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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Dissent: Spark of Deliberative Democracy

I just finished reading Cass R. Sunstein's Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge. (The book is an extension of an academic yet accessible paper Sunstein wrote for the NYU Law Review.) Basic thesis: group deliberation doesn't always produce good answers. We form project teams, committees, juries, legislatures, etc., because we believe as Aristotle did that different people hold different pieces of knowledge and opinions that deliberation will bring together into the most complete and correct explanation or plan or verdict possible. Sometimes, though, the pressures we feel in a group to go along with the leader or the popular opinion prevent us from contributing the different pieces of knowledge and opinions we hold. Going along to get along (or to just not look stupid in front of everyone else) can lead to really bad group decisions (Sunstein cites the Challenger disaster in 1986 and the CIA's threat assessment of Iraq in 2002–03; for another example, step back and take a hard look at your next team meeting at work.)

Sunstein doesn't say we should pitch democratic deliberation and install a philosopher king (put that application down, David Bergan). Rather, we need to be keenly aware of the pressures that stifle the sharing of information and ideas in group settings and consciously counter them. One way to do that: vigorous dissent. Every group needs at least one person who is willing to disagree with what might look like the majority opinion. Says Sunstein [p. 67]:

People are much more willing to say what they know if other dissenters are present and if a principle of equality is widely accepted within the group.

Dissent and disagreement produce better decisions, even in the midst of urgent, dangerous situations. Sunstein points to the 1948 book Administrative Reflections from World War II, in which Luther Gulick maintained that the United States outperformed the Axis powers in part due to our democratic decision-making processes. The Axis dictators lived in information cocoons, hearing only what they wanted to hear (tends to happen when advisors are afraid they'll be shot or sent to the Eastern Front if they challenge the F├╝hrer). FDR still had to deal with public scrutiny and criticism. FDR also liked to draw out conflicting views by privately leading his advisors to believe he agreed with them, thus encouraging them to more fully develop and defend their conflicting ideas, which then contributed to better deliberative synthesis.

Whether we're working at the university, a corporate office, or the White House (note to Obama: break the info cocoon; keep the Blackberry!), we may need a "fundamental definition" of teamwork:

Frequently, a team player is thought to be someone who does not respect the group's consensus. But it would be possible, and a lot better, to understand team players as those who increase the likelihood that the team will be right—if necessary, by disrupting the conventional wisdom [Sunstein, p. 201].

Sometimes the best thing you can do for your team is to argue against it. Sometimes being contrary is your civic duty.

You're welcome.

1 comment:

  1. So was Linda Hilde or the crowd backing Jim Thompson the voice of dissent this morning?


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