The Not-So-Mystifying Power of Groupthink and Habits

My friend, Greg, recently sent me this excellent and troubling Nate Silver article, “There Really Was A Liberal Media Bubble,” on the 2016 presidential election. Silver references James Surowiecki’s book, The Wisdom of Crowds and suggests that political journalists fail the first three of Surowiecki’s four conditions for wise crowds.

  1. Diversity of opinion (fail)
  2. Independence (fail)
  3. Decentralization (fail)
  4. Aggregation (succeed)

Many of Silver’s points hit very close to home, not just because I believe very strongly in the importance of a strong, independent media, but because improving our collective wisdom is my business, and many fields I work with — including my own — suffer from these exact same problems.

On diversity, for example, Silver points out that newsrooms are not only not diverse along race, gender, or political lines, but in how people think:

Although it’s harder to measure, I’d also argue that there’s a lack of diversity when it comes to skill sets and methods of thinking in political journalism. Publications such as Buzzfeed or (the now defunct) get a lot of shade from traditional journalists when they do things that challenge conventional journalistic paradigms. But a lot of traditional journalistic practices are done by rote or out of habit, such as routinely granting anonymity to staffers to discuss campaign strategy even when there isn’t much journalistic merit in it. Meanwhile, speaking from personal experience, I’ve found the reception of “data journalists” by traditional journalists to be unfriendly, although there have been exceptions.

On independence, Silver describes how the way journalism is practiced — particularly in this social media age — ends up acting as a massive echo chamber:

Crowds can be wise when people do a lot of thinking for themselves before coming together to exchange their views. But since at least the days of “The Boys on the Bus,” political journalism has suffered from a pack mentality. Events such as conventions and debates literally gather thousands of journalists together in the same room; attend one of these events, and you can almost smell the conventional wisdom being manufactured in real time. (Consider how a consensus formed that Romney won the first debate in 2012 when it had barely even started, for instance.) Social media — Twitter in particular — can amplify these information cascades, with a single tweet receiving hundreds of thousands of impressions and shaping the way entire issues are framed. As a result, it can be largely arbitrary which storylines gain traction and which ones don’t. What seems like a multiplicity of perspectives might just be one or two, duplicated many times over.

Of the three conditions where political journalism falls short, Silver thinks that independence may be the best starting point for improvement:

In some ways the best hope for a short-term fix might come from an attitudinal adjustment: Journalists should recalibrate themselves to be more skeptical of the consensus of their peers. That’s because a position that seems to have deep backing from the evidence may really just be a reflection from the echo chamber. You should be looking toward how much evidence there is for a particular position as opposed to how many people hold that position: Having 20 independent pieces of evidence that mostly point in the same direction might indeed reflect a powerful consensus, while having 20 like-minded people citing the same warmed-over evidence is much less powerful. Obviously this can be taken too far and in most fields, it’s foolish (and annoying) to constantly doubt the market or consensus view. But in a case like politics where the conventional wisdom can congeal so quickly — and yet has so often been wrong — a certain amount of contrarianism can go a long way.

Maybe he’s right. All I know is that “attitudinal adjustments” — shifting mindsets — is really hard. I was reminded of this by this article about Paul DePodesta and the ongoing challenge to get professional sports teams to take data seriously.

Basis of what DePodesta and Browns are attempting not new. Majority of NFL teams begrudgingly use analytics without fully embracing concept. Besides scouting and drafting, teams employ analytics to weigh trades, allot practice time, call plays (example: evolving mindset regarding fourth downs) and manage clock. What will differentiate DePodesta and Cleveland is extent to which Browns use data science to influence decision-making. DePodesta would like decisions to be informed by 60 percent data, 40 percent scouting. Present-day NFL is more 70 percent scouting and 30 percent data. DePodesta won’t just ponder scouts’ performance but question their very existence. Will likewise flip burden of proof on all football processes, models and systems. Objective data regarding, say, a player’s size and his performance metrics — example: Defensive ends must have arm length of at least 33 inches — will dictate decision-making. Football staff will then have to produce overwhelming subjective argument to overrule or disprove analytics. “It’s usually the other way around,” states member of AFC team’s analytics staff.

On the one hand, it’s incredible that this is still an issue in professional sports, 14 years after Moneyball was first published and several championships were won by analytics-driven franchises (including two “cursed” franchises, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, both led by data nerd Theo Epstein).

On the other hand, it’s a vivid reminder of how hard habits and groupthink are to break, even in a field where the incentives to be smarter than everyone else come in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars. If it’s this hard to shift mindsets in professional sports, I don’t even want to imagine how long it might take in journalism. It’s definitely helping me recalibrate my perspective about the mindsets I’m trying to shift in my own field.

The Fractal Nature of Large-Scale Collaboration

Collaboration is a meta-discipline. It is usually the means, not the end. You don’t collaborate for collaboration’s sake; you collaborate to accomplish some bounded goal. Making the means the end is tricky business. When you eliminate the context, it’s easy to shift from thoughtful practice to ivory tower jibber jabber and suffer the consequences of Professionalization. All communities and networks centered around meta-disciplines are vulnerable to this, including Blue Oxen Associates. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is my foremost challenge as a social entrepreneur and as a scholar-practitioner.    (M65)

Being meta also has its benefits, however. Over the past few years, I have been helping more and more groups with the conundrum of being a top-down, command-and-control organization in a heavily network-centric world. Sometimes, this takes the form of coaching, where I talk the organization through principles and provide encouragement through what can be a painful and frustrating process. My approach is to tap into the existing organizational instinct and experience as much as possible while challenging assumptions by identifying and asking deep, underlying questions.    (M66)

Other times, it takes the form of designing a convening. These convenings play the same role as my coaching does, except it accelerates Shared Understanding among the stakeholders and it leverages Wisdom of Crowds.    (M67)

Here’s where the meta-ness of the collaboration business becomes useful. The act of co-designing a highly interactive convening, then experiencing it first-hand is a smaller-scale representation of the steps an organization would go through to transform itself into something more network-oriented and collaborative. Even though these convenings are smaller than the large-scale challenges that these organizations face, the principles are the same, whether you’re dealing with 20 or 20,000 people.    (M68)

These convenings are never meta. They are always about something concrete that is directly relevant to the organization.    (M69)

They start with the principle that everyone has different worldviews, but shares strong values. They facilitate interactivity, artifact generation, and continuous resynthesis of knowledge.    (M6A)

They don’t try to control participants. Instead, they let the right path emerge. They allow subgroups to form, to be creative, and to explore their own ideas and interests, without losing The Red Thread of the network as a whole.    (M6B)

By helping organizations design, then experience these convenings, I am indirectly helping them understand how to transform their organization in an experiential way. That’s a direct result of both the fractal nature of large-scale collaboration and the meta-ness of being in the collaboration business.    (M6C)

Banana Hoarding Update

Several people contributed some excellent solutions to the Banana Hoarding Problem I mentioned earlier this month. The question was how to prevent people from hoarding bananas at works. Solutions included:    (M03)

Marielle Binken wrote in last week with these excellent suggestions:    (M08)

In addition to the idea to tag the banana’s with an RFID, I suggest the banana’s start to whistle if they’re opened one day after the last banana delivered disappeared.    (M09)

The now publicly-known whistling illegal banana-owners have to make paper out of the banana-slice and make an art-work on the recycled banana-paper with e.g. the subject, “Why monkeys eat bananas and people collect them.” Each month the favourite art-work will be sold on eBay (unique collectors item), and the money raised with it will be given to some foundations… like the one related to the guy who proposed in Davos to develop long-term holding bananas without cooling needs. 🙂    (M0A)

What did I tell you? Wisdom of Crowds.    (M0B)

The Banana Hoarding Problem

I spent a good portion of this weekend listening to (and laughing at) my friends, Andrew and Elene, who are having a little problem at work. They both work at a large Silicon Valley company that has fresh fruit delivered each week — apples, oranges, and green bananas. Each week, the bananas disappear right away. Why? Because people hoard a week’s worth of bananas at their cubicles, rather than taking only what they’re going to eat right away.    (LXI)

What should my friends do? Here were some answers I and others came up with:    (LXJ)

  • They should hoard bananas for themselves.    (LXK)
  • They should take bananas from one of the hoarders.    (LXL)
  • They should bring their own bananas.    (LXM)
  • The company should order more bananas.    (LXN)
  • The company should appoint a banana distribution manager.    (LXO)
  • They should hoard all the bananas themselves, and become the de facto banana distribution managers.    (LXP)
  • The company should hire an old person to stand in the kitchen at all times, a la Wal-Mart. This will shame people from hoarding.    (LXQ)
  • They should poison one bunch of bananas, then put up a sign saying that one bunch is poisoned without indicating which one.    (LXR)

What would you do? Blog (and link here) or tell me your answers.    (LXS)

Not only was it incredibly funny to see how dismayed my friends were (what can I say, I’m a sadist?), but it was actually interesting to think through the problem. It’s a real-life instance of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a classic cooperation (but not necessarily collaboration) problem.    (LXT)

At the St. Louis Collaboratory workshop last October, we spent the day working on the Iterated Prisoners Dilemma, appropriate since the workshop was held in a former police station. It was fascinating to watch people work through the problem. I’ve been sitting on a pile of notes about it for months now, and this latest real-world dilemma may motivate me to sort through them and blog about it.    (LXU)

Update    (LY4)

Clearly, the Banana Hoarding Problem is more widespread than I originally thought, as the empathy and some possible solutions are already starting to come in. Once again, we see the Wisdom of Crowds at work (or not).    (LY5)

Keep your answers coming!    (LY8)

Folksonomy Taxonomy Philosophy

I love playing The Book of Questions types of games with friends and colleagues, but when it comes to answering those types of questions myself, I’m a terrible waffler. When I play these games with my friend, Steph, she often complains scornfully, “You’re such a ‘P’.” “P” refers to the “Perceiving” Myers-Briggs personality type, which refers to folks who are highly context-sensitive (also known as “wafflers”).    (LNM)

Suffice it to say, I hate truisms (except for that one). You could even call me a “philosophical relativist,” which according to Elaine Peterson, would make me a fan of folksonomies. Also true. And in a metaphysical twist that will drive the less philosophically-inclined (and Steph) crazy, if you were to ask me if folksonomies were better than taxonomies, I would respond, “That’s not a valid question.” Folksonomies and taxonomies are not quite apples and oranges, but they’re not apples and apples either. Debating the two is intellectually interesting, but it obscures the real opportunity, which is understanding how the two could potentially augment each other.    (LNN)

The impetus for this little outburst is Gavin Clabaugh‘s recent piece on folksonomies. Gavin (who cites Peterson’s essay) argues that taxonomies are better for finding information than folksonomies. Do I agree with that? It depends. Clay Shirky outlined some situations when taxonomies are better for search and vice-versa in his excellent essay, “Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags”.    (LNO)

What troubles me about the claim at all is that it highlights a distinction that I find to be misleading. In Elaine Peterson‘s essay, “Beneath the Metadata: Some Philosophical Problems with Folksonomy,” the main problem she cites has to do with philosophical relativism. Folksonomies allow it; traditional classification does not.    (LNP)

What is philosophical relativism? If I show you a picture of a mono-colored object, is it possible for that object to be both black and white? If you answered yes, you’re a philosophical relativist.    (LNQ)

On the surface, “philosophical relativist” might sound like another term for “dumb as hell.” But, what if the picture was of a person? And what if that person had an African-American father and a Caucasian mother? Now is it possible to classify this photo as both “black” and “white”?    (LNR)

Language is highly context-sensitive. Philosophical relativists acknowledge this. Believe it or not, so do librarians and traditional taxonomists. A taxonomy attempts to make classification more useful by restricting the scope to a single context. If you happen to be operating within that context, then this works great. There are plenty of situations when this is the case (Gavin cites the medical community, which is a great example), but there are also plenty of situations when it’s not.    (LNS)

Folksonomies allow for multiple contexts, but that does not make them inherently less useful than taxonomies. As Clay points out in his essay, in practice, there’s a long tail of tags applied to different concepts. If something is tagged “black” by 98 people and “white” by two, you can be pretty sure that the object in question is “black.” Scale essentially transforms a folksonomy into a taxonomy with a little bit of noise that can easily be filtered out (if desired).    (LNT)

Frankly, I think the concern is less about whether taxonomies are inherently better than folksonomies and more about whether so-called experts should have a role in constructing taxonomies. Gavin also alludes to this, when he describes a conversation with two friends in a San Francisco coffee shop. (I don’t want to out those friends, but I will say that one of them runs a company named after the faithful companion of a certain oversized lumberjack from American folklore. I will also say that Gavin is an outstanding tea companion, and that we’re working on a project that has very little to do with folksonomies, but that will make the world a much better place regardless.)    (LNU)

Gavin’s friends suggested that folksonomies were a great way of collaboratively developing a taxonomy. Gavin partially agreed, but expressed some doubt, stating:    (LNV)

Rather than the wisdom of a crowd, I’d recommend the wisdom of a few experts within that crowd. In the end you’d end up with a more accurate and useful taxonomy, with half of the wasted bandwidth, and in probably a tenth of the time.    (LNW)

I can actually think of many situations where I would agree with this. One is Pandora, the music recommendation service built on top of the Music Genome Project. The Music Genome Project is a formal ontology for classifying music developed by 50 musician-analysts over seven years. By all accounts, the service is extraordinarily good. Chris Allen sang its praises to me at the last WikiWednesday, and it was all the rage at the original Bar Camp.    (LNX)

But having experts involved doesn’t preclude using a folksonomy to develop a taxonomy. Is a folksonomy developed by a small group of experts any less of a folksonomy?    (LNY)

In 2002, Kay-Yut Chen, Leslie Fine, and Bernardo Huberman developed a prediction market using Wisdom of Crowds techniques for financial forecasting of a division of HP. The market was 40 percent more accurate than the company’s official forecast. The catch? The people playing the market were the same people doing the official forecast. The difference was not in who was doing the predicting; the difference was in the process.    (LNZ)

I’m a historian by background. I have a great appreciation for the lessons of the past, which is reflected in my patterns-based approach towards improving collaboration. Five years ago, I reviewed Elaine Svenonius‘s wonderful book, The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization, where I wrote:    (LO0)

Fortunately, a small segment of our population, librarians, has been dealing with the problem of information organization since 2000 B.C. Who better to turn to in our time of need than people with thousands of years of accumulated expertise and experience?    (LO1)

There is a tremendous amount of past knowledge that I’m afraid is being passed off as trite and irrelevant, when in fact it is even more relevant today. How many people building tagging systems know about Faceted Classification? How many of these developers know of Doug Lenat‘s brilliant research on Cyc, or that a huge subset of the Cyc ontology is open source? On the flip side, how many librarians and ontologists are needlessly dismissing folksonomies as not as good, and hence irrelevant?    (LO2)

Philosophical debates over taxonomy and folksonomy are exactly that: philosophy. I love philosophy. I enjoyed Peterson’s essay, and I’d recommend it to others. Curiously enough, David Weinberger, one of folksonomy’s foremost evangelists, is also a philosopher by background. (Read his response to Peterson’s essay.)    (LO3)

However, philosophy sometimes obscures reality, or worse yet, opportunity. We should be focusing our efforts on understanding how taxonomies and folksonomies can augment each other, not on picking sides.    (LO4)