Tuesday 18 March 2014

#BiasBingo – Let’s Play (Oh, we are already!)

This is a DRAFT posting – interim comments most welcome

The lack of awareness that Cognitive Biases and Groupthink impair judgement and decision making capabilities is a shameful part of modern political, diplomatic, moral and religious discourse.
We are surrounded by biased opinions and we can – each and every one of us – be guilty of holding them without realising. Listening to or engaging in a debate on religion, a civil war, an independence referendum, a business plan or whatever, is an infuriating process when genuinely held beliefs contradict each other. To deal with this, we must do proportionately more to challenge the conditions that produce biased beliefs, rather than challenge the actual beliefs themselves.

It has often been said that there is more than one truth to a narrative. However, some individuals or organisations blatantly ignore or unjustifiably belittle narratives that do not concur with their own agenda. In consequence, assertions from stances that lack any empathy with others tend to lead on to heated discourse at best, or violent conflict at worst.

While it may often be more appropriate to counter the logical fallacies of an argument, it is the ignoring of Cognitive Biases or Groupthink conditions that paves the way either for never-ending clashes of partisan dogmas, or for the emergence of false consensuses that conceal the risks of failure. This omission does not aid the achievement of desirable long-term outcomes.  While I make no claims to be a psychology expert, I believe there are widespread benefits to raising awareness of Cognitive Biases and Groupthink, and in making use of this awareness so as to better understand root causes of differences, and to manage expectations in dealing with the issues arising.
If you want to undermine a dogmatic stance, then it is worth recognising how a head-on, argumentative confrontation seems more likely to result in intransigent hostility than a change of opinion. Would it not be better to challenge the processes that have produced prejudice or entrenched doctrines?

Raising awareness can be achieved by employing the lexicon of biases in discussions; challenging ourselves to be less vulnerable to biases than others; and then – only then – exposing our antagonists’ vulnerabilities to these same biases.
Throw down the gauntlet. Rather than saying: “I’m right – you’re wrong”; or “I speak the truth – you lie”; or even: “I am good – you are evil”, you might say: “I believe I am more likely to be right than you are because my measures to cope with bias are better than yours, but if you think otherwise: prove it.” This is certainly not a pithy style of argument, but if the alternative is a vociferous exchange of entrenched assertions and counter-assertions, then it might be preferable. Moreover, it should help expose the narrow-minded for what they are, and undermine those who wish to participate in untenable blame-games or those who manipulate public debate with the distorted arguments of a propaganda machine. And with any luck, it should improve the rationality of one’s own arguments.

So here are some Groupthink symptoms to be wary of:

1.      The unquestioning belief in the morality of a cause leading to the disregard of the consequences of actions;
2.      The direct pressure of conformity where questioning is seen as disloyal or heretical to the group;

3.      Self-censorship which, if not discouraged, will suppress ideas that might be seen to deviate from a perceived group consensus;

4.      The illusion of unanimity where silence is interpreted as consent;

5.      The existence of mind guards who suppress dissenting and inconvenient information;

6.      The stereotyping of opponents as evil or stupid will misinform and misdirect decision-making;

7.      The illusion of invulnerability that fosters misplaced optimism and risk taking;

8.      The collective rationalisation in which group members ignore warnings of failure.

And here are a selection of Cognitive Biases to be wary of:

1.      Confirmation bias – a tendency to seek information that confirms preconceptions but discounts contradicting information;

2.      Self-serving bias – a tendency to emphasise one’s own successes rather than failures;

3.      Belief bias – where logic is adversely affected by belief in a conclusion ;

4.      Halo effect – where perceptions of somebody’s capabilities or opinions are influenced by unconnected facts (celebrity status for example);

5.      Availability heuristic – a tendency to draw conclusions based on more memorable events whilst possibly overlooking more pertinent events;

6.      Bandwagon effect – a tendency to act as others around you do;

7.      Positive Expectation Bias – a tendency to believe things can only get better;

8.      Negativity Bias – whereby more attention is paid to bad news;

9.      Ingroup Bias – a tendency to overestimate the capabilities of one’s own group;

10.  Projection Bias – a tendency to think others think like you.

[A non-exhaustive list of biases can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_biases_in_judgement_and_decision_making]



So here is the idea: if you perceive an opinion that you genuinely believe is affected by conditions that encourage bias, point it out – helpfully and politely. The tag “#BiasBingo” with a little explanation would contribute to raising awareness of the issue across social media. We should also have the good grace to accept bias vulnerabilities being pointed out of ourselves.

Remember it is not a question of stating: “I’m right – you are wrong”. It is more a matter of: “Please reassure that your views are not unduly affected by Groupthink or Cognitive Biases.” If not: “Your argument/decision would be perceived as more credible if there was greater evidence that its vulnerability to the following Groupthink or Cognitive Biases were less…”

I would expect those people or organisations that are most vulnerable to bias to be those who are also the most riled by having it pointed out to them. However, this is not a scientifically-backed assertion and perhaps it is subject to my own biases – especially the Fundamental Attribution Error. It may also prove easier to point out the organisational and cultural conditions that foster Groupthink than trying to make verifiable accusations of Cognitive Biases.

So sit back and watch an election campaign, TV debate or whatever, and highlight those biases. Tweet a #BiasBingo message if you feel like it, or perhaps draw up a score card and see if you can beat your colleagues at spotting a full set of biases, a pair, four of a kind, whatever. You define the rules, but be fair and never ignore your own potential bias blind spots. Just get out there and raise awareness.

Further reading:

Dvorsky, G The 12 cognitive biases that prevent you from being rational http://io9.com/5974468/the-most-common-cognitive-biases-that-prevent-you-from-being-rational

Janis, Irving L. Victims of Groupthink, New York: Houghton Mifflin (1972); and Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, New York: Houghton Mifflin (1982).

Lubin, G 57 Cognitive Biases That Screw Up How We Think http://www.businessinsider.com/cognitive-biases-2013-8?op=1 

Taylor, Jim : Cognitive Biases v Common Sense http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/201107/cognitive-biases-vs-common-sense

Monday 3 March 2014

A Subversive Poem (Don’t Read This)

These are subversive words,
So I won’t tell you again:
Stop reading now
And put down your pen.
But you’re reading on:
You dare to defy;
You doubt my wisdom
And question me why.

I know I’m right
And you are wrong,
Though I won’t explain:
It would take too long.

I’m not being arrogant
Or dictatorial you know.
It’s just for the best
You stop reading and go.

Accept my superior insight:
There’s no need for debate,
But continued defiance
Will make me irate.

Have I upset you?
Oh, how can it be:
You think your opinion
Matters to me?
Now stop reading this.
It’s time to relent,
Obey my orders
And desist from dissent.

Don’t consider complaining:
I’ll ignore your views,
Suppress your rights
And freedom to choose.

Don’t dare discuss this:
You already offend;
And don’t think you win
By reaching the end.

Robert M. Lowry

Friday 7 February 2014

Al-Sisi: Egypt’s new Pharaoh or Caesar?

If William Shakespeare were following news of Egypt’s presidential machinations he might notice a familiar reticence to declare leadership of the people.

Egyptian Army chief of staff Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi reportedly told the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Siyasah that he “could not reject the demand” of the people that he should run for president. However, the military have claimed that Al-Sisi’s words were misrepresented in the 5 February report. Nevertheless, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has effectively given its public support to Al-Sisi’s undeclared candidacy amid calls that the “choice of the people” be heeded. SCAF promoted Al-Sisi to Field Marshall in January.

As Al-Arabiya News puts it “Despite his promise that the military does not seek to rule Egypt, he [Al-Sisi] seems primed to ascend to the position. If in power, his backers say his status as a national hero will help him rebuild the country.”

Maybe the history repeating itself is all Egyptian. Zahi Hawass, a former antiquities minister, told the 2 January Guardian newspaper that the upheavals mirror the century of chaos that preceded the accession of Mentuhotep II to the Egyptian throne in 2046BCE. "We need an elected officer – a strong man – to control the country. And in my opinion, Sisi is our only hope,” said Hawass. As pharaoh, Mentuhotep restored order to Egypt and Sisi is really Mentuhotep II."

Yet still some might hope Al-Sisi could be a Kleisthenes figure. Kleisthenes of late 6th century BCE Athens did not want his city state to revert to the bad old ways of political chaos. He won over the people by offering citizen rights to the masses – giving equality before the law, and importantly he weakened the power of factionalism that stifled progress. “Thus Athens went from strength to strength, and proved, if proof were needed, how noble a thing equality before the law is, not in one respect only, but in all,” wrote the father of history, Herodotus [The Histories (V:78)]

But if Al-Sisi does follow Caesar’s lead, who’s up for Mark Antony’s role? Former Luxor governor Major General Samir Farag, and former Assistant Secretary of Defence for Finance and Administration, Major General Mahmoud Nasr will be running Al-Sisi’s presidential campaign according to some reports.

Anyway, here are a couple of extracts from Act I Scene 2 of WillIiam Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

Flourish, and shout

What means this shouting? I do fear, the people choose Caesar for their king.

Ay, do you fear it? Then must I think you would not have it so.

I would not, Cassius; yet I love him well. But wherefore do you hold me here so long? What is it that you would impart to me? If it be aught toward the general good, Set honour in one eye and death i' the other, and I will look on both indifferently, for let the gods so speed me as I love the name of honour more than I fear death.

Was the crown offered him thrice?

Ay, marry, was't, and he put it by thrice, every time gentler than other, and at every putting-by mine honest neighbours shouted.

Who offered him the crown?

Why, Antony.

Tell us the manner of it, gentle Casca.

I can as well be hanged as tell the manner of it: it was mere foolery; I did not mark it. I saw Mark Antony offer him a crown; yet 'twas not a crown neither, 'twas one of these coronets; and, as I told you, he put it by once: but, for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it. Then he offered it to him again; then he put it by again: but, to my thinking, he was very loath to lay his fingers off it. And then he offered it the third time; he put it the third time by: and still as he refused it, the rabblement hooted and clapped their chapped hands and threw up their sweaty night-caps and uttered such a deal of stinking breath because Caesar refused the crown that it had almost choked Caesar; for he swounded and fell down at it: and for mine own part, I durst not laugh, for fear of opening my lips and receiving the bad air.


Further information:


Wednesday 29 January 2014

Scenario Planning: Managing the Future

When countries or companies fall apart, you often want to ask: why have unfolding events come as such a nasty surprise? Or if these weren’t a surprise, then why were attempts to mitigate the ill-effects so inadequate? Political processes, diplomatic projects or commercial ventures that do not include preparations for diverse possible scenario outcomes are at far greater risk of failure than those that do.

Was ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak surprised or merely ill-prepared when he lost power? In Damascus, did Bashar Al-Assad make too many assumptions about his regime’s authority, or was Syria’s civil war inconceivable to him? Did either president have any competent contingency plans for the smooth transition of power? After all, no one lives forever.
For captains of industry to presidents of countries, effective planning for the future is essential, but it is often constrained by Groupthink [see http://arkhonlowry.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/governance-and-groupthink.html]. Adopting Scenario Planning procedures can help to overcome this as well as improve the prospects of managing complex possible futures.

Honest and open discussions are of paramount importance for Scenario Planning to be effective. Political and business arrangements or cultures that do not enable open debate cannot expect full potentials to be attained, and may be incapable of recognising impending disasters in sufficient time to respond effectively.
At the core of the Scenario Planning process is a brainstorming SWOT Analysis of the Key Facts and Factors, as well as the Actors and Entities involved in a Scenario. These are the Drivers of the system. Categorising the Drivers’ influence on the system as strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, helps identify various Possibilities within the narrative of a Logic Path that makes up a route map of a potential scenario. A note of the Motivations of the Actors and Entities may also be included in addition to noting the Parallels, Precedents and Trends relevant to the system. Where the Logic Path comes to a major Branch Point/Critical Uncertainty it may be necessary to create a separate scenario or mini-scenario.

Provided there is adequate feedback within a system, then preparations can be made to deal with various outcomes, and early warning of the unfolding of a specific scenario can be conveyed when certain Critical Events occur or Branch Points are reached. These are the Early Indicators.
Where consensus is illusive concerning the nature of Drivers, or the desirability or plausibility of a scenario, it may be prudent to draw up parallel scenarios and highlight the Branch Points where it would be possible to discount one or more Logic Paths. However, it is best to focus on only four or five scenarios, but crucially these should cover the range of possible outcomes (desirable to disastrous) rather than just those deemed the most likely to occur. The most likely scenario should be included as a base line. During the process, it is useful to note what Assumptions have been made, the Implications and the level of Certainty or Controversy concerning them.

Categorising drivers as Enablers or Inhibitors of a Scenario helps in the development of the Logic Path, and, as far as developing Action Plans are concerned, will highlight whether action is needed to Mitigate or Capitalise on a Driver’s impact on a system. This is especially true with Transformative Scenario Planning (TSP). The key to TSP is to identify what a Desirable Scenario outcome is. Next it is necessary to identify the Key Drivers required to construct a Logic Path and initiate the Critical Events needed to attain that Desirable Scenario outcome.
Scenario Planning should be an ongoing process that allows for frequent updating and reassessment so that Contingency Plans are more effective and Groupthink is avoided.

There are many ways to set out the phases of a TSP process. Here is one:


·         Identify the Facts, Factors, Entities and Actors that are the system Drivers;

·         Undertake SWOT Analysis of the Drivers;

·         Identify Possibilities including the Assumptions made, and note the Implications of each possibility;

·         Highlight any Possibilities that are deemed Critical Events.


Scenario Development

·         Identify a range of Scenarios from desirable to disastrous;

·         Set out Logic Paths and note the Early Indicators/Branch Points for each Scenario.           


Transformative Scenario Planning

·         For each scenario, identify the Inhibitors and Enablers;

·         Develop an Action Plan that steers the system away from undesirable scenarios and towards a Desirable Outcome.

In his book Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future, (2012 San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler), Adam Kahane sets out five steps of the transformational process. These are:
·         Convene a team from across the whole system;
·         Observe what is happening;
·         Construct stories about what could happen;
·         Discover what can and must be done;
·         Act to transform the system.

Please send an email to arkhonlowry[@]gmail.com if you would like to find out more about establishing Scenario Planning for a range of settings including political, diplomatic, humanitarian, environmental, economic and business arenas. A Dynamic Transformative Scenario Planning process can also be set up to enable the easy and continuous review and updating of the process by subject-area experts and stakeholders who may even be unavailable at the same time or in the same place.