Idiocy by Committee

If groups are so wise, why are committees so moronic?
by | November 1, 2010 AT 12:00 PM

In 2004, James Surowiecki had a bestselling book entitled The Wisdom of Crowds. In it, he argued that tapping into the wisdom of groups was a great way to determine how to proceed in a wide variety of social situations, including thorny public policy questions.

But if groups are so wise, why are committees so moronic? We all know that while anyone can make a mistake, it takes a committee to really screw things up.

Have you ever been trying to cross a busy street with three or four other people? It can turn into a horror show. Someone starts to cross, and then stops; the group lurches out behind them, and then lurches to a stop, turning a routine event into a mini-disaster. The context generates poorer decisions when people try it as a group than if they were to go it alone.

It isn't just your imagination. As Surowiecki notes, while under the right conditions groups can generate wise decisions, a group can produce outcomes worse than any individual might be expected to make in other cases. The context of collective deliberations turns out to be critical to good decision making.

So what makes for group wisdom?

Consider a 10-person committee given the task of guessing how many jelly beans are in a big jar on the table. One approach to collective decision-making would be for the group to work together to reach consensus on their best guess. Another approach would be for each person to generate an estimate independently, then to average all the estimates.

Surowiecki might argue, and experience bears out, that while both approaches have merit, the second method is more likely to yield an estimate closer to the truth. In committees, there can be a tendency for the strongest personalities to exert great influence on the group's thinking. The second method taps into each member's intelligence and their unique experience.

Often in government, a collaborative approach is used to make decisions -- often with great consequences. Small committees decided whether we should launch the invasion at the Bay of Pigs and depose Saddam in Iraq. In both cases, rather than independent thinking, a form of "group think" prevailed in which dissenting voices were discounted, social pressures to conform took over, disconfirming evidence was overlooked and poor decisions were made with serious consequences.

The decision you are making needn't be so portentous. A government committee might come together to decide where the new senior center should go, or whether it makes sense to extend a light rail line, or whether to allow skateboarding at the local park.

Whatever decision you need to make, there are some basic techniques to ensure that the group benefits from all its members, rather than stumbling into group think:

  1. Diverse group members. Diversity here doesn't refer to ethnicity but to a broader diversity of experience. An engineer doesn't think the same way as a lawyer, and a nurse doesn't think like an accountant. A 21-year old might look at things differently than a retiree. The more diversity, the richer the group's deliberations.
  2. Limit the experts. A group of experts won't necessarily lead to a better decision -- in fact, it may make things worse. Experts are typically schooled in the same way of thinking, privy to the same set of facts, predisposed to share certain unexamined assumptions. This similarity robs a group of its wisdom.
  3. Create a group of equals. Don't let the boss participate. If the group determines that the head honcho wants answer X, it will find a way to arrive at X. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy made a point to absent himself from deliberations during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  4. Appoint a "Devil's Advocate." Once a consensus is reached, assign one or two people to articulate reasons why the agreed upon approach is a disaster waiting to happen. Social norms often encourage group members to avoid conflict, and giving people permission to be critical frees individuals from this constraint.
  5. In If We Can Put a Man on the Moon, Bill Eggers and I argue that Web 2.0 technologies now allow committees to cost-effectively expand the idea pool by capturing input from customers, frontline workers and other interested citizens. Experts and amateurs alike can offer insights the committee might not come up with on their own.