by Bill Snyder
A study of the U.S. Supreme Court suggests that differences of opinion pressure groups to improve their analyses, resulting in more complex, fleshed out decisions.
Good managers know that the proverbial “yes man” isn’t much of an asset. But when it comes time to build work teams, many business managers, either by design or through inattention, staff them with people who are prone to think alike. In effect, they’ve built “yes teams.”
As a result, those teams fail to make the best decisions possible—and the organization suffers.
Research done independently by two Business School faculty members concludes that teams with divergent points of view work harder and are more open minded. Deborah Gruenfeld analyzed decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court to gather some of her evidence in a study that found teams encompassing at least two separate points of view on one question make better decisions because the pressure of the minority forces the majority to think more complexly and consider diverse evidence.
In a different study, Margaret Neale, studying behavior of college students, concluded that when newcomers with a divergent point of view join a group, they may significantly enhance the group’s performance. (See related story.)
Gruenfeld, associate professor of organizational behavior, also found that narrow majorities tend to be more open minded in their reasoning than majorities holding a larger balance of power.
Her work examines the very complex relationship between political beliefs and the balance of power within groups. Gruenfeld also attempts to correlate the nature of decisions—for example, whether they uphold the status quo or overturn it—with the other factors.
One of her studies was based on data garnered from decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Why the high court? “A lot of research tends to focus on the specific personalities of leaders. I was interested in showing that the dynamics of relationships among people who work together in groups are a stronger determinant of their behavior than personality. The court is small; you can get a sense of the alliances and allegiances and factions in the group,” Gruenfeld said in an interview with Stanford Business.
She has found similar results in studies of student behavior. However, she cautions that the court is by nature a very conservative institution with a built-in bias toward upholding the status quo.
Gruenfeld believes her work contradicts a notion popular in some political circles (and supported by research done by Philip Tetlock currently at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, among others) that those who support parties and politics on the right are more rigid in their thinking and more intolerant of ambiguity than those on the left.
When groups in a democracy make decisions, the complexity in their thinking depends more on group dynamics than on personal ideological preferences, she says. When groups gain power (either political or organizational), they not only act differently than when they were a minority or smaller majority, they reason differently.
“Tetlock’s finding that liberal opinions were more complex than conservative opinions was replicated only when the data were drawn from an era when liberal justices held a majority on the court. When data were drawn from the more recent, conservatively dominated era, conservative opinions were more complex than liberal opinions,” Gruenfeld wrote.
In collecting data, Gruenfeld used the verbatim records of more than 1,000 opinions written by high court justices between 1953 and 1993. Using a variety of filters, she and Jared Preston, then a doctoral student at Northwestern’s Kellogg School, eventually selected 32 cases for which a majority and minority opinion was written—all dealing with either civil liberties or economic activity. Perhaps the best known of the cases is the landmark Miranda v. Arizona of 1967, which by a vote of 5 to 4 redefined the rights of suspects in police custody.
The researchers then evaluated and scored each opinion looking for evidence of both open-mindedness and complexity in the text.
Higher levels of differentiation indicate awareness that there are reasonable arguments on at least two sides of a controversy “High integrative complexity corresponds to the acceptance of multiple worldviews and the experience of value conflict that comes with understanding the tradeoffs among them (e.g., ‘Liberal policies protect our right to equality; conservative policies protect our right to freedom’),” she explained.
In addition to seeing that majorities reasoned more complexly when confronted with a minority, Gruenfeld also found that Supreme Court justices in the majority reasoned with even greater complexity when defending the status quo than when upending it. When voting to overturn precedent, the decisions were more dogmatic.
One explanation: Majorities making major changes are, in a sense, more accountable than majorities defending the status quo. And because they feel more accountable, they may tend to bolster their own positions defensively, rather than engaging in more complex reasoning.
Summing up her work, Gruenfeld said, “Our work on the psychology of power … not only gives credence to the old adage that power corrupts, but it explains why this occurs. Whereas the classic perspective provided by Machiavelli suggests that power’s effects are mostly premeditated and strategic, our research suggests that when power corrupts, it can be without conscious awareness.”
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