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.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Is a 'strong' leader desirable? - III

 “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”  -  John F. Kennedy

I came across an account of another experiment in Nudge in which the task was a bit more difficult than in Asch's experiment. Here people were kept in a dark room and a pinpoint of light was placed some way in front of them. The light was actually stationary but appeared to move because of an effect called the autokinetic effect. The people were then asked to estimate the distance the light has moved.

When asked individually, the answers varied significantly, which was not surprising since the light was stationary and the answers were random guesses. But when people were formed into groups and asked to give their answers in public, there were big conformity effects. The individual estimates converged to a group norm and over time this norm proved sticky and the individuals in a group were strongly committed to their group norm.

In some experiments, a confederate was planted unbeknownst to the other members of the group. This confederate could nudge the group estimate if he spoke confidently and firmly. If the confederate's assessment was much higher than the group norm, the group estimate was inflated and if the confederate's estimate was very low, the group's estimate would fall. Thus consistent and unwavering people, whether in the public or private sector, can move people in their preferred direction.

What is even more interesting is that the group's judgments became thoroughly internalized so that people would stick to them even when they were reporting on their own or when participating in other groups that gave different judgments. The initial judgement also had effects across 'generations'.Even when the group members changed and the person who was originally responsible for the decision was long gone, the judgement tended to stick. Different types of experiments have been conducted to determine conformity effects. The authors write:
Consider the following finding. People were asked, 'Which one of the following do you feel is the most important problem facing our country today?' Five alternatives were offered: economic recession, educational facilities, subversive activities, mental health and crime and corruption. Asked privately, a mere 12 percent chose subversive activities. But when exposed to an apparent group consensus unanimously selecting that option, 48 percent of people made the same choice!
In a similar finding, people were asked to consider this statement: 'Free speech being a privilege rather than a right, it is proper for a society to suspend free speech when it feels threatened.'Asked this question individually, only 19 percent of the control group agreed, but confronted with the shared opinion of only four others, 58 percent of people agreed. The results are closely connected with one of Asch's underlying interests, which was to understand how Nazism had been possible. Asch believed that 'conformity could produce a very persistent nudge, ultimately generating behaviour...that might seem unthinkable'.

As a species, we seem to be predisposed towards believing that the most confident are also the most knowledgeable.Decisive, aggressive, confident, assertive, strong, etc are adjectives to be viewed with caution when used to describe political leaders. A political candidate who 'looks Presidential' or 'looks Prime-Ministerial' will get votes irrespective of his level of knowledge.

Election time is about making tall promises and bringing large crowds who will cheer at the proper prompts. Colourless, boring politicians are safer than flamboyant ones. (See talk by Prof Apurvanand on 3Ds: Demagogues, Demigods and Democracy.The talk is in Hindi.) As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in The Black Swan:
Alas, one cannot assert authority by accepting one's own fallibility. Simply, people need to be blinded by knowledge - we are made to follow leaders who can gather people together because the advantages of being in groups  trump the disadvantages of being alone.  It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one.  Those who have followed the assertive idiot rather than the introspective wise person have passed us some of their genes.  This is apparent from a social pathology: psychopaths rally followers.