The Group Effect

May 21, 2009 Leave a comment

I keep returning to the cover article of the New York Times Magazine of a few weeks ago entitled “Why Isn’t the Brain Green?” Other than being a fascinating piece on what might prevent people from getting into a more environmentally sustainable mindset (and therefore sustained sustainable behavior), it makes a very strong case for collaboration as a smart (and potentially species saving) decision-making process.

Author Jon Gertner has spent considerable time with behavioral economists, looking at the limits of individual decision-making when it comes to long-term trade-offs. For example, researchers at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University have pointed to the shortcomings of two different ways individuals process risk: (1) an analytical approach that seems to have less tolerance for delayed benefits and (2) an emotional approach that is restricted by one’s lack of experience with certain phenomena (such as rising sea levels). Both approaches disincline individuals from making choices that have short-term costs (reduced consumption, paying a carbon tax) but may ultimately be better for the planet. Hence, say some decision scientists, the tragedy of the commons – the overgrazing of land, the depletion of fisheries, the amassing of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Just when Gertner is ready to say, “We’re screwed,” he points to other research that suggests that an answer to our individual failings on the front of risk assessment may lie in our associational tendencies and community-based intelligence. For instance, Michel Handgraaf has conducted studies in Amsterdam that show that when people make decisions as a group, their conversations gravitate more to considerations of “we” and delayed benefits. Similarly, anthropologist Ben Orlove at UC-Davis has studied farmers in Uganda and observed that when they listened to rainy season radio broadcasts in groups, rather than as individuals, they engaged in discussions that led to consensus decisions that made better use of forecasts – collectively altering planting dates or using more drought resistant seeds.

In other words, it may behoove us all to collaborate more, and with a twist. Evidence suggests that it is best to begin thinking through decisions in groups, rather than weighing them as individuals and then coming together. This just might get us more quickly to the “group effect,” to a collective identity and ability to think and act long-term. As Jon Gertner puts it, “What if the information for decisions, especially environmental ones, is first considered in a group setting before members take it up individually?”

What if? Why not? How to? What say you?

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  • Linda says:

    I’m totally intrigued! Wondering, for instance, what the role of “issue power” is in this. Studies of issue power show that the initial framing has HUGE impact on decisions groups make. In viewing medation and group decision-making process as storytelling processes, for example, Sara Cobb, Janet Rifkin and colleagues have shown that it is absolutely critical for individuals to develop their own stories prior to group meetings – otherwise, whatever is put out as the initial framing of the issue tends to be privileged and “colonizes” later stories told. The initial framing narrows and defines the direction of the conversation to come. So I’m trying to make sense of these very different views. Would a more complex version be that it’s critical for individuals to come to the conversation with their own stories developed about the situation – but without having narrowed to a future story/decison. Is THAT – the development of a shared future story – the part best left to the group?

  • Gibran says:

    Linda – I’m wondering if the fact that people don’t stick around for conversations that they can’t connect to, might be a very simple way to look at “issue power” – if the issue doesn’t stick, it’s not that people are dumb, it’s that we have not succeeded at making the connections.

    Curtis – at the risk of romanticizing our Native American predecessors, I could not help but think about their decision making tradition, it’s collective nature and their willingness to take the time and really go deep on an issue. I think part of our problem is wanting to have these conversations in a 2hr. meeting.

  • Linda says:

    Great question Gibran. Issue power is all about the power to determine what the conversation is about – who defines the questions/discussion topic. So my understanding of the research is that that original exercise of power is very significant. That seems to me huge in thinking about how the conversation itself is framed, as that can have huge impact on what comes out of it. A koan, perhaps. There is always a first story that’s told – I’m just suggesting that the first story has been found to be extremely significant.

    And I have a lot of resonance with your comments about the impact of wanting to have conversations so quickly!

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