Monday, March 19, 2007

Input of Contrasting Views Improves Decisions

Read "What the Bard and Lear Can Tell a Leader About Yes Men" by Shankar Vedantam, The Washington Post, March 19, 2007.

"Psychological experiments show that nearly everyone is susceptible to the lure of ignoring criticism....Kings, presidents and CEOs get to decide who surrounds them and what they will hear. Even those leaders who invite critics into their circle may not hear contrary views because the bravest of employees can find it difficult to tell their bosses things they do not wish to hear."
Social psychologists have long studied what happens to groups that exclude contrarian viewpoints, and in the 1970s Irving Janis first coined the term "groupthink" to describe the phenomenon. Two decades later, Philip Tetlock, a professor of organizational behavior and political science at the University of California at Berkeley, analyzed decisions around crucial moments in history, such as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler, John F. Kennedy's Bay of Pigs invasion, Richard Nixon's efforts to cover up Watergate, and Lyndon Johnson's escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Tetlock found that leaders who encouraged dissent were more likely to make the right calls compared with those who discouraged dissent. But he found that leaders who welcomed contrary points of view were not guaranteed success -- Jimmy Carter's botched attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran being one example.
Comment: It is hard to listen to contrary opinions, but it seems something that we should all do. The person with the contrasting opinion can do his/her best to present it unemotionally. Similarly, the group can be open to differing opinions. As the article points out, it can be useful in decision making to insist that a number of realistic alternatives be presented with pros and cons.

It seems hard for a U.S. administration to do this. It has only a limited number of people it can appoint to lead the huge bureaucracy in the directions it chooses, and it is hard to include dissidents in that small band.

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