Coming Together/Tragedies of Collective Folly

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— Groups of well-intentioned people making disastrous decisions

Studying examples where collective decision making resulted in tragedies can help us understand the various pitfalls of collective decision making.[1]

Here are several tragic examples.

From the 1600s through the mid-to-late 1800s, the majority of childbed fever cases were caused by the doctors themselves. With no knowledge of germs, doctors did not believe hand washing was needed.

In the 1800s Ignaz Semmelweis noticed that women giving birth at home had a much lower incidence of childbed fever than those giving birth in the doctor's maternity ward. His investigation discovered that washing hands with an antiseptic before a delivery reduced childbed fever fatality by 90%. Publication of his findings was not well received by the medical profession. The idea conflicted both with the existing medical concepts and with the image doctors had of themselves. The rejection of Semmelweis's empirical observations is often traced to belief perseverance, the psychological tendency of clinging to discredited beliefs. Also, some historians of science argue that resistance to path-breaking contributions of obscure scientists is common and "constitutes the single most formidable block to scientific advances”. The scorn and ridicule of doctors was so extreme that Semmelweis moved from Vienna and, following a breakdown, was eventually committed to a mental asylum, where he died.

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In a more recent example, several researchers have analyzed decision making that resulted in the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. The CIA's behavior in the event became the prime example cited for the psychology paradigm known as groupthink syndrome. One account on the process of invasion decision reads,

At each meeting, instead of opening up the agenda to permit a full airing of the opposing considerations, [President Kennedy] allowed the CIA representatives to dominate the entire discussion. The president permitted them to refute each tentative doubt immediately that one of the others might express, instead of asking whether anyone else had the same doubt or wanted to pursue the implications of the new worrisome issue that had been raised.

The Satanic panic is a moral panic consisting of over 12,000 unsubstantiated cases of Satanic ritual abuse starting in the United States in the 1980s, spreading throughout many parts of the world by the late 1990s, and persisting today. The panic originated in 1980 with the publication of Michelle Remembers, a book co-written by Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder and his patient (and future wife), Michelle Smith, which used the discredited practice of recovered-memory therapy to make sweeping lurid claims about satanic ritual abuse involving Smith. The allegations which afterwards arose throughout much of the United States involved reports of physical and sexual abuse of people in the context of occult or Satanic rituals. In its most extreme form, allegations involve a conspiracy of a global Satanic cult that includes the wealthy and powerful world elite in which children are abducted or bred for human sacrifices, pornography, and prostitution, an allegation that returned to prominence in the form of QAnon.

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On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members aboard.

The decision to launch the Challenger resulted in a tragic explosion.

The Challenger accident has been used as a case study for subjects such as engineering safety, the ethics of whistleblowing, communications and group decision-making, and the dangers of groupthink. Roger Boisjoly and Allan McDonald became speakers who advocated for responsible workplace decision making and engineering ethics. Information designer Edward Tufte has argued that the Challenger accident was the result of poor communications and overly complicated explanations on the part of engineers, and stated that showing the correlation of ambient air temperature and O-ring erosion amounts would have been sufficient to communicate the potential dangers of the cold-weather launch. Boisjoly contested this assertion and stated that the data presented by Tufte were not as simple or available as Tufte stated.

Despite the learning opportunities provide by the Challenger disaster, 17 years later on February 1, 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it reentered the atmosphere over Texas and Louisiana, killing all seven astronauts on board.

After investigating the causes of the disaster, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board determined that NASA lacked the appropriate communication and integration channels to allow problems to be discussed and effectively routed and addressed. This risk was further compounded by pressure to adhere to a launch schedule for construction of the International Space Station.

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On March 26, 1997, deputies of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department discovered the bodies of the 39 active members of the Heaven’s Gate religious group in a house in the San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe. The members had participated in a mass suicide, a coordinated series of ritual suicides, coinciding with the closest approach of Comet Hale–Bopp. Just before the mass suicide, the group's website was updated with the message: "Hale–Bopp brings closure to Heaven's Gate ...our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion—'graduation' from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave 'this world' and go with Ti's crew”.

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The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a United States-led invasion of the Republic of Iraq and the first stage of the Iraq War. The invasion was largely justified by allegations that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction. These allegations were false.

Despite the Bush administration's consistent assertion that Iraqi weapons programs justified an invasion, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz later cast doubt on the administration's conviction behind this rationale by saying in a May 2003 interview: "For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue – weapons of mass destruction– because it was the one reason everyone could agree on."

After the invasion, despite an exhaustive search led by the Iraq Survey Group involving a more than 1,400-member team, no evidence of Iraqi weapons programs was found. On the contrary, the investigation concluded that Iraq had destroyed all major stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and ceased production in 1991 when sanctions were imposed. The failure to find evidence of Iraqi weapons programs following the invasion led to considerable controversy in the United States and worldwide, including claims by critics of the war that the Bush and Blair administrations deliberately manipulated and misused intelligence to push for an invasion.

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A stock market crash is a sudden dramatic decline of stock prices across a major cross-section of a stock market, resulting in a significant loss of paper wealth. Crashes are driven by panic selling and underlying economic factors. They often follow speculation and economic bubbles.

A stock market crash is a social phenomenon where external economic events combine with crowd psychology in a positive feedback loop where selling by some market participants drives more market participants to sell.

Prominent examples of stock market crashes include Tulip Mania, the Panic of 1907, the Wall Street crash of 1929, Black Monday (1987), and many others.

A Ponzi scheme can maintain the illusion of a sustainable business as long as new investors contribute new funds, and as long as most of the investors do not demand full repayment and still believe in the non-existent assets they are purported to own. It works by deluding all the investors that their investments are continuing to grow.

The Madoff investment scandal was an elaborate multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme and a major case of stock and securities fraud discovered in late 2008. Prosecutors estimated the size of the fraud to be $64.8 billion. According to at least one estimate at least $35 billion of the money Madoff claimed to have stolen never really existed, but was simply fictional profits he reported to his clients

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On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded and occupied parts of Ukraine in a major escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War, which began in 2014. The invasion has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths on both sides and instigated Europe's largest refugee crisis since World War II. About 8 million Ukrainians were displaced within their country by June, and more than 8 million had fled the country by February 2023. Little is publicly known about how this tragic decision was made.

Other collective behaviors having poor outcomes include:

  • The tragedy of the commons is a situation in which individual users, who have open access to a resource unhampered by shared social structures, formal rules, charges, fees, or taxes that regulate access and use, act independently according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action when there are too many users related to the available resources. Examples include air pollution, water pollution, pollution of our knowledge commons by disinformation, mining, extraction of fossil fuels and fossil water, and overfishing.
  • Social loafing is the phenomenon of a person exerting less effort to achieve a goal when they work in a group than when working alone. It is seen as one of the main reasons groups are sometimes less productive than the combined performance of their members working as individuals. This is an instance of the larger free-rider problem.
  • Information cascades occur when external information obtained from previous participants in an event overrides one's own private signal, irrespective of the correctness of the former over the latter. Basically, an initial (often incorrect) decision gets amplified as others are influenced in turn by that decision. The Asche conformity experiments demonstrated similar effects in the 1950s.
  • Cults are social groups characterized unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs and rituals, or its common interest in a particular personality, object, or goal.
  • The tyranny of the majority is an inherent weakness to majority rule in which the majority of an electorate pursues exclusively its own objectives at the expense of those of the minority factions. This results in oppression of minority groups comparable to that of a tyrant or despot, argued John Stuart Mill in his 1859 book On Liberty.
  • Political polarization is the divergence of political attitudes away from the center, towards ideological extremes.
  • Decision paralysis is an individual or group process where overanalyzing or overthinking a situation can cause forward motion or decision-making to become "paralyzed", meaning that no solution or course of action is decided upon within a natural time frame. Analysis delays or even displaces action.
  • Several other criticisms of consensus decision making.

Several other examples of poor group decision making are listed in the Case Studies section of the Wikiversity course on Grand Challenges.

Contributing causes of failures of crowd intelligence identified in the book The Wisdom of Crowds include:

  • Homogeneity,
  • Centralization,
  • Division,
  • Imitation, and
  • Emotionality.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. The artificial intelligence program ChatGPT contributed to these ideas.