. . . Tuesday September 21, 2004

Running, Ruling and Reason

In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki argues a large groups of diverse people of varying intellect will usually come up with a better decision than a small group of really smart, homogeneous individuals. In one section of the book, he compared the wisdom of the crowd to what is now commonly known as groupthink. In groupthink, a relatively small number of individuals find themselves caught up in some psychic momentum and agreeing on a position while blocking or ignoring incoming data that may in fact call that decision into question.

In one example, Surowiecki describes how groupthink led the Kennedy administration to a series of decisions related to the Bay of Pigs that made sense to them, but that were being constantly questioned and disputed by those not in the small group (who were therefore ignored).

I see a strong correlation between Surowiecki’s description of the wisdom of crowds vs the limitations of groupthink at work in this election. And as it turns out neither form of decision-making proves to be right all of the time.

The Bush administration basically prides itself on groupthink. They often ignore boatloads of differing opinions and they are almost always convinced that a small group of insiders knows what’s best in every situation. Their certainty over the invasion of Iraq is a perfect example. Many military and regional experts argued that the U.S. would need hundreds of thousands of additional troops for the aftermath of major combat and that a strong insurgency was much more likely than a floral welcome. Those outside opinions (not necessarily outside of the administration, but outside of a small number of decision-makers who had on some level agreed to agree) were ignored. We now know that the opposing and more commonly held views were mostly right and that taking in and incorporating more data would’ve saved lives.

Contrast this with the Clinton style. Clinton was famous for bringing in a series of experts and taking bits of information from different sources and different disciplines as he moved towards a final decision on a topic.

The Kerry campaign could be accused of depending too heavily on the wisdom of crowds. The Senator has gone through an incredible array of advisors and he is still struggling to develop a clear and concise message. Kerry finds himself regularly charged with taking advice from too many people and not telling voters where he stands. And because Democrats tend towards the wisdom of crowds and away from centralized groupthink, there is no shortage of them who have a word or two (or two-thousand) of advice for how Kerry can get things back on track.

The Bush team, on the contrary, is run by a more tightly knit selection of group thinkers. Most of their candidates buy into the decisions made by the group thinkers and therefore they have a consistent message. Bush criticizes Kerry on something. John Thune criticizes his opponent Tom Daschle for essentially the same thing. The message may not be fair or right. But it is consistent.

The Bush administration has made terrible mistakes in governing because of centralized groupthink. But that same groupthink (and the associated party-wide buy-in) has enabled their candidates to stick to a narrow set of messages and just keep hammering away, day after day.

And there’s the rub. It turns out the groupthink may be a better way to run. But it’s also a lousy way to rule.

Concentration is important!