or dishonest. To claim
infallibility of a future system opens the way for groupthink dangers.
unquestioning belief in the morality of a cause leading to the disregard of the
consequences of actions;
direct pressure of conformity where questioning is seen as disloyal or
heretical to the group;
which, if not discouraged, will suppress ideas that might be seen to deviate
from a perceived group consensus;
illusion of unanimity where silence is interpreted as consent;
existence of mind guards who suppress dissenting and inconvenient information;
stereotyping of opponents as evil or stupid will misinform and misdirect
illusion of invulnerability that fosters misplaced optimism and risk taking;
collective rationalisation in which group members ignore warnings of failure.
Imagine two populations with similar problems and
opportunities. One population has a government that takes measures to avoid
groupthink, the other does not. Which government would you expect to be best
informed to make better judgments? Now consider any government, non-state actor
or individual of your choice and consider how effective they are at avoiding
the pitfalls of groupthink.
who claim to know the path to a better society, whilst stifling debate, rejecting
re-evaluations, discouraging inquiry and obstructing learning, are deceiving
themselves, and so too are those who only tolerate fashionable arguments.
Further reading: 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).
They each have virtues and vices…
Herodotus outlines the fundamental arguments at the
very core of governance in a discussion on the merits and shortcomings of
monarchy, oligarchy and democracy. In The
Histories (3.80-83) the eternal debate is
given voice from among the seven conspirators for the throne of the Persian
Empire in 522BCE.
Otanes argued for popular government. He said that
monarchy fosters the vices of envy and pride; it allows a ruler to do as he
pleases with little responsibility. Even the best men would be corrupted by
their own power, and would no longer perceive things as they used to. Worst of
all a monarch may abuse his citizens and break up the structures of law. In
contrast, the rule of the people avoids the problems of monarchs, it brings equality
under the law and enables open debate.
Megabyzus agreed with Otanes’s arguments against
monarchy, but warned that in transferring power to the people, that power would
be in the hands of the fickle, the irresponsible and the ignorant. Instead,
power should be given to the best men who would naturally produce the best
Darius agreed with Megabyzus’s criticisms of
democracy, but said that, in having a group of men competing for distinction
from within an oligarchy, rivalries would develop that would lead to violence
and civil war. Even in a democracy corrupt associations will develop. The
cliques of power in an oligarchy or democracy would only be broken when a
people’s champion comes forward and this person will be entrusted with absolute
power. And so it is, argued Darius, that the people’s freedom and best form of
government is ultimately derived from monarchy.
Darius won the debate, and it was agreed that the new
king would be whoever’s horse among the conspirators neighed first at dawn. Otanes
withdrew from the contest. Darius used the scent of a mare to encourage his
stallion to neigh; and so it was that the use of guile won power for Darius. A
reported flash of lighting from a clear sky was acknowledged as a divine sign
of approval. Nevertheless, the issues of effective governance remain.
Soon to be published: ARKHON is a fast-paced
thriller that follows the fate of a former mercenary who becomes entangled in
the overthrow of tyranny and the emergence of democracy in Ancient Athens.
portraying many real events and characters of the Ancient World, Arkhon explores
present-day issues that include political legitimacy, foreign intervention,
revenge, superstition and the manipulation of religion. The drama draws
directly from the tensions and discourse that developed around the Arab
uprisings of 2011-13.