Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Are citizens' juries susceptible to groupthink?

In my last post I considered the question of whether citizens’ juries might help to lift public debate on issues which professional politicians find difficult to deal with. After looking at the process involved in a citizens’ jury on container deposit legislation, I concluded that it was likely to be particularly important for citizens’ juries to be asked the right questions.

The post provoked two different responses. Evan suggested that citizens’ juries could make a valuable input to policy, but there was a problem of legitimization i.e. the process required government backing. Anon (kvd) asked why it was necessary to place between ‘the people’ and their elected representatives a layer of ‘non-responsible, unelected, single-issue, unaccountable’ citizens’ juries. My response was that I agreed with both Evan and kvd, but what I meant was that both had raised good points. Citizens’ juries would certainly need to be seen to have legitimacy in order to have the desired effect on public debate. And the onus should certainly be on those who propose such innovations to show why they are necessary and are likely to succeed.

I think we should be looking for innovations to make the democratic systems work better because there is a tendency for democratic governments to over-reach – to raise public expectations of what they can achieve and to take on more responsibilities than they are able to cope with. This is reflected to some extent in the tendency for many governments to take on excessive debts, but I see the problem as much broader than that. I will write more about that at a later stage.

 I have had an interesting discussion with Shona (the person who suggested last year that it might be a good idea to think up a new political system) about the possibility that citizens’ juries might be susceptible to groupthink. The discussion arose because of the example in my last post of a citizens’ jury coming to a unanimous decision, while successive polls looking at the same issue found that support for the proposal diminished after provision of information to participants. Shona suggested that I should take a look at the relevant chapters of Stuart Sutherland’s book, ‘Irrationality’.

Irrationality: Stuart SutherlandSutherland makes the point that not only do people tend to conform to majority decisions but group attitudes tend also to be more extreme than those of individuals. Rather than the attitudes of each member of the group tending toward a mid-position, as members of the group interact they tend toward a more extreme position. One possible reason is that if the group attitude is tending in one direction, individual members may express more extreme views in order to gain approval from other members. Another possible reason is that the group is willing to take greater risks than its individual members because membership of the group spreads responsibility.

Research relating to legal juries suggests that conformity to majority views is common. For example, a US study by Nicole Waters and Valerie Hans indicates that while about 6 percent of criminal juries fail to reach unanimity over one-third of  jurors say that if the decision had been entirely up to them they would have voted against the jury’s decision.

The potential for members of citizens’ juries to conform to majority decisions and for group decisions to become polarised has been recognized by some researchers in this field. For example, R K Blamey, P McCarthy and R Smith of the ANU discussed these issues in their paper ‘Citizens’Juries and Small-group Decision-making’. The authors conclude that the fact that citizens’ juries are susceptible to biases does not necessarily mean that individual-based decision-making (e.g. via opinion surveys) should be preferred. They make various recommendations designed to minimize the weaknesses of group processes and to maximize their strengths.

There are some situations where the tendency of small groups to conform to majority decisions is desirable. For example, a fairly high degree of conformity to group decisions is required for a system of cabinet government to work effectively. It seems to me, however, that the tendencies for bias discussed above would pose substantial problems in using citizens’ juries in the manner I had contemplated. There is a good chance that the outcome of a citizens’ jury process would not be representatives of the views that a group of randomly chosen group of citizens would come to if they had the opportunity to consider an issue independently. 


Anonymous said...

Hello Winton. Thanks for more food for thought.

On the present system, are you thinking it is just temporarily fractured, or irretrievably broken? Just wondering why the need for these other mechanisms.

The move to a republic is bogged down - not as to if it might be a good thing, but more in the technicalities, the machinary, as to how a new head of state might be chosen. Superimposing that on the idea of "citizen juries" I'm thinking we probably couldn't agree even on the makeup, let alone what might be debated, and never mind the outcomes.

Did you note that the final report of Mr Rudd's 2020 summit (Governance stream) mentioned as a "good idea" the government to instruct the Australian Public Service (APS) that it has a duty to cooperate with the Parliament?

I was very much encouraged by that - particularly because it was stated twice. I took it to mean that the APS is working as designed, and just not simply as an extended PR department of whichever party happens to be in the ascendant on any Monday.


Winton Bates said...

Thanks for your comments, kvd. I think there are some longer term problems with democratic politics even in countries that don’t have to contend with proportional representation. In my view there has been a dumbing down of politics despite rising education levels. This is associated partly with technological change. Since the advent of TV there has been more focus on personalities and less on policies. Support for political parties has always been a bit like support for football teams, but with the development of the internet etc. reporting of politics has become more about entertainment rather than information about policies.

But I don’t think we should blame the media – to a large extent the media is just providing people with what they want. If you go looking you can still find quality journalism. I think the main problem has been the development of a culture in which all political opinions are considered to be equal. This seems to have displaced a defensible democratic culture in which every individual was thought capable of having an opinion worth taking into account if they took the trouble to inform themselves. I think school teachers are partly to blame for giving kids the idea that their opinions have value even though they haven’t gone through a thought process prior to being expressed. Modern technology helps the ignorant to express their views and to have them regarded as ‘public opinion’. These days the twits can twitter their views everywhere without risk that someone will take them aside and tell them to their face that they are displaying their ignorance.

The republic is a good case in point. It shouldn’t be too hard for people who support election of a president by popular vote to understand that this could have implications that they might not actually like. The question is how people can be encouraged to give more thought to such issues.

Rudd’s summit seems to me to have provided a networking opportunity for well-connected people, without actually producing anything useful. It is interesting that the nation’s opinion leaders were incapable of coming up with views that were worth taking seriously when they were expressing opinions off the top of their collective heads.