Synergy or Dysergy: Do We Kid Ourselves We Have Been Synergic When Really We Have Pruned The Outliers?

In my last post, I talked about squeaky wheels and suchlike, arguing that to ensure that all voices get heard we need to ensure that people get their ideas sorted out individually ahead of any collective discussion. For most purposes, ‘write first, talk second’ is an excellent rule of thumb.

Since then, I have come across a completely different and quite illuminating literature that leads to this same conclusion. I’m referring to a finding in the distributed cognition literature concerning collaborative inhibition and recall disruption. I think it is worth saying something about this because while its practical conclusion is the same it differs from the squeaky wheel argument in an interesting way: while the latter has an intuitive obviousness to it, the collective inhibition argument does not.

Indeed, in a few conversations I’ve had about this idea I have come across the same sort of initial disbelief that one gets when mentioning the literature on how poorly we remember things in general. Many people pride themselves on their memory and can be quite miffed at the idea that human memory is fallible and malleable. In the same way, many people are (rightly) attached to the idea that positive collective discussion can be synergistic and are not easily convinced that it might, at times, be the opposite.

My source for this new (to me!) idea is an excellent article by Martin Fagin at the New School for Social Research in New York which he was kind enough to provide me (sorry there is no url for this, but I cite details in in my updated SlideShare at http://tinyurl.com/d757tgq). Rather than paraphrase him badly, let me quote him.

Although conversation can facilitate remembering when considering what the group as a whole produces, individual members of the group will remember less in a conversation than they are capable of when remembering alone, so-called collaborative inhibition … They may remember something that they would not remember alone … but, overall and on average, they will remember less. Thus, the group as a whole may remember more than any individuals alone would remember in isolation, but each individual is not achieving her individual capacity to remember. (Emphasis added.)              […]

The retrieval disruption hypothesis posits that collaborative inhibition occurs, at least in part, because one group member’s pursuit of an effective retrieval strategy disrupts the use of retrieval strategies that may be more effective for other group members

It is worth elaborating with a simple example what this means and how it connects to synergy or dysergy*. Suppose you and I are asked to recall something of which we were both a part. After a lot of thought, I come up with six things and you, independently, also come up with six. Four are the same and the others are not. So together we recall eight things, ‘our’ four, ‘your’ two and ‘my’ two. The pool of eight recalled things is NOT a sign of synergy—thought it might masquerade as such. Synergy is when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—here we simply have the sum. Synergy would cut in if and when, after we pool our separate efforts, a collective effort adds a ninth and a tenth item… and  so on.

With the process described by Fagin (supported by a solid bank of research by a number of authors) what happens is even less than this. Talking together, rather than thinking separately, I immediately recall a couple of things and so do you, we agree on one of them and keep talking, you remember something else which, after a while connects to something I recall. And so, after a while we have pool of 7 items. Now we are pretty pleased with ourselves—we have a pool of 7 which seems much bigger than the couple we each started with and we have a warm, and misplaced glow about our ‘synergy’. In fact, viewed from the perspective of a pool of 8, that might eventually become 9 or 10, this outcome is dysergic not synergic. But because of how we got there, dysergy masquerades as synergy.

How can this happen? Well, if you read across modern psychology and cognitive science you’ll know that we continually kid ourselves. From self-esteem (where like the fictional Lake Woebegone, ‘we are all above average’) to visual perception (where our neural processing turns the fragmented input from our eyes into a smooth picture of the world) we routinely create a version of the world that our conscious mind (if we really have one!) treats as reality. (There’s a whole book there on ‘life as a self-licking ice-cream’ …. J )

This seems to be another such comforting illusion. Indeed, it is almost a collective version of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, named for the researchers who discovered that a large majority of people think they are above average across a wide variety of domains. Comfortable in this illusion people often remain unaware of their incompetence and, because of this, fail to take any self-improvement measures that might rid them of their incompetence. In the collective case, the danger is that participants—and group leaders or facilitators—share the illusion, confusing the warm glow with an optimal outcome.

In particular, one of the dangers is that in doing this we ‘prune the outliers’—be those the inconvenient facts we would all rather overlook or the off-the-wall idea that we could have found and which might have offered a breakthrough on a problem. These outliers—which by definition are not universally shared or suggested, can become the casualties of the cheerful dysergy that collaborative inhibition produces.

In one sense, if you follow the ‘write first, talk second’ rule that I have mentioned, you won’t easily have groups falling into this trap. But I think a few more ideas here about WHY this phenomenon occurs are warranted because I think they help us understand something more general, something with both and up and a downside.

I’m referring here to another few slides in my presentation (http://tinyurl.com/d757tgq ).  If you look at that you will see an argument from Garrod and Pickering about why conversation is easy, another from Stephens about anticipatory speaker–listener coupling and finally one from Nummenmaa on emotions making us ‘tick together’.  All of these point to a shared idea which is that the process of conversation is NOT a rational strategy for ‘exchanging information’ (although at times we might do just that.) Rather, conversation is substantially similar in many ways to ‘grooming’ behaviour: it is designed to build bonds, overcome conflict and so on. And this in turn links to the high levels of satisfaction we obtain when we have had what we jointly perceive to be, ‘a really good conversation’.

Thus the very fact that ‘conversation is easy’ underpins both the possibility of engaged dialogue and at the same time, the possibility of a shared suppression of memory or innovation that we neither notice nor lament.  As Fagin and his co-authors conclude:

People often do not jointly recount a shared past with others in order to improve their memory. Rather they do it because people are social creatures and they want to share their memories with others. Not surprising, this act of distributed remembering does not necessarily improve remembering. But it does seem to benefit the sociability that may have motivated the joint recounting in the first place.  (Emphasis added).

If the purpose of our talk is congruent with grooming, then, this is hardly a problem. But if instead it’s congruent with some more instrumental process then the very facility we show for integrating our memories, ideas and emotions can become a pitfall.

In running workgroups or facilitating workshops, it pays to be mindful of this!

*  Dysergy—the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

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About stephenmugford

Once a sociologist (1970-1997) then a consultant who reads a lot in psychology, cognitive science, complexity, etc and wanders along paths from one topic to another.
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