Being Wiser Through Less Happy Talk

Sunstein and Hastie in Wiser have produced a useful book. Many elements will be familiar to those who read popular decision making books that said the ideas are well explained and practically applicable. The added interest is that Sunstein served in the Obama government running regulatory policy so has plenty of real world experience managing large groups with divergent interests.

The central problem of the book is how to get groups to make good decisions. A lot of decision making research focuses on individual decision making. This is probably a feature of the ease with which tests can be run on individuals compared to groups. Groups are harder to assemble and to get to agree to take part in any test. It is also difficult to understand what exactly is happening given the complex group dynamics.

In a group decision Sunstein and Hastie note how a boss can shut down discussion by entering the conversation too early and thereby signalling “the right answer” at the beginning of a discussion. This can squash dissenting viewpoints even when the boss really does want to hear all views.

To these authors though the principle problem in groups is “happy talk”. They say: “We think that happy talk is a pervasive source of group failures”. (Sunstein and Hastie, 2015, page 10). Happy talkers can be pleasant to work with and seem a lot more fun than the heroes of the book — anxious people. To be fair there is a role for optimism, especially once a plan has been committed to. However, happy talk at the stage of project selection means not enough thought is given to the downsides and what can go wrong before a plan is committed too.

What they say about anxious people injecting welcome caution seems reasonable; especially where one of the potential actions must be adopted. (In a university nothing happening is usually my main concern and so I worry that anxious people might slow the already glacial pace of change and make progress grind to a halt). Probably anxiousness will likely work best when the potential downside to poorly thought out action is very high. This is often true in government decisions — most obviously in military endeavours. Thus this book may be especially valuable for policy makers.

Their book is an enjoyable and easy read. At the risk of being overly-optimistic perhaps reading Sunstein and Hastie will make you wiser.

Read: Cass R. Sunstein and Reid Hastie (2015), Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, MA.