The science of compromise; changing idealistic objectives to suit the real world

Fig. 1: Professor Janis’s 1972 Victims of Groupthink is best summed up by the first paragraph of the publisher’s blurb on the back cover: “Groupthink – the psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses dissent and appraisal of alternatives in cohesive decision making groups.” However, in the book Janis makes it clear that groupthink sycophancy is not consensus through overt dictatorial or overt censorship under explicit threats that dissenters will be executed or somehow punished.

The whole problem of groupthink is that its existence is denied by the individuals involved, who claim they have liberty and freedom to voice doubts, e.g. President Kennedy’s advisers on the Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion fiasco of 1961 (which Janis shows to have been a completely deluded plan based on cherry-picked “evidence”, which failed to achieve what was intended and caused Khrushchev to put nuclear missiles into Cuba to try to defend it, in the 1962 Cuban missiles crisis).

Eight main symptoms run through the case studies of historic fiascoes. Each symptom can be identified by a variety of indicators, derived from historical records, observer’s accounts of conversations, and participants’ memoirs. The eight symptoms of groupthink are:

1. an illusion of invulnerability, shared by most or all the members, which creates excessive optimism and encourages taking extreme risks;

2. collective efforts to rationalize in order to discount warnings which might lead the members to reconsider their assumptions before they recommit themselves to their past policy decisions;

3. an unquestioned belief in the group’s inherent morality, inclining the members to ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions;

4. stereotyped views of enemy leaders as too evil to warrant genuine attempts to negotiate, or as too weak and stupid to counter whatever risky attempts are made to defeat their purposes;

5. direct pressure on any member who expresses strong arguments against any of the group’s stereotypes, illusions, or commitments, making clear that this type of dissent is contrary to what is expected of all loyal members;

6. self-censorship of deviations from the apparent group consensus, reflecting each member’s inclination to minimize to himself the importance of his doubts and counterarguments;

7. a shared illusion of unanimity concerning judgments conforming to the majority view (partly resulting from self-censorship of deviations, augmented by the false assumption that silence means consent);

8. the emergence of self-appointed mindguards – members who protect the group from adverse information that might shatter their shared complacency about the effectiveness and morality of their decisions.

– Irving L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972, page 197.

What are our objectives?

If we are biased and seek something that doesn’t exist or is impossible or totally impracticable, we’re done in for. “Never, never, never give up,” and “When going through hell, keep going”, are Churchill’s advice under the conditions of fighting fascism in World War II. They’re obviously not valid arguments against abandoning ship if you’re sinking fast.

“Cut your losses”, and “When in a hole, stop digging,” are two other pieces of advice that totally opposes the advice that you should never quit. Sometimes you do need to quit. We all know that the problems in life focus on the decision of exactly when we give up on something. This can be a major cause of worry and anxiety in our daily lives, and in business decisions it leads to the requirement for managers who get paid large amounts of money to come to (hopefully) the right decisions. There are various ways in which decisions can be handled by such “experts”.

Research can be done to try to uncover useful data that shows what the real prospects of alternative courses of action. Unfortunately, cases where good research are available are always cases which pose no problems at all; everyone can make the right decision where the evidence makes it obvious. All of the difficulty (which we’re concerned with) always occurs in connection with problems where there are “controversy” problems with the research and the data: it’s either self-contradictory or it’s extremely incomplete, or hard to infer anything concrete from. Efforts to utilize such incomplete knowledge are often connected to dictatorship, where a strong-willed leader takes captaincy and decides the course of action. Another option is procrastination, delaying the decision until more data is available or the options are clearer. Sometimes this is the best option, sometimes (e.g. the appeasement of the Nazis in the 1930s) it just makes matters worse because without firm action, crises may simply escalate and problems become too big to handle efficiently.

Everything then depends on the leader’s biases and experience. In a democracy, leaders will feel impelled to lie about the evidence in order to get any kind of consent for anything, otherwise the country will be split into “we’re in a hole and should stop digging” and “never, never, never give up” camps, causing paralysis and the escalation of crises, because nothing will ever be done at all.

Objectives in individual human lives

Let’s move away from big politics and examine precisely how we decide as individuals what our objectives in our lives are. From the start, we have to recognise that we change objectives to a greater or lesser extent as we go through life, accumulating experiences, and becoming increasingly bored of some things, and increasing curious about others. “Tipping points” occur, often as a spontaneous opportunistic decision after a gradually increasing interest in something, when we change our patterns of behaviour and do new things, or do things differently. What are the factors that influence our changing objectives in life, and the means by which we seek to fulfil them?

The dating game

A brilliant example of the kind of human real world problem rife with groupthink delusions and pseudoscience is dating. Let’s examine all of the factors involved in detail. Ignoring for a moment groupthink taboos and superstitions about the “mystery of love”, some of the obvious factors involved in finding a date are similar to marketing: you are likely to want the best deal that you can get. Because of social taboos, it is customary to ignore physical attractions or money, and to lyingly pretend that love is something undefinable. It’s obvious that looks or money alone are no solution, but can often be factors taken into consideration as a “eligibility test” or “qualifier”, before other factors are examined in detail. But we’re jumping the gun! What exactly are our objectives here, and when do we decide on them?

Going back to the marketing analogy, if we decide to barter or buy something very important in our lives, like a house, we have to take account of (1) what is available, and (2) what we can afford. But we might not be desperate to immediately buy from the selection available now. We might be willing to defer acquiring a new house until something more suitable (in location, size, features, and/or cost) comes on to the market at a later date. So now we have a third variable in our equation, (3) time. How long are we prepared to wait for someone to sell the “ideal” house? This depends in turn on what our situation is now. If we have something that is OK now, we will be likely to stick it out for longer, awaiting something better. But if we are extremely depressed with our current situation, we may feel the need to accelerate the process, by compromising and making a selection from the currently available list of options.

All of these factors come into play in the dating game. But it is not that simple. First of all, what exactly are we looking for? Even when looking to acquire a house or a pet, there is some give and take involved; we can be swayed by individual circumstances. We may “fall in love” with a friendly dog of a breed we didn’t think we wanted, or we “fall in love” with a property that differs from our initial intention. In other words, we may allow ourselves to change our objectives according to circumstances. We’re not rigid machines which stick to a set of initial objectives no matter what. So, how and why do we make such “irrational” decisions to change our initial plans?

Changing our objectives on a whim

This looks at first glance like something very complex and magical, something explaining how we fall in love with somebody or some new gadget. Nothing could be further from the truth, because in marketing studies, an emormous amount of research has been done into how people change their minds on a whim and fall in love with something that they hadn’t deliberately planned ahead for as an objective in dating or life. Because the selling houses and cars and all manner of gadgets is dependent upon last minute final decisions, it’s big business and well researched. First of all, we like to be in control, and we feel in control when we are free to change our minds on a whim. We don’t change our minds because we’re pushed by a salesman, which has the opposite effect and creates the impression of losing control.

But if we are shown an option and led to fall in love with its features and advantages, we may decide to exercise our human freedom to purchase that item on a whim, particularly since we are well-versed with our planned (different) intention and thus can easily and quickly compare the new option with the previous plan to ascertain the advantages and disadvantages.

Development of original and varied objectives

Our original objectives are likely to be based on groupthink prejudices, some of them valid, others less so. As we acquire experience, we may modify or eliminate these prejudices, replacing them with a set of concrete personal experiences from which we try to assemble more useful future objectives. Suppose you start off seeking the world’s most beautiful woman or most eligible (in looks, fame and wealth) prince. While the example of future queen Kate Middleton shows that it’s not impossible to end up in such a situation, such an objective is obviously likely to end up in failure because of either overwhelming competition, or improbability of even achieving a personal meeting.

So let’s examine the factors involved in assembling provisional objectives about dating. There has been some research done into this by academic psychologists and also some field experience reported by “pick up artists” like Erik von Markovik, who had a 2007 VH1 reality television series, The Pick-up Artist. First of all, let’s examine potential meeting places.

School, college, university, windsurfing centres, scuba diving centres, and work places are examples of some places you may socialise with people who may share similar interests and a nearby location. However, bars and nightclubs are another, or complementary, option. Alcohol consumption is associated with the dating scene, for lowering social convention inhibitions. Markovik uses evolutionary theory to try to break down the bar chat up process into a lot of steps to find and chat up a partner:

Now let’s examine the implicit assumptions here. You go into a bar wearing fancy gear and look around for lingering eye contact from women, and hey presto! The one who returns a look is giving an “indicator of interest”, and you’re away. All very simple, providing you have brilliant eyesight, the place is well lit, the girls have nothing to do but look at every stranger coming in, and indeed the girls are single and not accompanied by their boyfriends. Then you’re assuming that the music isn’t so loud you can talk. If you do ever find yourself in such a non-existent place in a parallel universe, you won’t need pick up artist training! But let’s take it one step further.

Suppose you are in a more real world situation, such as a participant on some activity, then how do you choose which person to chat to? Furthermore, suppose you get polite thanks for your helpfulness but know that everybody else has a partner. Do you continue to express interest? Do you “escalate” by putting an arm around a work colleague you fancy? Sure, if you can’t be bothered to email a resignation letter and just want to be fired! In most situations, you won’t actually be able to control who you deal with. You may not be able to hang around attractive people at work or even on activity programs, where seating arrangements and timetables may prevent or curtail personal chat. So then you might want to arrange to meet socially at a bar or nightclub. Suppose you ask everyone and get no interest. Now you’re in a fix for two reasons. First, your self-esteem goes to zero or (if everyone has a good reason, like being married) you become depressed or “bored” (because hope evaporates). Second, and more important, you may irritate some people who give ambiguous answers, until they become hostile when they are pushed into being definite.

If they group is so big that there are endless “possibilities”, you’ll be a stranger to everyone. If the group is so small that you know everyone well enough that you could talk to anyone, you won’t want to risk labelling yourself a nuisance by doing so. This is particularly the case if you are insecure. If you have endless obvious positive attributes and endless happy childhood memories to cheer you up, you may be secure enough to talk to everyone in a “confident” manner and will come across as “charming”, rather than repulsively “arrogant”. If people stop smiling and laughing and screw up their brows into a frown as they try to hear what you’re saying, then you’re the opposite of charming and if you want to preserve some self respect you don’t persist in annoying people.

This is particularly the case if you have had hearing problems since childhood that have affected your speech negatively at some stage, and you have subconsciously adapted lower your voice and speed up your speech when feeling nervous in social situations, in order to minimise your impact (you don’t want to make an impact when a kid, when speech defect are mimicked while a child, so you tend to avoid social situations). Obviously, this is precisely the opposite of what you need to do to be social. So how to you become charming, speaking confidently with sufficient amplitude and slowly enough, while feeling extremely uncomfortable and unhappy? You can’t use email as a substitute for chatting, because it’s too easy and too formal, and if you don’t get a reply it’s unclear what has gone wrong. Has the person decided not to reply, or have they forgotten to reply or changed email addresses? Face to face discussion can be equally difficult with two-faced people, but at least you can learn something from it.

The marketing problem

The best marketing strategy in all business transactions is to design a product to best suit the intended objective. In the context of dating, this suggests that you should develop the charm and qualities you have reason to believe are needed for your dating objectives. For example, if you want a fit partner, you should become fit. If you want a visually attractive partner with nice teeth, you should ensure that you see an orthodontist if needed to straighten out any out-of-place canines and incisors. Nobody is purely interested in these trivial things, any more than scratches on the side of a car, but they add up in two ways: (1) the fewer visible defects you have, the more likely you will cross the first hurdle of at least getting to chat to a potential partner, while if you go out to show off defects then you will minimise your chances of even getting to chat to anyone, and (2) by getting fewer immediate rejections, you will be less depressed and better able to focus on the next and harder stage of dating, which making a charming impression with fun, spontaneous conversation.

Which is not exactly a discussion of the spin of gravitons or efficient subroutines in C++ programming. There’s quite a knack or art to breezy conversation, and having that knack obviously works as a demonstrator of social skills to your audience. So you are then into a situation where you’re having to practice social skills (instead of reading, watching TV or working on computers), in order to acquire a vital asset that increases your dating charm. Now we’re stacking up a lot of effort to impress. But what is the objective anyway? Who precisely are we trying to impress with charm, fancy gear and nice grooming?

Impressing everybody

One girl who would wear eye-catching jumpsuits, tight jeans, or even what looked like a bridal dress (with bare feet!) to work every day, and she was deliberately looking highly attractive at all times, not just dressing up for special evening events. That certainly worked for her, since she forever being chatted up and was never without a boyfriend and an endless number of equally confident admirers. It’s actually illogical you should only take care to look good when going out in the evenings. You should try to impress everybody at all times by appearance and style, to maximise experience to socialise with self-confidence wherever needed.

This is the opposite of the “targetting” strategy. Instead of targetting the hard sell on a particular person, who might not have any interest at all, you try to improve the product – yourself – to attract customers. This doesn’t avoid the problem of deciding your objectives. What is love (i.e., what is the difference between love and attraction), and how do you find someone genuine, who you would want to live with?

What is the objective of dating?

If you are extremely busy with a career and have limited time, you may not make dating a priority. Or you may keep dating to little more than friendship. Love is obviously some kind of mutual affection, but isn’t defined quantitatively. Couples who are minimally in love (just a strong friendship, really) tend to have the calmest and most enduring relationships, with the least jealousy and anxiety about what the other is doing at all times.

If you have low self-esteem and manage (with great perseverance, luck, and effort) to “bag” someone who is highly attractive, you may be asking for trouble and endless anxiety about your partner meeting other people and falling in love with someone else. So the nature of a relationship will depend on whether there is a mismatch. If one person in a relationship will have substantially more difficulty in finding another partner than the other, then that is a source of potential instability, and may be used as a bargaining chip for one side to coerce the other. Examples of this coercion are situations where spouses are ill-treated and don’t leave the relationship for fear of being unable to find another partner, and also “sugar daddy” situations where high-maintenance women coerce their partners into paying for love. More balanced relationships will be based on shared interests, activities, and hobbies.

Therefore, the objective of a relationship is not simply a matter of impulsive chemical “love”, but involves many variables. Exactly what kind of love do you want? Statistically many relationships “fail” after a certain length of time because people’s objectives change. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the relationship will have been a complete waste of time. It may have been useful to fill in a period of your lives which would otherwise have been lonely. This “stop gap” relationship is worth analysis because it is very common with those women who flit between boyfriends.

“Stop gap” relationships

You meet Mr or Ms Right, but they’re in a relationship. Yet they seem “friendly”. Are they interested in you as a potential boyfriend, or are they just friendly to everyone? Are they in love with the person they are with now? If not, they why are they in a relationship? If they are in love, then you should chat to someone else and not start to fall for them because unrequited love is a nightmare and you don’t want to annoy anyone. The first problem here is actually knowing if they’re in any kind of relationship or not. The absence of marriage and engagement rings is not a foolproof indicator of being single. If you ask, that’s personal and you may give offense: “it’s none of your business whether I’m single!” So you will end up talking to people at the bar who appear single, but whose partners are simply away for a minute in the gent’s.

It’s perfectly straightforward to avoid any possibility of ever chatting to someone who is in a relationship: simply lock yourself in a prison and talk to nobody. It’s not possible to chat to people socially, while avoid those are in a relationship, because you can’t identify them without chatting socially, and most people are in some kind of friendship anyway. The majority of people will be in some kind of relationship for their whole lives without any clear cut totally “single” or “alone” period, and will simply move between relationships by escalating a friendship into a relationship, when another relationship ends, with no loss of continuity (no period of being single).

People who in relationships all the time and are never single, will be unattractive to bystanders, who can see that they’re – in effect – just “test driving” people all the time, one after another, and therefore are not likely to prove to be a long-term partner unless you are (1) sufficiently different to the other guys she dates to warrant a longer-term relationship, and (2) sufficiently similar to the other guys to still be attractive! Since those two criteria are pretty much diametrically opposed to one another, it’s unlikely that you will happen by chance to be the guy to fit her bill of being prince charming, unless you are particularly special.

The romance of being particularly special

Now we’re back to square one. How far are you prepared to modify your relationship objectives by changing yourself? Being “particularly special” may require an active effort to accomplish something unusually impressive in life which will win over your “true love”. There are problems here:

1. How do you know she won’t fall for someone else before you succeed?
2. How do you know you will succeed?
3. If you do succeed, will you be bitter about the pain she put you through?
4. Why should you go through all that, when lots of people don’t have to?
5. It’s a chicken and egg situation: you need love throughout, to see you through the challenges! (The mere hope that you might get love as a result if you succeed, may not be a strong enough motivation to drive you on through all the hardships and difficulties which must be overcome.)
6. The more unique your plan to accomplish something impressive, the more likely you are to fail.
7. If you do succeed, but it doesn’t impress her, your self-confidence will disappear.

If you happen to be looking for company to make life’s challenges and difficulties survivable, this is a Catch 22 situation. Sufficient exercise, like running or swimming for sustained periods until too tired to continue, releases endorphins which bring about a sense of happiness. But do you have the self-discipline to exercise regularly when single? If you feel depressed and miss a couple of runs or swims, you’ll feel it harder next time you work out, and are liable to spiral out of shape. On the other hand, what is the effect of being in a terrific relationship? If you’re feeling happy through love all the time, do you need to go running or swimming regularly for the feel-good endorphins?

Other problems with friendships and relationships

A pretty obvious idea – behind all relationships – is first form friendships, and then allow things to develop from there “naturally”. This involves a certain amount of time, which is in limited supply. There are however very subtle communication problems involved in making this work “naturally”. You become friendly with someone who is in a relationship. Fine. Suddenly they’re in a relationship with someone else, without apparently being single or dating you at all. So what? It’s the law of large numbers. If this kind of thing happens occasionally, no problem. But if it always happens, it indicates something is going wrong from your perspective. Let’s say you get indicators from your friend in a relationship that they are not 100% happy.

Do you respond: (1) “Dump him, you’d be happy if you were my partner”, or (2) “Don’t worry, it’s normal to have some rocky patches in any relationship; things will probably get better, just hang in there!” Morally, if you’re Catholic, Christian, etc., then answer (2) is the correct answer. In many cases answer (1) would end the friendship with you, rather than the relationship. But if you always give answer (2), then it can be misinterpreted as meaning you’re not interested in them. The classic example is the case where you don’t want to cause a couple to break up. But it often happens anyway, regardless of whatever you do “right”. I remember one Christmas office party when a girl wanted to dance with me who was the partner of a colleague who had cancer, in front of the guy and his brother, who was obviously embarrassed and asked me if I was OK dancing with her. So that was the end of the only dance lesson with an attractive woman at a party ever. Later I heard they broken up and acquired new partners, so dancing probably wouldn’t have made any long-term difference at all!

So I have a feeling that I should keep up my running and swimming and finish with my interest in physics before trying to get married later this year. Why is it that all the fit girls I went windsurfing, surfing and scuba diving with in Ibiza last year were Australian, German and Spanish, not English? Suppose I’ll have to become fluent in all those languages…


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