Emergence: why groups can think more clearly than individuals

Nick IngramThinking5 Comments

I’m reading psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind – why good people are divided by politics and religion“.  In many ways it’s a depressing read. One of Haidt’s basic claims is that people use their reasoning to defend political and ethical decisions they’ve already arrived at intuitively. They use reasoning as a post hoc defense of a position they’re already holding. They don’t use reasoning to actually come up with thought-through positions.

Haidt is brutal:

“The first principle of moral psychology is Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.” p106

Haidt sees our reasoning as the “press secretary” to “the President” of our sub-conscious and rapid intuitions. We’ve worked out what we think already. Reasoning’s job is to defend that position. It comes into play only after we’ve already worked out what we think intuitively. In Haidt’s words “Conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the president.” (p106).

It’s an uncomfortable claim, but as soon as I read it I had to acknowledge it was pretty true. I can’t think of a major political or ethical position that I have reasoned myself out of in the last five years. I’ve done a lot of thinking about a lot of issues. But I have pretty much used my reasoning to shore up my status quo positions. And if my Facebook and Twitter feeds are anything to go by, most other people are also doing a whole lot of post hoc reasoning, and not a lot of truth seeking.

So, if human beings are so rubbish at reasoning – or at least so rubbish at reasoning to get to the truth – what hope is there? Well, Haidt places a lot of hope in the power of emergence – and in particular in good reasoning being an “emergent property” of a well constructed group.

What is “emergence”?

Emergence is what happens when a new property comes out of a system, none of whose parts have that property. The classic example of emergence is Fritjof Capra’s discussion of how sweetness is an emergent property of the sugar molecule (pictured in the header to this post). Here he is quoted in “Theatre for living, the art and science of community based dialogue“:

“When carbon (C), Oxygen (O) and hydrogen (H) atoms bond in a certain way to form sugar, the resulting compound has a sweet taste. The sweetness resides neither in the C, nor in the O, nor in the H; it resides in the pattern that emerges from their interaction. It is an emergent property. Moreover, strictly speaking, the sweetness is not a property of the chemical bonds. It is a sensory experience that arises when the sugar molecules interact with the chemistry of our taste buds, which in turns causes a set of neurons to fire in a certain way. The experience of sweetness emerges from that neural activity.”
Emergent properties can be seen everywhere:
  • The behaviour of a school of fish.
  • Bubbles and crashes in stock markets.
  • Even (some would say) consciousness itself.


Do groups have some kind of emergent property that helps them think together well? Haidt’s claim is exactly this.

Good reasoning as an emergent property of a well designed group

Jonathan Haidt’s claim is that good reasoning can emerge from a well designed group. That, at least, is cause for some hope. Even though an individual reasoner is really only good at one thing – “finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds” (p105) – you can, despite this, create a group “that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system” (p105).

How do you create such a group? Haidt identifies some requirements:

  • Individuals need to be allowed to use their reasoning powers to challenge the views of others.
  • All individuals in the group need to share a common bond, or a shared goal.
  • The group needs to have norms to ensure civility.
  • The group needs intellectual and ideological diversity.

Think about this the next time you’re designing a strategy workshop. Or the next time you’re thinking about the constitution of a board or advisory group.

Over to you

What groups have you seen function well? Do they match Haidt’s requirements for good reasoning? And, have you changed your mind on a political or ethical issue in recent years? Or have you (like me) been using your reasoning simply to shore up a pre-existing intuition? As always, leave a comment below. And if you haven’t subscribed to the weekly email – hit the subscribe button in the top right corner.

5 Comments on “Emergence: why groups can think more clearly than individuals”

  1. When I read the headline, I thought what rot. Consultants like Nick want us to believe that group thinking is better because they make their living facilitating strategy workshops. But committees have guided agendas that direct the thinking of the group and facilitators of workshops hear the voices that bring the conclusions that the organizers want. However, I do like Haidt’s four conditions for effective group thinking. Only I think that the ability to express independent ideas that challenge the group thinking may need to be developed, not just allowed.

    1. Hi Jeff. So I might be “talking my book” a little bit with this post :) But hopefully I’ve made the case that often a group will do a better job than just a single individual, not least because of our innate biases that a well-meaning group can “call”. Hopefully as a facilitator I find what the group is saying, not what the organisers want! Glad you like the four conditions for effective group thinking – hopefully we’ve been doing that with SU :)

  2. How do you create such a group? Haidt’s requirements leave me legless (i.e. no visible means of forward locomotion…)
    • Individuals need to be allowed to use their reasoning powers to challenge the views of others. – using their reasoning powers which are rubbish (opening premise)
    • All individuals in the group need to share a common bond, or a shared goal. – where did this come from – is it an infinite recursion – some prior group had the sense to make it up – or is it the result of more rubbish reasoning from an individual?
    • The group needs to have norms to ensure civility – Victorian civility? Roberts Rules civility? (infinitely recursive emergent group wisdom) or Intuited civility (i.e. bypassing the rubbish reasoning?)

    Clearly I find Haidt’s framework “a little emergence will fix it” a rather inadequate account of how we make and transmit meaning in society…

  3. Hi Nick, David..

    seeing this a few years later, yet here are my thoughts in response…

    David, I agree that Haidt is not offering any “how to’s” with regard to how to meet his “basic conditions”. Yet from experience, the conditions seem quite sound if you consider that:

    1) reasoning powers are not so much ‘rubbish’ as partial and biased. When you have a group where those biases can be challenged (by others in the group who have different intellectual and ideological biases, per criteria #4) then the overall quality of the reasoning improves;

    2) common bond or shared goal can arise from a shared context. For example, a max-mix group of people from the same organization, can share the common endeavor of having their organization work more effectively, while having very different perspectives of what it would take to do so.

    3) re “norms to ensure civility” … or, effective formats and supports to help people feel heard and stay in their creative brains rather than shift into defensive and protective lizard-brain behaviors. Which is what group facilitation is all about…

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