Michael Jinkins: Deliberate with those who differ

Talking only with the like-minded makes for worse decisions.

Deliberation -- defined as open-ended conversation intended to help groups explore and better understand the complex issues that concern them – is the gold standard for all social groups. It is the essential ingredient of democracy. But some recent studies have shed light on the darker side of deliberation.

David Schkade, Cass Sunstein, and Reid Hastie describe the conditions in a deliberative group which produce extremism rather than moderation.  In experiments among politically and socially liberal and conservative groups in two Colorado cities, researchers found that after a fifteen-minute discussion of current issues, “group members showed significantly more agreement and less heterogeneity in their anonymous post-deliberation expressions of their private views.” Their “deliberation sharply increased the disparities between the views of the largely liberal citizens of Boulder and the largely conservative citizens of Colorado Springs.” This is the key point: “Before deliberation, there was considerable overlap between many individuals in the two cities. After deliberation, the overlap was much smaller.”

We might call this the “Preaching to the Choir Syndrome.” Deliberation under certain conditions actually tends to drive us apart, making it less likely that we will find solutions.

By contrast, James Surowiecki’s fascinating book, The Wisdom of Crowds,” described the circumstances under which groups make the best decisions. Surowiecki summarized his thesis this way: “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.” The “right circumstances” include a diversity of perspectives and the absence of over-bearing personalities that tend to squelch divergent opinions or force consensus. Surowiecki writes: “If you put together a big enough and diverse enough group of people and ask them to ‘make decisions affecting matters of general interest,’ that group’s decisions will, over time, be ‘intellectually [superior] to the isolated individual,’ no matter how smart or well-informed he is.”

These reports are not talking precisely about the same things, but taken together they do call into question our tendency to talk only to people who already agree with us. Conversations among folks who share the same general values and perspectives tend to make our views more extreme. And the lack of diversity in our conversational groups probably makes our decisions less intelligent.

Even the most fair-minded of us can get crazy when the partisan choir to which we belong gets on a roll. We are better served to talk about the deeply contentious issues of our time in groups of persons who hold different views and have different life experiences. 

St. Paul got here long before us. The soaring Love Chapter, I Corinthians 13, was never intended to be read at a wedding. It makes for far better reading at a church board meeting. It needs to be heard in the context of Chapters 12-14, “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with great honor . . .” (I Cor. 12:18-23).

If we want to be smarter, to make better decisions, to have a better society or church, we would be wise to ensure that our deliberations do not include only people just like us. G.K. Chesterton said the difference between the heretic and the orthodox is that the heretic loves his opinions more than he loves the church, while the orthodox love the church, even when she disagrees with it, more than her own individual opinions.

There is just no such thing as community without difference.

Michael Jinkins is president and professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.