Making Communication Smarter

slow democracy Ellis and Fisher decision-making book

I have made the point on more than one occasion that it is the communication and interaction process that closes or shrinks gaps of indeterminacy. It is communication that reaches across divides and differences between people. But the really important part of this entire equation is the nature and type of communication. Communication is only as effective and as functional as it can be when it is designed and directed properly. in other words, when the communication is smart. Just putting two or more people together and telling them to communicate can cause as much damage as good. In fact, it is statistically likely to cause more harm than not.

So, when I say that the “type” of communication is most important, what does that mean? The answer is complex with many possibilities but let’s look at some basic issues and some foundational principles that can help guide people make better decisions. First, is the nature of the decision-making task itself. When the task has a specific correct answer that requires expertise then groups and even communication are less important because a single qualified individual can solve the problem. We can organize a collection of people in any manner, and apply all of our theoretical knowledge, to build a bridge or solve a complex mathematical equation but the group will never figure it out satisfactorily because they don’t have the individual knowledge or expertise. A group working on these problems will be of no use and any solution that did emerge would probably be quite deficient. Political conflicts such as that between the Israelis and Palestinians do not meet these criteria. They are not problems with single correct answers that simply require expertise and training.

But now, assume that people are working on a problem of common interest and one that can potentially benefit from a variety of voices and perspectives. For certain problems groups are better than individuals because of the accuracy that emerges from averaging affects. Thus, if there were a bowl of jellybeans and we were asked to guess how many jellybeans are in the bowl, your best option would be to take the average of all guesses. This is the type of task that benefits from the error reduction that comes from the averaging effect of multiple estimates. But this too is not a particularly realistic type of group problem characteristic of contentious politics.

The third and richest type of interaction experience is a group that requires a commitment of each member along with the value of any knowledge, insight, or perspective they bring to the table. Training or directing people toward improving their communication is most crucial here because there is a hornet’s nest of small stings and psychological effects that distort perceptions, attitudes, and decision-making. Sunstein and Hastie in their book “Wiser: Getting beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter” offer up plenty of  does the most recent episode does the most recent episode of House of cards and with clear telling Frank she is leaving him. Is that the most recent episode or is there another one after that after thatsuggestions for training group members and improving their communication skills. They suggest things like the value of groups composed of diverse membership, healthy dissent, fair and energetic participation, the strength of empirical evidence, avoiding irrelevance, quality arguments, being on the lookout for bias, and getting along with fellow group members just to name a few. But it turns out that most of this advice is ignored or participants are unable to learn.

The errors and mistakes that group members are subject to are legion. Group members are stubborn, egotistical, overly confident, lazy, incompetent, naïve, conformist, or easily influenced by a leader. They engage in all sorts of cognitive heuristics related to groupthink, the confirmation hypothesis, the availability hypothesis, negativity bias, and a host of other information processing plagues. In fact, one might assume that these group participants are best left out of the decision-making process.

But despite all these cognitive pitfalls deliberation is still crucial for democracy and the simple truth is that many of our decisions are not subject to deliberation at all. Moreover, students beginning in the early stages of their education are not taught how to adopt a deliberative stance. There are many things about living in a political culture that are required such as organizing, campaigning, arguing, or negotiating but the list rarely includes deliberation. Deliberation is about reflection, inclusion, and quality argument made in the public sphere. It is the process most suited for quality preference formation.


About Donald Ellis

Professor emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on June 25, 2015, in Communication and Conflict Resolution. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. A nice piece this one. I like the use of the phrase, “shrinking gaps of indeterminacy”. The piece led me to consider lots of arguments in favor of the phrase, and many that show how mild that is when one tries to assess how much the gap has been closed by “successful” communication.

    Even the first example you use about the ability in some circumstances for a single group member (or just an autonomous individual not in a group) to solve an equation is not that simple. For example, If a group member is the only one with the expertise to boil water (or build a bomb), there can still be lots of disagreements about what vessel to use to get there; that’s political and perforce more complex, immediately.

    The knowledge base, when considered, especially in complex situations, is finite and limited in the decision-making process, even when experts are present, it is my sense, even in these case, that we end up looking at the world through a soda straw, with expert information that is quite scant.

    In the equation example, we need to be more humble, especially when the facts being considered are in the contingent world and not limited to cases of non-referential math and logic.

    To put it simply, some one in the group will not want this object used without paying for it, NIMBY, etc Some experts could even shade the truth about what they know…

    Plato’s allegory of the cave deals with contingent epistemology, making me marvel at how well that ancient essay fares 2500 years later.

    Len Shyles

%d bloggers like this: