Group Think: When Two Heads are Worse than One (Science and Sewing, in one post at last!)

It’s my untested belief that expertise in any technical field will result in a near-total loss of respect for journalism.

I know it did for me. The more I learned about climate change, the biodiversity crisis, environmental regulations, and renewable energy, the more I realized that newspaper articles reflected reality only by chance, in passing. More often, an ill-equipped person with good writing skills and no critical thinking ability would write a piece far outside of their education and background by interviewing a bunch of people who claimed to be experts, without evaluating their credentials. We get climate change pieces giving equal weight to well-respected international climate experts and oil-funded PR hacks, pieces on renewable energy with well-reasoned arguments by scientists quoting the best available information and fruit-loop arguments by naturopaths who wouldn’t recognize a herz if it came up and hit them on the head.

And you end up with a voting public almost completely muddled on key issues because they’ve come to the completely totally 100% incontrovertibly WRONG conclusion that there are two sides.

Of course people are entitled to their opinions. I am legally well within my rights to believe that Mars is peopled by winged skeletons who worship Lily Allen. But the legal right to hold an opinion is not the same, and can’t be the same, as the attitude that reality is then required to bend to accommodate that opinion. No matter what I believe, Mars is in fact NOT peopled by winged skeletons who worship Lily Allen, or by anything at all. The experts are right and I am just plain wrong. (Or I would be, if I held that opinion.)

This set of science experiments sheds some light on the psychology of our inherent tendency to give equal weight to two contrary opinions, even when one comes from an expert and the other does not. Fortunately, for those of you who have no intention of purchasing the article for the low-low price of $10, you can also read this fun summation in the Washington Post.

This went on for 256 intervals, so the two individuals got to know each other quite well — and to know one another’s accuracy and skill quite well. Thus, if one member of the group was better than the other, both would pretty clearly notice. And a rational decision, you might think, would be for the less accurate group member to begin to favor the views of the more accurate one — and for the accurate one to favor his or her own assessments.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, report the study authors, “the worse members of each dyad underweighted their partner’s opinion (i.e., assigned less weight to their partner’s opinion than recommended by the optimal model), whereas the better members of each dyad overweighted their partner’s opinion.” Or to put it more bluntly, individuals tended to act “as if they were as good or as bad as their partner” — even when they quite obviously weren’t.

The researchers tried several variations on the experiment, and this “equality bias” didn’t go away. In one case, a “running score” reminded both members of the pair who was faring better (and who worse) at identifying the target — just in case it wasn’t obvious enough already. In another case, the task became much more difficult for one group member than the other, leading to a bigger gap in scores — accentuating differences in performance. And finally, in a third variant, actual money was offered for getting it right.

None of this did away with the “equality bias.”

The research psychologists attribute this to our need to belong to groups and get along with people. It seems that need outweighs any practical consideration, a good deal of the time, including when money is on the line. Fascinating, right? People who are right and know they’re right defer to people they know are wrong in order to get along and maintain group dynamics, even when it costs them to do so.

When it comes to climate change, this is a serious problem.

Aside: Climate change is a real thing that is really happening and is a complete and total catastrophe. There is no debate on this point in any credible scientific circle. If you think that there is, I’m so sorry, but you’ve been had.

/aside

We end up not moving forward with policy solutions because we keep acting like the actual experts and the paid non-expert hacks share some kind of equivalence when they patently don’t.

But–and I’m sure I’m not the only person thinking this–it’s present in every community, including the SBC.

Ah! See? I told you I’d come around to it.

People act as if the opinions and contributions of experts and amateurs are equivalent when they are not.

Thankfully, the fates of human civilization and a minimum of 30% of animal and plant species do not rest on this fact. The worst that happens in most cases is that a person walks around for a good long time in a garment that looks like utter shit and feels really fabulous about it. On a scale of worldwide catastrophe, it doesn’t even rank.

On the other hand, as this science makes pretty clear, an entire generation of sewers are being educated largely by internet celebrities who are too incompetent even to understand how incompetent they are. It’s not a catastrophe, no, but it is a crying shame. And as predicted by the social psychologists, if anyone ever speaks up to point out that some of them are experts and other are, well … not …, they are pilloried as Mean Girls, jelluz haterz, and bullies.

Aside 2: Yep, I count myself in the group of people sometimes wandering happily about in a garment that on later reflection was not up to snuff. It happens. We’re all human. I won’t melt if someone points it out, though tact is always preferred. It doesn’t count as “bravery” to “put yourself out there” if you feel entitled to nothing but praise; and if you’re going to present your work in public you need to be prepared for public criticism.

/aside

So it’s not the end of the world, no, but it’s a detriment to all of us. The people getting the money, in many cases, haven’t earned it; the people with valuable skills to share don’t have the platform to do so; we keep acting as if everyone’s equal when they’re not to be Nice and keep everyone happy, even though not everyone is happy; there are entire boiling lava rivers of resentment and bitterness flowing right under all the green meadows we’re so happily skipping over (in our badly-pressed culottes and boxy tops with peter pan collars, no less). It’s weird. Can’t we, as an online culture, agree that it’s not a violation of the Geneva Convention if someone points out that a hem is crooked or a print isn’t matched? Does it matter if it’s not “nice”? Don’t we all benefit from increased honesty and openness? Do any of us actually expect to be perfect, or need to be treated as if we are perfect in order to function day to day? If you really don’t want people to point out how you fucked up, is it so much to ask that you acknowledge it yourself, then? Hey look at this horrible side seam–I really fucked up!

That went off on a bit of a tangent. Pardon me. Let’s drag it back on track:

The Equality Bias! It makes everything worse while we smile and pretend nothing’s wrong. Fight it!

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12 thoughts on “Group Think: When Two Heads are Worse than One (Science and Sewing, in one post at last!)”

  1. I have mixed feelings on this topic (or family of topics, as it were). Looking back on my first sewing attempts, I was certainly a beginner with no clue how incompetent I was. I was self-taught, internet-tutorial-taught and Big-4-pattern-instructions-taught. I made every mistake possible, like having my unfinished seams dissolve in the wash, sewing with knits on a woven pattern, and a general ignorance of grainline, to mention only a few. What kept my skills moving forward was noting what didn’t work and researching how to fix it. But, if someone had commented on my Burdastyle page and said “hey, nice try, but your hem looks like shit” without my asking what was wrong with my hem, I’m not sure I would have maintained my willingness to share my sewing online (although that loss would be debatable!) or even keep sewing. Maybe when I’d made that poorly-hemmed project, I was practicing sewing straight seams. I think most sewers want to and do improve, and I’m not sold that un-focused drive-by criticism helps that. I generally have 2-3 areas I’m asking for input on about when I blog and trying to get better at, and millions of little things outside my skill area that are only starting to enter my consciousness. Ideally, I’d really like it if people who knew more than me shared their knowledge freely with me about those 2-3 areas.

    I do agree it’s a shame that of the most skilled sewing voices don’t get heard as loudly as some of the better-packaged voices, however, and I would absolutely love more honesty and openness particularly around products we’re being marketed. What that looks like, I do not know. As a hobby sewer and amateur blogger, I don’t want to review anything that seems like it might be a waste of my time.

    Just a little side note I thought you might find interesting – one of my school projects was to research and prototype a way for people to find and save helpful product reviews. My team learned that people are looking for reviews with writers with slightly more – but not dramatically more and definitely not less – expertise than themselves.

    Ok. Thanks for reading this rather wordy comment 🙂

    1. Are you kidding? I love wordy comments. Especially tactfully disagreeing wordy comments. They make my day.

      To me, this comes back to what kind of space blogs exist in. There are a few ways people have of looking at them.

      For a lot of people–including, I think, most bloggers, though I have no evidence on that to back me up–blogs are an extension of the people who make them, and therefore should be treated like people. You wouldn’t go up to a person on the street and tell them that their clothes suck (or maybe someone would, but not anyone any of us would like to know).

      To other people–including, I think, most blog readers–blogs are a form of public entertainment, much like reality TV shows or memoirs, and as such, blog posts and related products are open to the same kind of feedback and criticism. No one thinks twice about hashing some reality TV star down to smithereens about just about anything, and if you write and publish a memoir you’d better be prepared for your lifestyle choices to be the subject of talk shows all over the continent (which in that case would be better than being ignored, probably).

      And on this I side with the second group.

      Blogging is a form of publishing. Once it’s published, it’s as open to criticism as any other published work. It’s not up to an audience to manage the emotions of the artist or performer; it’s up to the artist or performer to manage their own emotional reactions to the impact their work has on their audience. If an actor wants to stop acting after a film they’re in gets horrible reviews, well, that’s understandable, but it’s not the audience’s job to love the movie so the actor feels better.

      In that sense, a blog is very different from a forum or message board, where people are more clearly people and not performers.

      I remember in my mom blogging days having something of an existential crisis when I realized that most of my readers related to my blog as a soap opera or TV show featuring a set of characters, and not as my life. It was hard and it was depressing but it was also totally fair, and by making my story public in that way, I had in fact invited that kind of reaction. Also I was only too aware of the ways in which I had modified the presentation of my life (and myself) in order to make the blog better or increase the distance between it and my Real Life. I couldn’t very well say “this isn’t really me, it’s my blog persona” and then take it seriously when people didn’t relate to it as a person. It was my job to manage that for myself.

      Same thing with the work I sometimes do for my career: it is not the public’s job to care about my feelings at a public meeting. It is their job to voice their concerns, as vociferously as they like, so long as they do so within the bounds of the law. It is then my job to hear those concerns and respond to them, no matter how they’re worded.

      I don’t know. I think in general women are socialized to take too much responsibility for the feelings of the people around them and not prioritize their own feelings enough.

      1. I can’t believe it’s taken me weeks to respond! For some reason, my work firewall has blocked your blog, and I’ll admit that work hours are my main internetting time…

        Yes, I think many bloggers would be wise to understand that what they are creating is ultimately be consumed as an entertainment product. I think that would at least require them to raise their guards a bit. But, how many people are aware of the difference between a thing (aka their life) and a representation of a thing (a blog post about their life)? At least here in the U.S., there’s barely any media literacy let alone social media literacy. What I’ve learned about the subject has been in college, and a small liberal arts one at that.

        The bloggers most prepared for their content to be consumed as entertainment are the professionals. And not only are they prepared but they know how to use it to their benefit. I get the sense that most sewing bloggers are nowhere near professionals (in terms of intention, skill sets or compensation) and are simply looking for a way to connect with other sewers. Those tend to be the blogs I prefer to read, not because I’m opposed to people being compensated for their work but because the content has more interesting tidbits to me – new skills they’re working on, demonstrations of their personal taste, etc. – and less content about selling. And even if I know that what they’re publishing is a representation of themselves, it feels closer to a human than a larger profitable blog. I think the likening of small sewing blogs to, say, Cupcakes & Cashmere, focuses on the medium at the exclusion of a lot of other factors.

        My interest in this argument is that I selfishly want an environment that encourages rather than discourages amateur sewing blogs. Then again, is it realistic to hope that my favorite form of (free-ish) entertainment will continue to thrive? I also don’t know.

      2. I’m just happy and flattered when people reply. 😉

        I think a lot of what you say is valid. And of course I too want to see the SBC thrive, along with a lot of smaller and less professional bloggers/sewers (which are also the ones I tend to enjoy reading). But that still doesn’t make it the audience’s responsibility. It’s like community theatre vs. a Hollywood movie. Well, yeah, we have different expectations for the level of acting skill and the ability to deal with attention from someone who has the odd role in a volunteer community performance vs., say, Jennifer Lawrence or Hugh Jackman, and that’s perfectly reasonable. But ultimately, even in community theatre, if you want to be on the stage you’re going to have to deal with bad reviews. They’ll just be published in the community paper instead of the NYT.

  2. Oh I very much agree! I look online at forums and blogs because I want to be inspired and/or learn something.

    I think when someone is starting out encouragement is more important than correction. But at a certain point (after a few projects) tips should be welcome and you should except to reach higher standards to get the same praise.

    My rule is to accept but distrust glowing praise and to try to read between the lines with other comments. Or sometimes just outright ask for help. I have never met anyone who sees who doesn’t understand mistakes happen.

  3. I love this stuff! I think the issue is that we spend a lot of time discussing the importance of building consensus and working together and not nearly enough focused on accuracy/good results/tangible outcomes.
    I honestly believe that the decline in “mainstream” media is part of the problem – papers no longer have the money to pay for expert journalists who will actually analyse and instead just regurgitate media releases.

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