The dangers of deliberation: suppressing rather than amplifying hidden knowledge
Continuing yesterday’s theme, Cass Sunstein’s “Infotopia” provides a remarkable example of the things that can go wrong when groups collaborate. From an experiment in simulated elections:
Information was parceled out to group members about three candidates for political office; if the information had been properly pooled, the group would have selected Candidate A, who was clearly the best choice. The experiment involved two conditions. In the first condition, each member of the four-person group was given most of the relevant information (66 percent of the information about each candidate). In that condition, 67 percent of the group members favored Candidate A before discussion, and 85 percent after discussion…
In the second condition, by contrast, the information that favored Candidate A was parceled out to various members of the group, rather than shared by all. As this condition was designed, the shared information favoured the two unambiguously inferior candidates, B and C. If the unshared information emerged through discussion and was taken seriously, Candidate A would be chosen.
In that condition, fewer than 25 percent of group members favored Candidate A before discussions, a natural product of the initial distribution of information. But (and this is the key result) the number of people favoring Candidate A actually fell after discussion, simply because the shared information had disproportionate influence on group members. In other words, groups did worse, not better, than individuals when the key information was not initially shared by group members. The commonly held information was far more influential than the unshared information, to the detriment of the group’s ultimate decision.
Sunstein gives many similar examples where groups behave worse than individuals; all failures of collective cognition. Of course, the examples are of limited import, because he’s talking about groups using rather unstructured processes. With good facilitation, good process, or simply good tools, many of these collective cognitive biases can likely be avoided.