The Groupthink Epidemic

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Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment”.  Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups.  A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules fGroupThink-300x141or decision making. (1)

Simply, this is how companies, governments, investors and families and individuals drive themselves over cliffs:

  • Bad mergers
  • Bad proposed laws or invasions
  • Investment fads
  • Poor decisions about marriage, divorce of having kids
  • Suicide bombers

just to name a few examples.

The process is pretty simple.  You surround yourself with people who share your opinions and use that agreement to reinforce your beliefs regardless of any contradictory information. Then you make important decisions based on those beliefs. Then you just have to wait for the crash.

No one is immune from groupthink. In fact, human nature tends to encourage it. Most people are conflict-adverse. They don’t like tension. They don’t like disagreement. So they gravitate to people who share like opinions and don’t say anything if they disagree.

Companies make merger decisions based in part on groupthink, which helps to explain why 90% of them fail. Spend a lot of money to buy a company, then sell it cheap when the merger fails. Great for shareholder value.  Examples:

  • 2008 Arby’s acquisition of Wendy’s. That merger lasted 3 years.
  • Also in 2008, Bank of America’s purchase of Countrywide financial. “The bank paid just $2.5 billion for Countrywide, a deal that ended up costing the bank more than $40 billion.”(2)
  • The combination of K-Mart and Sears. Yep, that’s worked.

Politicians and generals make bad decisions on a regular basis.

  • How about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, looking for phantom weapons of mass destruction. Despite the evidence, some people still believe they were real, instead of the imagining of disgruntled Iraqi emigres who wanted the US to toss Sadam.
  • What about the current debacle over healthcare reform? Clearly a group in the Trump administration felt that Congress would submissively obey their demands.

The fiberoptic cable investment bubble of the late 1990s is an example of groupthink. It was mathematically impossible for demand to double every year, but during the bubble, no one thought about it.

Marriages can begin or end influenced by groupthink. In this case, it’s called peer pressure, but that may not be as good a term. Being surrounded by people who think a marriage or divorce should happen increases the odds that it will happen.

Suicide bombers? How does anyone with any intelligence convince themselves that there are 46 virgins waiting to greet them in an afterlife? By surrounding themselves with people who share the fantasy and drawing strength of conviction of peers. To some extent, that’s how every religion and political movement works.

How do you avoid groupthink?

  1. Recognize that smart people will have different points of view on virtually any important issue.
  2. Surround yourself with smart people, not “yes people”.
  3. Listen to differing points of view. Encourage debate. Understand the values that are competing in any decision.
  4. Avoid labels that antagonize. They inhibit open discussion.
  5. Find data that both support and contradict. Don’t ignore data that disagree. Instead, figure out how it makes sense and how it changes the decisions you need to make.
  6. Read Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” This thin book should be required reading for anyone with a brain.

Above all, remember, humans don’t do perfect. If you think something is perfect, you’re missing something important. If you think you have all the answers, you’re wrong. Unless you’re a god, of course.


Sources:

  1. http://www.psysr.org/about/pubs_resources/groupthink%20overview.htm
  2. Huffington Post, “9 Mergers that Epically Failed,” 23 February 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/23/worst-mergers-of-all-time_n_2720121.html
  3. “5 Odd Things that Raise Your Chances of Divorce,” Newser, 2 June 2015. http://www.newser.com/story/207687/5-odd-things-that-raise-your-chances-of-divorce.html

Chipping Humans

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To paraphrase Franklin, the person who would sacrifice liberty for safety will have neither.

We put microchips in pets so we can locate them. We can attach chips to keys so we ben_franklinknow where they are.

Now a company in Wisconsin is microchipping employees.

At this point, the employees are volunteers and the benefits for doing this  include:

  • Ease of accessing computers,
  • Ease of access to secure areas, and
  • Making purchases and vending machines using the chips.

The drawbacks?

  • The employer can know where the  employee is 24×7. Spend too long at lunch? The company will know. Privacy? Forgetaboutit.
  • The technology represents another level of electronic radiation exposure, and we don’t know about the long term effects of that.

The chips are tiny and can be injected under the skin with a syringe developed by a Swedish firm.

Obviously, the manufacturer wants to see this technology in widespread use.

“Eventually, this technology will become standardized allowing you to use this as your passport, public transit, all purchasing opportunities,” and more . . . . (2)

It’s easy to see where this is going. We can expect a push to implant chips in children, hospital patients and the elderly. That would make kidnapping obsolete and reduce medical errors. It also would make it easy to locate lost hikers and wandering dementia victims. However, it would also mean that with two generations, virtually the entire population would be chipped. Go to a political rally or demonstration? People will know where you are. Criminals will be able to know when a home is empty or when someone is visiting a bank or ATM. Of course, the police will be able to identify and locate the person who robs you.

Further, chips aren’t secure. Any technology can be reversed engineered — meaning that you could create a chip with someone else’s code and use it in a crime.

How do you feel about being chipped?


Sources:

  1. Megan Trimble, “Wisconsin tech company to implant microchips in employees,” USNews, 24 July 2017. https://www.aol.com/article/finance/2017/07/24/wisconsin-tech-company-to-implant-microchips-in-employees/23045620/?brand=finance&ncid=txtlnkusaolp00002412
  2. Angela Moscaritolo, “Wisconsin Company to Microchip Employees,” CNET, 24 July 2017. https://www.pcmag.com/news/355140/wisconsin-company-to-microchip-employees?utm_source=email&utm_campaign=dailynews&utm_medium=title

 

Autism and Eye Contact

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In theory, autistic individuals shun eye contact with others.

According to a new study, that’s not a voluntary or learned behavior. Eye contact can cause excessive stimulation of a section of the brain, and that in turn can be felt as pain by the individual.

That makes sense. If something causes pain, you usually try to avoid doing it.

Unfortunately, lack of eye contact is also interpreted by some as a sign of dishonesty. With the autistic person, that interpretation simply doesn’t apply.

Bottom line: you have to get to know someone in order to understand what their physical cues mean.


Sources:

  1. Nouchine Hadjikhani, Jakob Åsberg Johnels, Nicole R. Zürcher, Amandine Lassalle, Quentin Guillon, Loyse Hippolyte, Eva Billstedt, Noreen Ward, Eric Lemonnier, Christopher Gillberg. Look me in the eyes: constraining gaze in the eye-region provokes abnormally high subcortical activation in autism. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-03378-5

Parenting and Risky Sexual Behavior in Teens

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It may sound obvious, but parents matter. Both parents matter.ben_franklin

However, when it comes to risky sexual behavior in teen daughters, the spotlight is on the father.

A new study from the University of Utah relates the “quality of fathering” with teen behavior.

  • High quality fathering is associated with setting standards for behavior and consistent monitoring of how the teen spends her time and money. It affects with whom the teen associates and reduces the likelihood of risky behavior.
  • Low quality fathering does just the opposite.

The study strongly suggests that having a low quality father out of the home may be better for daughters than keeping the family intact.

The study may in fact underestimate the negative effects of low quality fathering. In some cases, parents or other family members are the source of risky behavior.

According to an The Atlantic article from 2013,

One in three-to-four girls, and one in five-to-seven boys are sexually abused before they turn 18, an overwhelming incidence of which happens within the family. These statistics are well known among industry professionals, who are often quick to add, “and this is a notoriously underreported crime.” (2)

Another review of the research literature suggests a 40% rate of molestation among girls and 30% among boys in the US. (4) In all cases, the figures are subject to some disagreement about definitions.

For those of us who know victims  of family abuse, this incidence is quite plausible. In my own conversations, I’ve been flabbergasted by the people who reveal histories of abuse — people I would never have suspected. It comes out in conversations after a certain level of trust is in place. And it surfaces too many times with too many people.

Ultimately, the statistics we have are unreliable, because too many people won’t talk about this. The statistics are incomplete, as they tend to focus on father-daughter abuse and not on mother-son or sibling relations (or on abuse by authority figures other than priests).

Traditional studies have focused on “broken” families and the importance of having two parents in the home. The truth seems to be a bit more complex. There are many cases in which the “intact” family is broken and dysfunctional, and breakup represents improvement.


Sources:

  1. Danielle J. DelPriore, Gabriel L. Schlomer, Bruce J. Ellis. Impact of Fathers on Parental Monitoring of Daughters and Their Affiliation With Sexually Promiscuous Peers: A Genetically and Environmentally Controlled Sibling Study. Developmental Psychology, 2017; DOI: 10.1037/dev0000327
  2. Mia Fontaine, “America Has an Incest Problem,” The Atlantic, 24 January 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/01/america-has-an-incest-problem/272459/
  3. Margaret Ballantine and Lynne Soine, “Sibling Sexual Abuse — Uncovering the Secret,” Social Work Today Vol. 12 No. 6 P. 18. http://www.socialworktoday.com/archive/111312p18.shtml
  4. Rational Skepticism.org. “Just how common is incest?” 11 July 2010. http://www.rationalskepticism.org/social-sciences/just-how-common-is-incest-t9841.html

Impact of Weight on Friendships Between Children

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In a previous post, we discussed the link between being overweight as a child and being bullied. A new Dutch study adds to this, by documenting how excess weight affects friendships between children.

Overweight children face a form of social isolation.

  • Overweight children tend to think they have friends, when those people may not like them.
  • Overweight children tend to be excluded from friendships more often than are children of normal weight.
  • Overweight children see themselves as having more enemies than do children of normal weight.

The previous research suggested that these emotional effects may linger into  high school and young adulthood and be linked to depression and to self-harmful behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse.

The growing literature on weight and the interactions between children strongly suggests the need to channel children at an early age into some form of physical activity, preferably team-based. If over-weight and isolation are harmful, team sports led by an appropriately trained coach would appear to be an antidote.

The good news is that managing weight in children who are heavy may be easier than expected. Another study suggests that use of a powdered prebiotic fiber could reduce weight gain in children by improving healthy gut bacteria and digestion. The fiber used in the study is oligofructose-enriched inulin.

“Powdered fiber, mixed in a water bottle, taken once a day is all we asked the children to change, and we got, what we consider, some pretty exciting results — it has been fantastic,” added Raylene A. Reimer, PhD, RD, professor and researcher in the Faculty of Kinesiology at University of Calgary, who led the study. (3)

Using an experimental design with a test and control group, the prebiotic fiber (taken mixed with water) appeared to cut weight gain among growing children by almost 2/3 (6.6 lb  gain among those using the prebiotic v. 17.6 in the control group).

Note: a prebiotic facilitates growth of good bacteria in the gut. A probiotic introduces new bacteria. They’re quite different and should not be confused.


Sources:

  1. Kayla de la Haye, Jan Kornelis Dijkstra, Miranda J. Lubbers, Loes van Rijsewijk, Ronald Stolk. The dual role of friendship and antipathy relations in the marginalization of overweight children in their peer networks: The TRAILS Study. PLOS ONE, 2017; 12 (6): e0178130 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0178130
  2. Crain, “Childhood Weight, Adult Depression and . . . Bullying? Time to Connect the Dots?” May 2017.
  3. Alissa C. Nicolucci, Megan P. Hume, Inés Martínez, Shyamchand Mayengbam, Jens Walter, Raylene A. Reimer. Prebiotic Reduces Body Fat and Alters Intestinal Microbiota in Children With Overweight or Obesity. Gastroenterology, 2017; DOI: 10.1053/j.gastro.2017.05.055

Childhood Weight, Adult Depression and . . . Bullying? Time to Connect the Dots?

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Being narrow-minded affects people in a broad range of occupations, including ben_franklinacademia. Most people working in one field don’t see what people in related field are doing. Truth literally “falls between the cracks” separating different areas of work.

The people to whom we ascribe brilliance, like Steve Jobs, are those who are able to gather information from a broad array of sources and disciplines and connect the dots to form a coherent picture that others can’t see. Others fail to see the same because they don’t look. They limit what they see to the portion of the world in which they live and work.

Now for an example . . .

In an earlier blog, I reported on research linking being a victim of bullying to depression and health issues in high school. (1) The theory is that the impact of bullying can last well into adulthood.

A new study by Deborah Gibson-Smith from VU University Medical Center in the Netherlands and colleagues reports on a link between being overweight as a child and adult depression. The study doesn’t explain how extra pounds as a child effect adult emotions; it simply reports a statistical relationship. (2) The premise is that it has something to do with self-image.

My theory: Overweight children get bullied, and that bullying causes negative attitudes and behaviors that can linger into adulthood. It’s a simple idea, testable, and provides a concrete mechanism for converting excess weight as a child into adult depression.

However, because we have one group studying the effects of weight, and a different group studying the effects of bullying, apparently no researchers have tried to connect these dots.

Does that make sense?


Sources:

  1. Crain, “Bullying and Depression.”
  2. European Association for the Study of Obesity. “Being overweight in childhood may heighten lifetime risk of depression.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 May 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170518221006.htm>.

 

 

Internet Insecurity Revisited

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Your applications encrypt your data.  You’re protected, right?ben_franklin

Wrong.

There are three things you need to know about the latest round of papers made public by Wikileaks:

  • The CIA (in some cases in partnership with UK’s MI5) developed ways to hack device operating systems. The devices include all types of computers and cell phones, networked TVs, car onboard systems — basically everything anyone uses that’s connected to the Internet. The operating systems affected are Windows, Android and Apple.
  • The hack allows the user to read data as it is entered (typed or oral), before it is encrypted.  Everything.
  • The hack allows users to control devices and use them for spying on device owners.
  • The CIA may have LOST CONTROL of these hacks, meaning that they are out in the public domain where others can use them.

The CIA might not care about you, but are there others who might want your bank account?

The revelations have shocked experts.

Still, the amount of smartphone vulnerabilities and exploits detailed in these documents was shocking even to experts. “It certainly seems that in the CIA toolkit there were more zero-day exploits” – an exploitable vulnerability in software not known to the manufacturer – “than we’d estimated,” Jason Healey, a director at the Atlantic Council think tank, told Wired Magazine. He added: “If the CIA has this many, we would expect the NSA to have several times more.”(3)

Early reports are that the documents published by Wikileaks appear authentic.  None of the companies involved have commented on the situation. Nor do there appear to be any patches immediately in the offing.  After all, none of the players is yet admitting that they have something to patch.

Some writers see a bright side in these revelations: the decision to hack operating systems means that data encryption tools work.  That may or may not be true.  We don’t know what is still to be revealed.

Security problems aren’t under control or going away.

“Anybody who thinks that the Manning and Snowden problems were one-offs is just dead wrong,’’ said Joel Brenner, former head of U.S. counterintelligence at the office of the Director of National Intelligence. “Ben Franklin said three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead. If secrets are shared on systems in which thousands of people have access to them, that may really not be a secret anymore. This problem is not going away, and it’s a condition of our existence.’’(4)

I’ve said that nothing on the Internet is private, but this takes that statement to an entirely new level.  Nothing you type or speak into an Internet connected device is private. 

Ben Franklin was indeed a very wise man.


Sources:

  1. Sharon Profis and Sean Hollister, “WikiLeaks and how the CIA sees your WhatsApp messages, explained,” CNet, 7 March 2017. https://www.cnet.com/how-to/wikileaks-cia-hack-phone-tv-router-vault-7-year-zero-weeping-angel/?ftag=CAD3c77551&bhid=25995825932822145966367556179766
  2. Jose Pagliery, “Wikileaks claims to reveal how CIA hacks TVs and phones all over the world,” CNN Tech, 7 March 2017. http://money.cnn.com/2017/03/07/technology/wikileaks-cia-hacking/
  3. Trevor Timm, “WikiLeaks says the CIA can use your TV to spy on you. But there’s good news,” The Guardian, 7 March 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/07/wikileaks-says-the-cia-can-use-your-tv-to-spy-on-you-but-theres-good-news
  4. Devlin Barrett, “FBI prepares for new hunt for WikiLeaks’ source,” The Washington Post, 7 March 2017.