Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The problems of conformity

In The Invisible Gorilla, there is an analysis of why the tiny nation of Georgia provoked a war with its big neighbor Russia over two provinces whose rebels were being helped by Russia. Georgia's leaders actually believed that they would quickly defeat the second largest army in the world. In the conflict that followed, they were overwhelmed by Russia in one week of fighting. How did they get this overconfidence?

Mikhail Sakashvili was elected president of Georgia in 2004 when he was only 36. He stocked the government with his loyalists who were also in their thirties and lacked military experience but agreed with him about containing Russian activities in the rebel provinces. Thus many like-minded people could 'take a set of opinions that none of them held with great confidence individually and aggregate them, by deliberating among themselves and reinforcing one another's public statements, into a high-confidence conclusion'.

The authors describe an experiment which shows confidence in groups. They gave 700 people true/false trivia tests.As usual, people thought they knew more than they did, having an average of 70% confidence in their answers while they actually averaged only 54% correct answers. Then 3 different types of 2-person groups were formed - groups with 2 high-confidence members, groups with 2 low-confidence members and groups with  1 high- and 1 low- confidence member.

You will think that groups will be more accurate and suffer less from the illusion of confidence. But the results showed that groups had similar results as individuals but they had become more confident. Confidence had increased most for groups with two low confidence people. This experiment showed how in the case of Georgia, though the decision-makers may not have been individually confident, when in a group 'their confidence could have inflated to the point where what were actually risky, uncertain actions seemed highly likely to succeed.'

One of the authors once asked a US government official about how they made group decisions. The agent said that the members went around the room, each giving his or her opinion, in descending order of seniority.The authors write:
Imagine the false sense of consensus and confidence that cascades through a group when one person after another confirms the boss's original guess...The very process of putting individuals together to deliberate before they reach a conclusion almost guarantees that the group's decision will not be the product of independent opinions and contributions. Instead, it will be influenced by group dynamics, personality conflicts, and other social factors that have little to do with who knows what, and why they know it.
Till some years back, I had tended to agree with the conventional view that it is good to have a strong, stable government at the centre with a comfortable majority. But now I think a coalition government with its pulls and pressures, threats and sulks is better, especially in a diverse country like India. It may look chaotic but prevents build-up of pressure for long periods. Like in a pressure cooker, it is better to let off steam at regular intervals.

There was an attempted coup recently in Turkey which was thankfully put down by the civilian government. But then, quite predictably, the more dangerous course has been adopted. There have been large-scale purges and like-minded people have been appointed in various positions. But, as Karl Popper points out in The Poverty of Historicism, '...this attempt to exercise power over minds must destroy the last possibility of finding out what people really think.' So one shouldn't be surprised if something unexpected crops up somewhere down the line.

There is a story about Socrates where he is told that he is the wisest man in Athens to which he responds that it is not true because he doesn’t know many things. He then goes around the city interviewing people and finds that he is indeed the wisest man – he at least knew that he didn’t know many things; the others didn’t even know this.

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