Recently I wrote about and recommended the book The Big Sort. I'd like to write briefly here about something that I am not an expert on, but which I found very interesting in the book, that being sociology and the "tribe mentality" that Bill Bishop describes. I think there is something for small-town governments to learn here that goes beyond the immediate findings of the book.

On page 64, Bishop describes a social experiment conducted by Stanley Schachter. Instead of describing it in my own words, I'm just going to excerpt from the book (buy the book - it is a great read):

"In a 1951 study, Stanley Schachter divided students enrolled in economics classes at the University of Michigan into four groups, or clubs. There was a radio club, a theater club, a movie club, and so on. Each group had three undercover members planted b the research team. One of the undercover researchers read the story of Johnny Rocco, a juvenile delinquent awaiting a court sentence on a minor crime. The reader in each group asked the members what should be done with young Johnny. The clubs were required to apply a seven-point scale of punishment, ranging from something akin to hugs to hanging. The group members talked about Johnny for forty-five minutes. One of the other two undercover researchers was the "slider." the slider began the discussion at one extreme and gradually moved to what she perceived to be the middle of the group. The slider appeared to be convinced by the group's thinking. The third undercover researcher played the "deviant." The deviant determined which way the group was leaning and then took the position at the other extreme, maintaining that opposing view throughout the discussion.

At the end of the debate, the club members were asked to make two other decisions in addition to punishment. First, they were to nominate members for an "executive committee" of clubs, clearly a position of honor. Second, they were told that the size of their club might need to be reduced. To help weed out members, they were asked to rank their preference for who should remain in the group. The deviant didn't fare well in these decisions. He wasn't picked for the executive committee and was consistently ranked low on the list of who should remain in the group. (Meanwhile, the slider was fully accepted by the group). In all of the groups, however, rejection began long before any lists were made. As the deviant revealed himself in the discussion, group members gradually excluded him from the conversation. Eventually, they stopped talking to him altogether, effectively turning him into a nonperson. Schachter devised the test so that two of the four groups were made up of like-minded people. (Students who had a strong interest in movies or radio were placed in the same groups.) All of the groups excluded the deviant, but the more homogeneous groups were more intent on excluding the deviant than were the groups made up of a mix of students. The like-minded groups were quicker to stop talking to the person with the contrary opinion and rated him lower on the preference list for club membership."

So in short - group members tend to like those that agree with them, even if that agreement is a conversion and not their initial belief. Groups members tend to dislike and exclude those that do not agree with them. We all perhaps inately understand this and have been part of this on one side or the other before, probably beginning in junior high. 

When instead of a chess club we starting talking about a planning commission or some other official government committee, this becomes a phenomenon that can have a great impact on a small town. In small towns, most committee or board members are volunteers. They are not compensated well, if at all, and their positions are frequently advisory with little real power or opportunity for power. They are critical to the process, however, so their continued participation often rests on the comradery they have with their fellow members. We have seen cities and towns go as far as to let commissions pick their own members and, as one would expect from this story, they inevitably pick someone like-minded.

This brings me to a second experiment explained in the book, beginning on page 66.

"In 1961, a graduate student named James Stoner asked subjects in an experiment to consider the prospects of George, a competent chess player who has the misfortune of drawing a top-ranked player in a tournament's early round. The game begins, and George sees an opportunity to attempt a risky play that could bring quick victory. If ti failed, however, it would result in certain defeat. the subjects were then asked if George should attempt the risky play if there was a 10 percent chance of success, a 20 percent chance of success, and so on. The subjects decided individually at what odds George should try the maneuver. They were then asked to discuss as a group what George should do and arrive at a joint decision. What Stoner found - and what other researchers around the world would also find in subsequent experiments - was that the group always made a riskier recommendation than the average of the individual decisions. If, for example, the average of the individual judgements was that George should try the play if there was a 30% chance of success, the group would agree that George should take the risk if it paid off only 20% of the time.

The consistent finding in this experiment is known as the "risky shift phenomenon," and as a piece of social psychological research, it was both provocative and deceptive. When the experiment was repeated in different ways and in different countries, researchers notice a kink in the risky shift. In the chess game situation, most people thought the overmatched George should take a risk. But what if the hypothetical game was played from the point of view of the chess champion? In this scenario, individuals in the group leaned toward a restrained approach, and the group decision was more conservative than the average of the individual answers. Although the group decision still shifted from the average, in this case it became more risk averse.

Social psychologists concluded by the end of the 1960s that what Stoner had discovered in his chess tournament experiment was the phenomenon of group polarization - that groups over time become more extreme in the direction of the average opinion of individual group members. Stoner's chess tournament advisors were inclined as individuals toward a risky play, and so their group decision was even riskier. In a different setting, where individuals were cautious, the group arrived at an even more cautious decision. Either way, the effect of discussion was to push the group and the individuals toward the extreme."

So, first we have groups that naturally trend towards being homogeneous or, at the very least, preferring the input and interaction of those who think similarly to those who have an opposing viewpoint. Now we have the concept of group-polarization; the notion that our homogeneous groups actually become more extreme in their views while acting as a group.

For small towns, which can be fairly homogeneous in thought to begin with, these two conclusions have radical implications. 

  • Do our boards and commissions of well-intentioned volunteers, some of which even choose their own members, evolve over time to be nearly singular in thought and thus more narrow-minded than they should be?
  • Does the makeup of our commissions lead to inadequate consideration of dissenting opinions and alternative approaches, some of which might be better in the long run?
  • Are common beliefs in a community, especially where widely held, being reinforced to the extreme in planning commissions and boards?
  • Is there a way to offset or counterbalance this effect? 

I believe that one of the hallmarks of good planning is the ability (which implies a willingness) to consider many different approaches to a given situation. In small towns, where we rely on volunteers to sacrifice their time to plan for the future with little or now compensation and often little real power, we inevitably face the challenges outlined in these two experiments. I believe our planning is often compromised as a result.

While we can't fight human nature entirely, we can counterbalance the impact to a degree with a few simple steps. 

  1. Get your planning commission and committee members good training. They almost all want to "do the right thing". Getting them exposed to more ways to do planning is one way to expand their vision.
  2. Nominate people with diverse opinions and backgrounds for these positions. elected bodies should not let the commissions recruit and choose their own members but should appoint with the intent of having varying viewpoints, especially if the commission makes recommendations.
  3. Use professionals to advise the appointed boards and commissions. A good professional is trained in many different approaches and can provide counterpoints if given the security and mandate to do so.
  4. Utilize terms limits. I hate it when my most-thoughtful commission members are term-limited off, but that is mitigated by having a fresh perspective routinely brought to the table.

Thank you again to Bill Bishop.  I highly recommend that all readers of buy the book and read it.