The Power of Negative Thinking and Weak Ties

Remember the meetings we all have to attend in a lot of professions where we are enjoined to brainstorm on particular topics, with no negative thinking allowed, no criticism, only the power of positive thinking that brainstorm can unleash? Yeah, that does not work:

“In 2003, Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, divided two hundred and sixty-five female undergraduates into teams of five. She gave all the teams the same problem—“How can traffic congestion be reduced in the San Francisco Bay Area?”—and assigned each team one of three conditions. The first set of teams got the standard brainstorming spiel, including the no-criticism ground rules. Other teams—assigned what Nemeth called the “debate” condition—were told, “Most research and advice suggest that the best way to come up with good solutions is to come up with many solutions. Freewheeling is welcome; don’t be afraid to say anything that comes to mind. However, in addition, most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other’s ideas.” The rest received no further instructions, leaving them free to collaborate however they wanted. All the teams had twenty minutes to come up with as many good solutions as possible.

The results were telling. The brainstorming groups slightly outperformed the groups given no instructions, but teams given the debate condition were the most creative by far. On average, they generated nearly twenty per cent more ideas. And, after the teams disbanded, another interesting result became apparent. Researchers asked each subject individually if she had any more ideas about traffic. The brainstormers and the people given no guidelines produced an average of three additional ideas; the debaters produced seven.

Nemeth’s studies suggest that the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing that Osborn thought was most important. As Nemeth puts it, “While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.” Osborn thought that imagination is inhibited by the merest hint of criticism, but Nemeth’s work and a number of other studies have demonstrated that it can thrive on conflict.

According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.””

Another problem is the weakness of strong ties (versus strength of weak ties):

“Uzzi wanted to understand how the relationships of these team members affected the product. Was it better to have a group composed of close friends who had worked together before? Or did strangers make better theatre? He undertook a study of every musical produced on Broadway between 1945 and 1989. To get a full list of collaborators, he sometimes had to track down dusty old Playbills in theatre basements. He spent years analyzing the teams behind four hundred and seventy-four productions, and charted the relationships of thousands of artists, from Cole Porter to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Uzzi found that the people who worked on Broadway were part of a social network with lots of interconnections: it didn’t take many links to get from the librettist of “Guys and Dolls” to the choreographer of “Cats.” Uzzi devised a way to quantify the density of these connections, a figure he called Q. If musicals were being developed by teams of artists that had worked together several times before—a common practice, because Broadway producers see “incumbent teams” as less risky—those musicals would have an extremely high Q. A musical created by a team of strangers would have a low Q.

Uzzi then tallied his Q readings with information about how successful the productions had been. “Frankly, I was surprised by how big the effect was,” Uzzi told me. “I expected Q to matter, but I had no idea it would matter this much.” According to the data, the relationships among collaborators emerged as a reliable predictor of Broadway success. When the Q was low—less than 1.7 on Uzzi’s five-point scale—the musicals were likely to fail. Because the artists didn’t know one another, they struggled to work together and exchange ideas. “This wasn’t so surprising,” Uzzi says. “It takes time to develop a successful collaboration.” But, when the Q was too high (above 3.2), the work also suffered. The artists all thought in similar ways, which crushed innovation. According to Uzzi, this is what happened on Broadway during the nineteen-twenties, which he made the focus of a separate study. The decade is remembered for its glittering array of talent—Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, and so on—but Uzzi’s data reveals that ninety per cent of musicals produced during the decade were flops, far above the historical norm. “Broadway had some of the biggest names ever,” Uzzi explains. “But the shows were too full of repeat relationships, and that stifled creativity.”

The best Broadway shows were produced by networks with an intermediate level of social intimacy. The ideal level of Q—which Uzzi and his colleague Jarrett Spiro called the “bliss point”—emerged as being between 2.4 and 2.6. A show produced by a team whose Q was within this range was three times more likely to be a commercial success than a musical produced by a team with a score below 1.4 or above 3.2. It was also three times more likely to be lauded by the critics. “The best Broadway teams, by far, were those with a mix of relationships,” Uzzi says. “These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant that the artists could interact efficiently—they had a familiar structure to fall back on—but they also managed to incorporate some new ideas. They were comfortable with each other, but they weren’t too comfortable.””

Go read the whole thing. I would note that all this validates the ideas behind interdisciplinarity versus disciplinary departments hermetically separate from each other, as is the case in many institutions of higher education.

I find it ironic though that this article is titled “groupthink” but does not mention the term in the body of the article and does not go over some of the basic research on groupthink, especially Irving Janis’s work on the subject.

Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – 2

[This post is an extension of my book review of Paul Mason’s book as well as a response to Lambert’s post over at Corrente, in which he is much too kind to call me a scholar.]

So, we are having of them cross-blog dialogue on Paul Mason’s book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere – The New Global Revolutions and Lambert has produced a first response to part of the book and my review and some commenters have chimed in. So, here is my disjointed response to his response.

The occupation thing: the Occupy movement did not invent occupation, of course. It has been part of the repertoire of contention of landless peasants and indigenous peoples in various parts of the world, but especially, and more recently, in the Sem Terra movement. The crucial difference is, of course, that the point of peasant / indigenous occupation is to occupy land ill-used or not used by private owners or governments and to occupy it in order to use it for sustainable farming and survival, but also as alternative form of governance (something that the Occupy movement has tried with sometimes weird results). Similar occupations occurred in Chiapas as well. Again, it has been a major tactic of indigenous peoples (1) precisely because land ownership is the problem, but also (2) as protest against what kind of land management neoliberalism leads to.

The quest for historical precedent is useful because it is a matter of using the right framework to think about current movements. The 1848 revolutions were centered on class conflict and one of Mason’s points is precisely that last year’s movements brought back social class to the forefront. This is why comparisons with 1968 are inaccurate as 1968 was the beginnings of identity politics, which contributed to shoving off class off the stage (until now) to the great benefits of conservatives, opening the era of major union-busting across the US for instance.

And all the examples that Mason provides in the book as lead-up to social movements point the end point of neoliberal governance without any systemic opposition. So, sure, gay rights and all, but those identity-based movements rose on the ashes of the labor movement, which facilitated the neoliberal institutional consolidation.

On success, there is still so much that up for grabs what with the collapsing European countries, the French election (which seems to crystallize issues beyond just France, with, for instance, the unprecedented Merkel intervention in a foreign election), the British dismantling of the welfare state, and with still a lot of unknown in the Middle East. And there is not much to hope from US Democrats. At the same time, there are no real alternative models of institutional governance (and “back to the local” ain’t gonna do it).

Actually, Lambert, for the 1%, success or systemic failure is still in the air because if movements were successful in at least some degree of systemic reform, that would be a failure. But this is truly a test of the capacity of the power elite to flex its muscles and regain control over discourse (as power, to go all Foucault on y’all), whether it means some shock doctrine and structural adjustment (which is what austerity is) or more meaningful change that will most likely come from emerging nations (Brazil), collapsing nations (Greece), or some labor revival (out of Asia). What seems to be the success though, is that austerity policy with turn states left with only their repressive and aggressive functions (police for domestic repression, and military as main foreign policy tool), which has always been a conservative dream.

The social movements themselves are composed of large numbers of people who have grown up in the era of individualization and networks. It remains to be seen how networking and individualizing really prove the strength of weak ties beyond being able to organize demonstrations and flash mobs to evade police repression. The cases of Egypt and Libya certainly offer reasons to be mildly pessimistic.

But who knows, maybe the end of Winter in the Western hemisphere will bring back some activism.

On the technology thing: there is no way around the digital divide. Ultimately, the strength of these movements will be on the streets (and street success may very be due to the presence of labor on the street alongside the students with their cell phones). Sure, technology will provide neat tools to organize, coordinate, etc. But at some point, there has to be street presence. Let’s see if that Kony 2012 thing works, then we can talk.