Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Crisis Thinking Versus Team Thinking

Note to readers: election season is a great time to think about how we think. How do we process the complex information we need about the state of the country and boil that down into picking a candidate? And how do those candidates try to appeal to us? This is the first of a series of posts on that topic. Today, we start with an argument about the two types of thinking that drive societal-level decisions. Second, we'll look at how campaigns use marketing techniques to force our attention and, in consequence, make the electoral choice seem more monumental than it may in fact be. Finally, we will look at whether we are in fact one society, or are slowly splitting in two, and what that means for our decision-making. 

Many writers, including Malcolm Gladwell in "Blink" and Jonah Lehrer (should I automatically write "the discredited Jonah Lehrer" from now on?) in "How We Decide", have put pen to paper on the subject of individual decision-making. But, if my sketchy education and brief Googling effort is any guide, writing about how society makes decisions is much less common. So, I'm going to engage in some unvalidated speculation about what I see as two different ways that societies make decisions about their future.

The first, and by far more common, type of group decision-making is what I'll call "team thinking". We engage in team thinking when we are trying to improve our position or build something in a relatively safe and stable world. Team thinking defines an "other" that is essentially familiar. The obvious example is our political system, which has increasingly created a bright line between "Republican" and "Democrat": you tend to be on your team, want your team to win, and will adjust your beliefs to fit in more often than not. (And, when you hold beliefs that aren't those of the "team", you'll tend to de-prioritize them: Jonathan Last has an interesting piece profiling the collapse of the pro-life Democrat caucus when Obamacare forced them to choose.) Why? Because it feels good to be on a team. It is a source of identity, it provides an instant bond with like-minded folks, and it provides a vehicle to amplify your perceived impact on the world. You may never achieve greatness in your profession, you may not ever save a life or win a trophy, but you get to bask in shared accomplishment if the candidate you support wins an election. (Or if the sports franchise you support wins a title, for that matter.)

Politics provides ample evidence that people come together in this way for the social benefits of being on a team as they do to coherently advance their beliefs. Churchill, widely considered a man of passionate and strongly held views, switched political parties not once, but twice. Ronald Reagan started out his political life as a Democrat. If political parties were mostly about advancing coherent agendas, and not about team thinking, we might expect that politicians and thinkers who grew disenchanted with their ideological home would tend to drift away slowly, eventually forming new parties and movements to reflect their ideologies. And yet, we more often see the dramatic flip from one to the other. (Why people switch is a whole other issue, but suffice it to say it seems most often that an individual is so alienated from his party one one or two key issues that he is willing to jettison support for others that seem secondary.)

Team thinking explains a lot about the current election, like why Tea Party voters are lining up behind Romney despite their loudly expressed reservations about him earlier, and why liberals seem to have forgotten about President Obama's pledge to close Guantanamo. Our guy might not be perfect, but that doesn't matter: he's better than the other team's guy, and he'll overall help us advance or defend our agenda. Think of decision-making in a team thinking environment as a game of tug of rope: you line up behind your captain and pull against the other side, and try to get as much movement as you can in your direction, knowing a moment later the other side will probably pull back.

A functioning society that has progressed beyond crushing despotism will generally exhibit some sort of team thinking, breaking down along the dominant fault line of its day. Often the teams are strictly political, but sometimes they become martial, as we can see in the history of England: the nobles were often aligned against the royal family to some extent, jockeying for power, and from time to time these disagreements were settled on the battlefield. But these battles weren't apocalyptic: they occurred when the political process couldn't contain the disagreements of the day, and when they ended, there were new political fault lines that quickly emerged. (Shakespeare got quite a lot of material from these shifting allegiances.) Eventually England's political system developed so that disputes could be more easily contained within it, decreasing and then ending the use of force to decide who should wield power.

It is fair to say that most of our societal decisions are made by team thinking: one team gets a bit more power, advances its agenda for a time, and then the other team rallies and advances its agenda. Sometimes one team fails often enough that it is replaced by a new team. (In American history, the Whigs were essentially replaced by the Republicans, which was a reorganizing of the old team along more coherent lines.) But every so often, team thinking fails and is replaced by crisis thinking, which has completely different characteristics.

A crisis occurs when a significant majority of a society feels threatened enough. The classic example is when a country is threatened by war from the outside: In World War II, the British formed a unity government under Churchill that no longer concerned itself with any of the typical divides that marked its political debates. The society oriented itself to victory at all costs. When Churchill, who was by this point again a Conservative, made alliance with the Soviet Union, he was hardly questioned for his choice to partner with a leftist government. Yet, famously, as soon as the threat was removed (actually before the war even officially ended) team thinking reasserted itself and Churchill, who thought he could assume the support of a grateful nation, was unceremoniously dumped as Prime Minister.

There are a few characteristics of events that trigger crisis thinking that we can identify:
  1. Novelty: A crisis cannot be an ongoing political dispute that merely intensifies. A crisis erupts out of nowhere, and in the scramble to address it, the political teams are making decisions without their talking points and pre-constructed arguments.
  2. Obviousness: If enough people are questioning whether a given event is in fact a crisis for the community, crisis thinking will likely not develop, and instead the question of whether the event is a crisis will be debated by the teams. To illustrate this point, consider terrorism. We suffered terrorist activity in the 1970's (the sacking of our embassy in Iran), the 1980's (the Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon) and the 1990's (the attack on the USS Cole, the African embassy bombings), but none of these were considered crises important enough to make major changes to law and policy. After the destruction of the World Trade Center, though, we passed the Patriot Act, launched two wars, and turned air travel into a passage from Dante's Inferno. And at the time no one really questioned these decisions because our crisis thinking approach was engaged.
  3. Scariness: If we don't see a situation as potentially threatening or lives, our wealth or our families, it almost definitely won't trigger crisis thinking. If you consider the terrorism examples above, none of the examples before 9/11 happened on US soil. And before the Twin Towers fell, people didn't feel that terrorism threatened their daily existence, that it could make the life we know in America disappear. Afterwards, most of us couldn't help thinking that we might die the next time we got on a train or went to the mall. We were scared, and scared people worry a lot less about tax rates and Supreme Court appointments.
The reason for this lengthy speculation on these two types of decision-making is that I think we are living in an interesting hybrid period. In 2008, we hovered on the edge of a crisis. The economy was collapsing in a way that made people wonder if their life savings were safe, or if they would ever find work again. But we stabilized enough that most of us decided our normal team thinking could resolve the rest of the problem. Meanwhile the steady drumbeat of bad economic news comes from around the globe. We are primed to think crisis, but we have it too good to resort to the harsh measures of crisis thinking. In the meantime, we are stuck with the dreary spectacle of politicians crying "catastrophe" at every opportunity, injecting a frantic yet unproductive energy into our debates. The result? We may be getting so cynical about it all that we'll have a harder time finding the necessary resolve on the day a true crisis hits.

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