On Philosophy

November 5, 2007

Thinking Alike

Filed under: Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

Some claim that there is a certain wisdom in crowds, that a group of people can make better decisions than individuals. In an ideal situation this is true, if we take each person in isolation from the rest and average their judgments then we will, in many cases, arrive at better answers than any particular member of the group would provide (assuming the topic isn’t too technical). But such ideal situations are a rare occurrence, usually the people involved interact and share their opinions on the matter under consideration. And from there things are all downhill. Because most people are not perfectly rational judges, and derive their opinions not from the evidence but from the opinions of other people. This means that the opinions of a group of people will tend to drift towards a common point of view, or, alternatively, the group will end up divided into two polar opposites, each doing their best to keep their intellectual distance from the other. And, unfortunately, the mechanisms driving this convergence of opinion do not drive it towards the average or best opinion, but can arrive at virtually any opinion within the range, driven by factors that are essentially random. Of course this tendency to think alike isn’t always a bad thing, we depend on it for the existence of society, because new members of the society end up thinking like the existing members, and so the social order is preserved throughout generations. Even our ability to communicate, to use words in essentially the same way, can be attributed to our tendency to think alike. But, while it may be practically useful, our natural indication to mimic each other’s opinions is a great impediment to rational thought and discussion (almost as much as cognitive dissonance and our unconscious disposition to adjust our beliefs to as to preserve those we would most like to be true in the face of contradictions or evidence against them).

Obviously thinking alike could be a problem when searching for the truth. But we don’t pursue the truth, in general, by depending on the consensus. Although the consensus is often right every improvement necessarily contradicts that consensus. And so someone who is trying to construct better theories proceeds at least initially by ignoring the opinions of everyone else. The actual problems stemming from thinking alike are thus practical ones (given that we don’t allow our professional judgment to be distorted by it). What is the point of thinking out loud, for example, if everyone is thinking the same way? Are we to simply voice our opinions and have everyone nod in response? What is the point of discussing an issue if everyone agrees? What is there even to discuss? Obviously then any public forum for debate and discussion can be undermined by thinking alike, because the tendency to think alike undermines the very point of these public discussions. If we are all in agreement, or shout down anyone who disagrees, then we might as well not even get together. And yet it is in these very settings that groupthink (thinking alike) is most likely to emerge.

Such public forums for discussion are all over the internet (Slashdot, reddit, digg, and so on), and they all suffer from groupthink to some extent. Naturally then we will want to know how to overcome this problem, and ensure that such sites don’t dissolve into self-congratulatory back patting. But first allow me to say a bit about the psychology behind this phenomenon. One of the reasons that groupthink even exists is because we care, to some extent, about the opinions of other people and how they compare to our own. But why should we, why should I care if you think that numbers are objects or if the mind is non-physical? Being wrong isn’t hurting you, because such opinions have few immediately practical consequences. The reason we care, I suspect, is because we tend to identify with the group, we consider the group to be a reflection of ourselves, or part of ourselves, on some unconscious level. And thus when your expressed opinions and those of the group contradict each other it creates a kind of tension, the same kind of tension that exists when we find that our own opinions are in contradiction. Because we dislike this tension we attempt to remove the contradiction, either by attempting to change the opinions of the group, modifying our own opinion so that it better agrees with the group’s, or separating ourselves from the group. Obviously all three alternatives lead to thinking alike, changing your own opinion or the group’s opinion leads them to converge, and distancing yourself also leads to the group having more homogeneous opinions since you, the dissenter, are no longer among them.

With that digression behind us we can proceed to the real task, considering how to overcome this problem so that we are able to have genuinely interesting discussions in a public forum, in this case specifically the internet. As I see it there are two ways in which internet sites tend to encourage groupthink. One is simply by the nature of the way contributing to the debate works: people post comments which all end up presented to the viewer in some way (such as in a tree, where comments are displayed by putting comments in response to some comment in a visual grouping with that comment). The problem is that each comment is like a person speaking. And if everyone can post comments this creates the effect of everyone shouting at once, specifically in that it allows a few dissenting voices to essentially be drowned out by mass agreement. The other problem is voting systems, in which comments deemed “good” are pushed to the top in some way, while those deemed bad are obscured. Such systems are well-intentioned, and meant to bury simply the comments that don’t contribute to the discussion, but they have a tendency to simply end up reflecting the will of the group, with disagreement voted into oblivion.

Let me first turn my attention to the problematic nature of allowing everyone to post comments. As I have already mentioned a flood of agreeing voices can simply drown out dissenting ones. More importantly, a flood of people telling the dissenters why they are wrong can simply discourage them from contributing. If the only benefit of voicing an unpopular opinion is simply to have a number of other people, more than you can possibly respond to, jump up and tell you how you are completely wrong, what is the point of speaking up? Such situations result in only those who simply want to aggravate other people (trolls) speaking up, and those who would rather have their opinions receive an open-minded treatment, or who don’t want to engage in constant verbal battles, simply fall silent. This is, in fact, one of the reasons I don’t allow comments on this blog anymore, a torrent of disagreement, which is what you will get if you make any assertion that isn’t completely bland, simply wasn’t useful. Fixing this problem is a difficult task, because we clearly can’t prevent people from voicing their minds, because that would defeat the point of having a public discussion in the first place. One way to improve things might be to limit the number of responses to any particular comment, in order to ensure that there are only so many contradictory points of view voiced. Or, if we are uncomfortable with such limits, we might instead reward posters of comments that receive numerous responses, so even though such comments might end up effectively “shouted down” the author of them is at least rewarded in some way for their effort, which possibly will motivate them to continue offering controversial opinions. In fact such rewards might go hand in hand with a properly designed voting system, discussed below, such that responses automatically end up giving the comment they are responding to a number of positive votes (since obviously if it is worth responding to it is worth something).

So let us turn then to voting systems. Ideally voting systems are supposed to push the most interesting comments to the top and bury spam and other time-wasters. The problem with voting is, first, that people will tend to use it to expresses whether they agree or disagree with the expressed opinion, and that simply encourages groupthink. And, secondly, exposing such scores aggravates groupthink by giving an additional indicator, in addition to comments, about what the group approves and disapproves of, and how strongly the group as a whole has that opinion. That is exactly the kind of information we don’t want influencing people. One solution to this problem, implemented on the Slashdot website, is to give a positive or a negative vote an explicit meaning and, most importantly, make it clear that negative votes do not indicate disagreement to those voting. Obviously this doesn’t prevent people from abusing the voting system, but it discourages them somewhat. And Slashdot further improves upon this by handing out votes only occasionally and in small numbers, so that those who do have the ability to vote see it as a kind of responsibility, not to be misused. But still, the system isn’t perfect. Comments rated well tend to receive more votes simply because of their higher rating, while some good comments can languish unnoticed with a low score. Perhaps a better solution is simply to hide the vote scores, and use that information to simply determine how the comments are displayed, thus achieving the purported benefit of votes, to filter out spam and nonsense, without distorting peoples’ opinions. But, on the other hand, this prevents us from using votes as a reward for posts that encourage replies (well, we would still want to take it into account so that they don’t end up hidden, but it doesn’t reward the author), although we might be able to find some other way to give them kudos (such as karma).

Perhaps the very best way to avoid groupthink is, however, to change our own attitudes. When it comes to a discussion perhaps the best way to disagree is simply to be silent, and, if we feel we must, to offer opposed points of view not in response, but on their own. Obviously this is not the way to proceed in matters where people’s beliefs really matter, such as when deciding on public policy. But in a discussion what does it matter if other people don’t share the same opinion as you? And even if you feel that it does matter telling them that they are wrong is highly unlikely to change their minds, so you might as well stop trying (people tend to change their own minds, it is rare that they are changed by others).

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