WHY DO SOME SOCIETIES MAKE DISASTROUS DECISIONS?: JARED DIAMOND (p2)
is supposed to be about teachers imparting knowledge to students.
As every teacher knows, though, if you have a good group of students,
education is also about students imparting knowledge to their
supposed teachers and challenging their assumptions. That's an
experience that I've been through in the last couple of months,
when for the first time in my academic career I gave a course
to undergraduates, highly motivated UCLA undergraduates, on collapses
of societies. Why is it that some societies in the past have collapsed
while others have not? I was discussing famous collapses such
as those of the Anasazi in the U.S. Southwest, Classic Maya civilization
in the Yucatan, Easter Island society in the Pacific, Angkor Wat
in southeast Asia, Great Zimbabwe in Africa, Fertile Crescent
societies, and Harappan Indus Valley societies. These are all
societies that we've realized, from archaeological discoveries
in the last 20 years, hammered away at their own environments
and destroyed themselves in part by undermining the environmental
resources on which they depended.
This question, why societies make disastrous decisions and destroy themselves, is one that not only surprised my UCLA undergraduates, but also astonishes professional historians studying collapses of past societies. The most cited book on the subject of the collapse of societies is by the historian, Joseph Tainter. It's entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies. Joseph Tainter, in discussing ancient collapses, rejected the possibility that those collapses might be due to environmental management because it seemed so unlikely to him. Here's what Joseph Tainter said: "As it becomes apparent to the members or administrators of a complex society that a resource base is deteriorating, it seems most reasonable to assume that some rational steps are taken towards a resolution. With their administrative structure and their capacity to allocate labor and resources, dealing with adverse environmental conditions may be one of the things that complex societies do best. It is curious that they would collapse when faced with precisely those conditions that they are equipped to circumvent." Joseph Tainter concluded that the collapses of all these ancient societies couldn't possibly be due to environmental mismanagement, because they would never make these bad mistakes. Yet it's now clear that they did make these bad mistakes.
My UCLA undergraduates, and Joseph Tainter as well, have identified a very surprising question; namely, failures of group decision-making on the part of whole societies, or governments, or smaller groups, or businesses, or university academic departments. The question of failure of group decision-making is similar to questions of failures of individual decision-making. Individuals make bad decisions; they enter bad marriages, they make bad investments, their businesses fail. But in failures of group decision-making there are some additional factors, notably conflicts of interest among the members of the group that don't arise with failures of individual decision-making. This is obviously a complex question; there's no single answer to it. There are no agreed-on answers.
What I'm going to suggest is a road map of factors in failures of group decision making. I'll divide the answers into a sequence of four somewhat fuzzily delineated categories. First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives. Secondly, when the problem arrives, the group may fail to perceive the problem. Then, after they perceive the problem, they may fail even to try to solve the problem. Finally, they may try to solve it but may fail in their attempts to do so. While all this talking about reasons for failure and collapses of society may seem pessimistic, the flip side is optimistic: namely, successful decision-making. Perhaps if we understand the reasons why groups make bad decisions, we can use that knowledge as a check list to help groups make good decisions.