Born Standing Up and Talking Back

In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business
Charlan Nemeth

A Fortune 500 CEO who repeatedly voiced his desire to entertain a wide range of thinking once publicly clarified that position for me. Skepticism, he averred, is good. It shows your mind is working.  Just don’t make a habit of it.

I’m pretty sure Charlan Nemeth would find at least half that proposition preposterous.

At least that’s what I think after reading this book. Dr. Nemeth is the researcher who, among other things, demonstrated that the most productive way to brainstorm in a group  is to allow dispute and criticism.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Nemeth is a social psychologist who teaches and conducts her research at UC Berkeley, home of one of the finest social sciences department in the country. Work like Nemeth’s goes a long way toward explaining why. This short book (just over 200 pages) does a great job of summarizing decades of research in condensed form.

As an academic discipline, social psychology seems to generate resistance in a way that other social sciences don’t. No one, though, ought to object. Most, if not all, of the literature deals with group or interpersonal dynamics. And  we’ve all been in a group and interacted with others, right?

Ten men make a minyan and twelve men make a jury. At least this time, men literally applies to both.

I suspect it’s the experiments that rankle.

I mean, a replicable finding is  one thing. A replicable finding that cuts too close to home and includes oneself, well that’ s a bit less welcome. Derive that finding from an experiment that is methodologically sound and includes a control group and a single manipulation, well, now you’re looking for a fight. Because you manipulated people and, well, they’re just not like that.

Except that they probably are.

Dr. Nemeth’s particular interest is in the group dynamics of decision-making. It’s an area she was drawn to when she started working on the  decisions made by juries. If you think about it, a jury already resembles an experimental protocol. Just consider the alternative arguments, a prescribed number of participants and a binary outcome.

In her own words, Nemeth ” …realized that I was less interested in who “won” than in the quality of the decisions reached by juries.” (p. 13) The skeptical have a lot to pick at with just that sentence.  After all, what exactly is the quality of a jury decision and how is it measured?

In Twelve Angry Men the lone dissenter plays the critical role.

But she’s on to something and her research bears it out. Over the course of the book she references many of the experiments and protocols used to derive her findings. While these could be deadly dull she avoids that trap (you can track down the papers from the notes if you care to) rendering them energetically as what they are: detective stories about human behavior.

It’s best to let the professor speak for herself about the dynamics of groups. If you don’t read the book at least remember these two key sentences:

“Group processes, by and large,  conspire to suppress the very diversity of viewpoints that we seek.  … By their nature groups move in the direction of consensus.”

“What all groups have in common is that they either start with relative homogeneity of opinion or they manage to create it.” .

(both p. 146)

It’s enough to send me scurrying to my room to bone up on my Pascal.

Those findings also fly in the face of a lot of widely-held contemporary beliefs. They certainly don’t suggest there’s any inherent wisdom present in a crowd. And they also undermine a lot of business literature and education. In one telling vignette, a professor at HBS , after attending a presentation of this material, tells Nemeth she’s changing all her executive education materials immediately.

Push dissent, let alone skepticism, too far and don’t be surprised if this is the response.

To which I respond, great, and what about the legions you’ve sent forth over the past decades believing the opposite? The same holds for rock star business writers. Jim Collins may have evolved his stance on decision-making, but there are still 3 million or so copies of “Good to Great” floating around promoting consensus.

Nemeth makes both those observations without asking my near-rhetorical question. Even I think it’s almost unfair to include Collins for criticism; his popularity seems inversely proportional to any extant notion of applying scholarship or rigor. Yet I have also been told endlessly, from that CEO we met in the first sentence to notable faculty to recent graduates of the nation’s top engineering schools, that nothing good can happen without consensus across large organizations.

Balderdash. That’s how we get rules like every idea in a brainstorming session is equally good. When that premise was subjected to experimental proof by Nemeth and her colleagues it fell apart. The groups generating the largest quantity of useful, insightful ideas were always the ones that built dissent into the ground rules. Try selling that in Lake Wobegone (or the HR department).

Nemeth isn’t blind to this. She states, repeatedly, that dissent makes people uncomfortable–or worse, drives dislike which strikes me as the form discomfiture takes in a group.

That’s understandable. Criticism often feels personal, even to dissenters. It also carries a price: dissenters who find themselves in situations where consensus is a primary value can find themselves cut out, cut off and, quite possibly, discharged. It’s a lonely place.

A better decision should be the goal we seek.

Nemeth also questions the efficacy of the current cure-all for improving decision-making: a Benettonlike commitment to diversity. As she puts it, “Many people…want a mechanism that will clone the stimulating effects of dissent, but without the conflict or dislike between team members that dissent engenders.” (p. 180)

She demonstrates the flaw in this thinking using the Cabinets of the last two Presidents. Each a well-constructed mosaic of the US population, their internal cohesion is what matters. Or, as Nemeth says, diversity of group affiliation is not the same as diversity of opinion, and it’s the latter that matters if the goal is making better decisions.

I only have one criticism of this book and it’s the non-experimental/non-academic examples scattered throughout. Using the familiar to introduce new concepts is a time-honored teaching strategy. It’s just that her examples–the especially apt 12 Angry Men front and center–are all from the 20th century.  Younger readers just might not relate to Sidney Lumet and OJ Simpson.

You can see why a book with a title like this one’s appeals to me. To use the more polite Wall Street term, I am naturally a contrarian. I learn by challenging–myself, my colleagues, my teachers, the smartest person in the room. But that’s not everybody’s style and it’s not always welcome.

So you need not join this crusade. But you may want to read this book and consider anew how you think about dissent and dissenters.

 

 

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She’s Leaving Home

The Awakening
Kate Chopin

My ongoing dialog  with the Tao te Ching has convinced me of one thing: the universe sends us messages and we’d be foolish not to listen.

Consequently, when a hardcover edition of Kate Chopin‘s most celebrated work fell into my hands soon after I’d terminally misplaced my just-set-aside-for-a moment Continue reading

It’s Written in the Stars

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
Neil de Grasse Tyson

A long time ago, in a high school not so far away, I toyed with the idea of joining. So, despite my demonstrated lack of athletic and social ability, I tried some sports and clubs.

One of those clubs seemed perfect for a nerd like me. The Astrophysics Club met on Friday nights and got to Continue reading

Sharif Don’t Like It

The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror
Bernard Lewis

It isn’t always easy, amid all this demonizing, to remember there was a time when the world east of the Bosporus beckoned.

Even though the charges of imperialism, cultural appropriation, and intolerance stand up to some scrutiny, you can’t deny the existence or effectiveness Continue reading

It’s Roundup Time

Reading Round the Web

If you’ve spent any time around here, and were prone to cataloging, you’d rightfully say this was a book blog. It’s true. My first love was books.

But I am not a complete Luddite. Like any other reader I spend a lot of time online.

So today I’m sharing some things I’ve read there recently. They’re mostly longer form. Continue reading

That Ain’t no Ghost

Reading in the Dark
Seamus Deane

Some years back I worked with a woman who hailed from Mississippi. A talented engineer who would tackle advanced math the way you might the dishes, she was also a walking encyclopedia of regional folkways. Among these was the delightful phrase, “Haints is real y’all.”

I’ve a lot of sympathy for that belief. Continue reading

The Milk and Honey Done Run Out

Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell

Why, I wonder, in reading a book set in early 20th century London and Paris,  did I find my mind wandering ever closer to home and New York during the same era?

I’m always the first to point out that reading helps me connect things otherwise unconnected. So what I was Continue reading

We Need a Holiday: A Six Pack and Playlist

Memorial Day 2018

I always start from the premise that it’s important to remember why we even have a holiday called Memorial Day.

So, as I’ve been doing for decades now, I’ll turn out early on Monday to watch the parade and remember that our freedoms Continue reading

Living Through Another Cuba

The Cuban Affair
Nelson DeMille

While I’m fighting the urge to begin with a lament, I might be better off with a trite observation: there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.

I may, in fact, have established that I should limit myself Continue reading

An Island so Remote

The Crofter and the Laird
John McPhee

As I look across the room at a shelf half-filled with John McPhee titles, I wonder how I managed to go this long without talking about him.

It’s not as though the man or his work are unknown. Some years back a  copywriter who commuted from Princeton told me many of her neighbors considered the long Continue reading

A Little Bit of History

History of the United States of America
During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson
Henry Adams

In the midst of the 2016 US Presidential election I accidentally started a stupid fight.

For me, the issue was using the proper words to describe things. For my interlocutor, the issue was reinforcing her political position. Logical fallacies like the appeal to authority are hard to miss, but I dropped the matter when Continue reading

He Was the King

Albert King: An Appreciation

They called him the big man.

Standing in front of the stage at the original Lone Star Cafe, which may have been all of three and a half feet off the barroom floor, he appeared a giant. From the balcony that wrapped around the front and right hand side of Continue reading

Article I. Section 8.

Emphasis added:

“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States; Continue reading

Into the Great Wide Open

Into the Wild
Jon Krakauer

In almost perfectly backward fashion I have finally read the book after seeing the movie which I only did after the song got stuck in my head. No slave to directionality I.

This story, which turned Jon Krakauer from a niche journalist focused on mountaineering and the outdoors into a best-selling author, is now almost thirty years old. It may even be familiar in rough form: a young man, Continue reading

Ode to Joy

Easter/Passover 2018

As we celebrate two great feasts there seems no better time to remember the promise of the season:

Peace. Continue reading

Nosey Pokes’ll Peek

Miss Julia Stirs up Trouble
Ann B. Ross

Here’s a recipe for a literary car wreck: a book rooted in a regional setting and culture; an author who holds a PhD in English; and a heroine who is among the most unlikable characters I’ve ever encountered.

At times like these I really wish I’d been born with the Continue reading

He’s Obsessed with Order

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Mark Haddon

We readers spend an awful lot of time inside our own heads, don’tcha think? At least that seems to be the case for me, although I have long been loath to admit it.

When I’ve taken those typology batteries, you know, the ones like Myers-Briggs, the results almost always suggest that I prefer solitude. This book, now 15 years old, which Continue reading

Those Who Lead

“Presidential Leadership & The Separation of Powers”
Eric A. Posner
Daedalus, Summer 2016

Binary thinking irks me.

Just consider the state of political discourse in the US. One side advocates for restricting unwelcome speech and, at times, seems to think that only wholesale rebuilding of the American system into a parliamentary one will result in the desired, I’m tempted to say proper, Continue reading

And They’re Doing the Atomic Bomb

Radiant Angel
Nelson DeMille

It’s not everyday a prime example of publishing practice and authorial obsession drops into my lap. Maybe it’s just Long Island luck.

Our author is an old friend, reared in the same town as me. Nelson DeMille‘s books are my guilty pleasure and the most pleasurable ones are set on Long Island. Only a Continue reading

Enough is Enough

Columbine. Blacksburg. Newtown. Parkland.

The list, incomplete as it is, likely will go on.

We shouldn’t  accept that.

How have we gotten here? How do otherwise well-meaning people get so riled up that they feel compelled Continue reading

The Girl You Want

“What’s in a name?,” the Bard rightly asked.

It’s a question I’ve been pondering once again as I’ve become obsessed with another: Could pop music even exist without songs simply titled by a girl’s name?

There’s no reason they’re required, though. The number of songs about a generic girl dwarfs the Continue reading

Life is In a Spin

Passing
Nella Larsen

Fifteen or so years ago I found myself on Main Street in downtown Flushing, NY at midday. The sidewalks were filled with crowds, some jostling their way between errands, some in search of lunch.

It’s an experience I can recommend because Flushing, which in my childhood had Jewish and Italian enclaves, is nowadays more than 50% Asian. To be in a crowd and be Continue reading

Rat in a Drain Ditch

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Robert C. O’Brien, illustrations by Zena Bernstein

One of the great things about being a parent is revisiting the books you loved when you were a kid. I tell myself  I’m trying to decide whether a given title is age appropriate, but that’s just a rationalization.

The truth is, it’s a blast.

There are plenty of book that cross our threshold bearing Continue reading

Nobody Wants to Hear Him

Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It
Richard V. Reeves

You would think, by now, that I’d have learned my lesson . Should I really be surprised when, upon close reading, an author turns out to be engaged in the great game of careerism?

Last July, in writing about a David Brooks column, I mentioned the book pictured nearby, promising to get to Continue reading

In the Largest State of the Union

Tracks Across Alaska: A Dog Sled Journey
Alastair Scott

Obsessive is not a word I typically use to describe myself. Mrs. AHC, though, has been known to voice the belief that,  despite my demonstrated entropic tendencies, I suffer from OCD.

Settling that disagreement will have to wait, at least until I finish talking about the latest Alaska volume to cross my path. You may recall that venturing to Alaska has been a Continue reading

These are the Fables

The Tales of Beedle the Bard
J.K. Rowling

Sometimes the commercial aspects of publishing are more apparent than others. Take the book shown at right. In many ways it’s Exhibit A in making the case that publishers–and authors–will do whatever they can to extract every ounce of profit from a property.

It’s a classic marketing problem. With a successful franchise, people want more of the same. Publishers Continue reading

What are you doing New Year’s Eve?

The Year in  Music:  The Titular Playlist

It’s time for the annual listing of the songs from which I borrowed my post titles. A mixtape fiend back in the  C-90 era, I have once again  provided a Spotify playlist. I’m Continue reading

Every Cell in Chile Will Tell

Maya’s Notebook
Isabel Allende

At the height of the War on Drugs a dramatic television commercial appeared. Perhaps you’ve seen it.

A young woman held a frying pan and spoke about your brain on drugs . Then suddenly, with no warning, she started swinging the pan, destroying everything in the kitchen as she recited a litany of all the destruction drug use would bring.

You might take away any number of messages from the Continue reading

In Your Head, They’re Still Fighting

The Dead Republic
Roddy Doyle

My mother, encouraging my verbal side, stored my first grade writing assignments in the box my school uniform came in.  They’re in my basement now, but one’s missing.

Focusing on the core culture our family was built upon, it Continue reading

Alabama Getaway

Like many another Irishman my spectator sport of choice is politics. So I could not let the results of yesterday’s special election for US Senator in Alabama go unremarked upon.

I’m reasonably certain the usual media channels will undertake what passes for analysis. So I’m going to actually confine Continue reading

A Hungry Yearning Burning

Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me
Craig Seligman

If I can avoid it, I’d prefer not to describe myself as confused.  Yet there are vast realms of human endeavor that leave me befuddled.

Which brings me to this short, dense love note to two of the 20th Century’s more accomplished writers. When I stumbled across it in a bargain bin my excitement was Continue reading

Closer to the Danger Zone

These year end holidays are a bear. I should be writing, I have been writing. But I keep being dragged away by commitments.

Yet things keep nagging at me. This week, I’m wondering if our troubles as a nation can be chalked up to Classic Rock.

You decide for yourself. See you next week with a proper post.

 

They’ll be Calling You a Radical

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
Mark Lilla

My empathic capacity, evidently, is bigger than I thought because in addition to philosophers and historians I’m beginning to feel sorry for liberals.

I’d be less than honest, though, if I didn’t admit thoroughly enjoying this brief, well-reasoned skewering of current leftish pieties. Although it never quite reaches the level of Stalinist/Trotskyite rancor, Lilla’s book is Continue reading

Do You Find This Happens All the Time?

Roy Moore and the Persistence of Regional Folkways

Every once in a while all the weirdness converges at once.  When it does I reach for my social science toolkit. After all, outrage, too, is a social construct.

This week, the Republican candidate in a special election for US Senator from the state of Alabama, ran into a firestorm. Three women, on the record, attested to dating Judge Roy S. Moore when they were in their late teens. A fourth offered a Continue reading

American History and Practical Math

The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions
Andrew Hacker

Let’s be honest: math can be terrifying. I’m not an engineer because I couldn’t wrap my head around integral calculus.

But I  know some things about myself. One is that when it comes to math–the kind they care about on standardized Continue reading

Goin’ Up the Country

How Right You Are, Jeeves
P.G. Wodehouse

Applesauce. Until now it hadn’t occurred to me that this seasonal comestible could function as a curse word.

That’s why Wodehouse can fill a couple of library shelves and I…well, you can figure that next bit out for yourself. It helps, of course, that he has the perfect delivery Continue reading

And Crossing Off Lists

The 200 Best Songs of the 1970s
Pitchfork Magazine
(Originally published August 22, 2016)

I thought long and hard about taking this week off–I even took out the ingredients to make chocolate croissants. After all, the last thing any of you need is another opinionated epistle that has no external point of reference.

At least with books you get to decide if you want to read it yourself to see if what I’m Continue reading

Know Your Place in our Republic

The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis
and How To Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance
Ben Sasse

Some days,  the notion of an open mind seems a relic of an earlier time.  Our cultural moment demands certainty and opposing viewpoints just muddy the waters.

What if it’s not a cultural moment, though?

As I read this book I often found myself wondering if educated people– the sort who read books like this– Continue reading

This is My Quest

The Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkein

Maybe I felt left out. Maybe I decided a second look was in order. Maybe I just decided that, having spent some pleasurable time with an author, I’d see if a return visit with his best friend proved likewise.

There was, though,  a potential hiccup: broadly speaking, I Continue reading

Some Son of a Bitch Would Die

The Black Box
Michael Connelly

My newly identified problem with crime fiction may start right here.

Even as I wrote that sentence I realized it wasn’t fair. There’s another candidate in the running, but I’m nowhere near feeling certain about it. In this case, though, I know my exasperation led me to set the book aside for Continue reading

Losing My Religion

Neither King nor Prelate: Religion
and the New Nation, 1776-1826
Edwin S.  Gaustad

A while back I lamented the fate of philosophers. Today, I’m expressing my sympathies for historians.

I’ve always loved history; if I had known, or encountered, some of the more recent historiography  I might even have chosen it as my major. The siren song of quantification, though, drew me across campus though the underlying motivation was the same: to help me Continue reading

Heigh Ho Heigh Ho

Labor Day 2017

(C) Walt Disney Company
no infringement intended

And so another summer comes to an end. Around here, the weather gods have jumped early into autumn (58 degrees when I awoke) even as Houston starts to rebuild from a hurricane. September can be puzzling in a continent-spanning country. Continue reading

Livin’ in a Fool’s Paradise

Paradise News
David Lodge

It seems appropriate to finish a book about vacation while on one. Except that the trip at the center of this book is hardly a vacation and the drive just taken to Atlanta and back was made possible by an extended disengagement from the world of work.

But enough carping. Vacation is supposed to be a happy Continue reading

That Vigilante Man

Dead Silence
Randy Wayne White

What happens when the character you originally liked wears out his welcome?

That question has been on my mind lately as I’ve found myself struggling with, of all things, crime fiction. And while I’m not sure if I’m hitting the same wall with every writer who’s giving me trouble, I am sure that the Continue reading

Tunes on the Dunes 2017

The Duke Robillard Band
At Misquamicut Beach, RI, August 9, 2017

Every so often I’m able to deliver on what might otherwise be just a well-intentioned promise.

A short time ago, in the J. Geils post, I mentioned a band and guitar player I’ve been listening to since 1979. That’s when the  self-titled Roomful of Blues album appeared, seeming to land Continue reading

To Believe in this Living

A Patchwork Planet
Anne Tyler

Have you crossed paths with your angel yet?

I’m not talking about your Guardian Angel. I was raised with that comforting idea–that there was always one of God’s helpers ready to steer you from harm. No, I mean the person, perhaps sent by God, whose sole interaction with Continue reading

Them Belly Full

Best Food Writing 2008
Edited by Molly Hughes

It’s a good thing, I suppose, that books about food don’t come with a sell-by date.  If they did I’d ignore it in the case of this volume .

I’ve admitted I’m a sucker for annuals. Sports. Science. Music. They’re one of the great cheats in my reading life. So when  this food annual showed up in the discount bin Continue reading

Bring Your Lawyer

Rumpole Rests his Case
John Mortimer

Most readers, I imagine, turn to the printed word for escape, relaxation, fun.

Me? I’m up to my ears in newspaper columns, academic papers and social science. It’s not as though I don’t enjoy a good yarn and a belly laugh, though. Continue reading

Lunch All by Yourself

Brooking Dissent: The To-Do Over David Brooks’
Latest Column

Allow me to start with a confession: I don’t eat sushi and I am addicted to American cheese. I know, I know, American cheese isn’t even properly cheese. It’s cheese food, whatever that means.

Why does this matter? Because such small Continue reading

A Workin’ Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
A Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide
Arlie Russell Hochschild

Welcome to Tea Party America with your host, Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States. Many people find this fête unsettling. I’d rather understand why my worldview differs so much from that of the party throwers.

Luckily, I am not alone in that desire. Continue reading