The diversity trade-off

Is diversity in groups and teams an absolute good?

Earlier this week Sir Ivan Rogers, the British ambassador to the European Union, resigned over a lingering conflict with the government around the approach to the imminent departure of the UK from the EU – Brexit. This led to what can rightly be referred to as mixed reactions, which highlight an important element of group dynamics, and reveal a nuance that is not always fully recognized.

Remain-leaning folk thought the departure of Sir Ivan – a seasoned civil servant with bags of experience in the European corridors who had been sceptical about the UK’s government lack of preparation for the Brexit negotiations, and who had estimated that a trade deal with the other EU countries might take ten years – was a small disaster. Leavers, on the contrary, almost invariably rejoiced at the resignation, pointing out the diplomat’s Europhile leanings, his alleged willingness to take no for an answer (during David Cameron’s negotiation for a ‘better deal’ a year ago), and above all his lack of belief in the cause. And John Rentoul, a journalist at the Independent, probably best reflected the voice of the nation when he tweeted:


It is fair to say that few people would have heard of Sir Ivan Rogers before his resignation hit the headlines, and even fewer before he made his comments about the likely duration of comprehensive trade negotiations. But that does not necessarily say anything about the significance of the disappearance of a key person in the Brexit process that is slated to be started before the end of March.

A detrimental cocktail

It is interesting to note the different characteristics of the ambassador on which the opposing camps in the debate choose to focus. Remainers refer to his competence and experience, and assert that he is right to point out the complexity of the negotiations. Leavers state that he’s the wrong person because he dissents.

Nobody suggests he might be the right person precisely because he dissents, as if a dissenting voice is a bad thing. If Sir Ivan were indeed actually opposed to Brexit, would his resignation improve the chances of a good Brexit deal?

People have a tendency to look for evidence that supports what they already believe to be true – this is known as the confirmation bias. In a group this bias risks being amplified further, in a phenomenon known as groupthink, which combines confirmation bias with social proof into a potentially detrimental cocktail.

The pressure to conform to a group was first demonstrated by the experiments of pioneering 20th-century social psychologist Solomon Asch, including this elevator case study (conducted in conjunction with the 1962 Candid Camera television show):

This followed an earlier experiment (introduced here by Philip Zimbardo, another famous social psychologist) in which Ash asked people to judge which of three lines had the same length as one shown as the standard – but only after a bunch of confederates had all given the same, but clearly wrong, answer. A significant number of the subjects simply went along with the group: they didn’t challenge the others or state their contrary opinion, and gave the same answer as the others, against their better judgement.

The elevator candid camera clip shows that groupthink can lead to amusing outcomes, but it is not always as innocent, particularly when it occurs in politics and business. If the members of a government, a military staff or a company board share similar aversion of risk or negativity bias, groupthink may prevent them from pursuing opportunities, for example. But groupthink does its worst when it leads a team to develop a sense of invulnerability, which can lead to seriously bad results – Wikipedia lists, among others, the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and the failed globalization strategies of Marks & Spencer and British Airways.

Hail the dissenter

Asch himself discovered that, while people are quick to spot what others do and to align with it, they can also easily be prevented from doing so.  In The Wisdom of Crowds James Surowiecki’s describes a variant of the line experiment, in which a contrary confederate is introduced. Such an unwitting ally “was enough to make a huge difference. Having even one other person in the group who felt as they did made the subjects happy to announce their thoughts, and the rate of conformity plummeted.”


Are you still sure A is the correct answer?

As Surowiecki points out, this experiment shows how diversity is not just useful because it adds different perspectives to the group, but also because it makes it easier for individuals to say what they really think. Diversity helps preserve independence of thought of the members in a group, and so “it’s hard to have a collectively wise group without it”.

But in situations where ideology and even dogma play a prominent role (such as around Brexit), achieving diversity is particularly difficult, because decision-making can be subject to another distortion. When the mood becomes polarized, so does the thinking, and that leads to the perception that those who are not wholeheartedly with you are against you. Excluding neutral people then leads to even less diversity when it comes to the composition of a team.

A difficult trade-off

Asch’s experiment showed how introducing a dissenting voice can greatly reduce the detrimental effect of the conformity bias in a group of people – but it did so in a controlled, laboratory situation. Reality tends to be a lot messier.

Dissent can have a paralysing effect as well: continuous challenging of proposed policies or decisions can lead to deadlock and indecisiveness. Should a group member be selected only on the basis of their contrary belief and their capacity to dissent? Or should their competence and experience also play a role? And how do you then weigh up these different characteristics? What if – as in the case of Theresa May’s Brexit team – you also need to take account of a wider political landscape, in which the composition of the team determines its credibility in the eyes of the people whose support you will need?

Diversity is not a free add-on: it comes at a cost. And that means that there is a difficult trade-off to be made. Time will tell whether the right trade-off has been made to ensure the UK’s Brexit team has the level of diversity needed to deliver the promised “best possible deal”.

About koenfucius

Wisdom or koenfusion? Maybe the difference is not that big.
This entry was posted in Behavioural economics, Cognitive biases and fallacies and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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