Friends, colleagues, or partners – what’s your favourite collaboration style?

Pefect handshake [Professor Geoffrey Beattie University of Manchester]

Matthew Taylor of the RSA, blogs about collaboration styles in education…

Oiling the System.


Co-ops are Big: Egalitarian business models take off

How do you feel about the fact that the United Nations is sponsoring 2012 as the year of the co-operative?

Shareable: Co-ops are Big: Charles Gould on the Int’l Year of the Co-op –

A two-bit theory of social reality

English: Publicity photo from the game show Tw...
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It is not obvious whether the world is analogue or binary, continuous or discrete. It’s a live question and the subject of a recent essay contest set up by the Foundational Questions Institute.

That said it seems clear that much or our social lives revolves around the assumption that the world is indeed binary. Male or female, black or white, left or right – simple binary oppositions structure our social relationships through and through. Moreover, we live in an era when developments in technology make it abundantly clear that the bifurcation of the universe into one and zero brings great leaps forward. Why do we do this to ourselves? What possible benefit can it confer?

One answer might be that it makes things simpler, thus allowing us to make faster decisions.

The reason Twenty Questions pretty much works as a parlour game is that twenty yes/no answers are all it takes to distinguish between 1,048,576 (220) discrete subjects. This seems to be roughly the high end of a practical taxonomy for personal use. By way of comparison, note that if one was to play the game using English Wikipedia articles it would need to be renamed Twenty-Two Questions to cover the 3,673,861 articles in existence in mid-2011 (222 = 4,194,304).

The promise of information theory, on some accounts, is that we can sort everything in binary terms. In John Wheeler’s well-known formulation, ‘it from bit’:

“It is not unreasonable to imagine that information sits at the core of physics, just as it sits at the core of a computer.

It from bit. Otherwise put, every ‘it’—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself—derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely—even if in some contexts indirectly—from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. ‘It from bit’ symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.” (John Archibald Wheeler 1990: 5)

In physics perhaps (more generally, in the ‘ontological basement’, as Paul Davies puts it). But as any one who has ever heard of racism or sexism will recognise, splitting the social world into opposed pairs often makes us get things very, very wrong. Our fondness for quick and dirty social heuristics has a habit of misleading us. Simpler does not by any means equate to more correct. Reality is more complex than a game of Twenty Questions and it takes more than yes/no answers to parse the social.

So it is not surprising that when faced with various kinds of binary sorting mechanism we experience a sense of disappointment. What may have seemed like a good idea – to simplify by means of bifurcation – turns out to produce less than useful information. The left/right dichotomy in politics turns out to be forced and to obscure almost as much as it reveals. Similarly it turns out that gender is a poor indicator of ability to own property or many of the other issues it has historically been used to indicate. And as for skin colour, this seems to produce far more noise than signal…. It is as though the usefulness of binary sorting has got the better of us and instead of recognising its limits we have tried to sort everything in binary terms. The reward is conservation of energy. The cost is accuracy.

What if the cost is too high? A recent example is a paper claiming to provide insights into differences between national cultures on the basis of a distinction between ‘tight’ and ‘loose’ cultures. This is a fairly well-rehearsed but contentious pair of categories that derives from anthropology.

The problem is that the ranking of nations on this basis doesn’t appear to shed much light on the national characteristics in question. Again, what is claimed to be signal looks suspiciously like noise.

I remain to be convinced but in the meantime I want to propose an interim alternative.

Instead of simplifying by means of one bit of information (tight/loose, black/white, male/female, left/right) we should do so by means of at least two bits of information.

It seems to me that a binary choice, between yes and no or between 1 and 0 always implies a set of Boolean operands just waiting to be used. Yes or no always begs the question: Yes and no?

One way of depicting this expanded set of choices is to frame each binary single bit choice as a two bit choice:

YES                 Yes and not No                      Yes and No

NOT YES       Not Yes and not No              No and not Yes

                          NOT NO                                           NO

This is not to suggest that reality actually is made up of two bits, or any other number of bits for that matter, information theorists notwithstanding. Rather, my claim is that if, in seeking to understand the social world, there is indeed a sweet spot somewhere between energy conservation and accuracy, then a two bit heuristic process is closer to that sweet spot than our current dominant but misleading fondness for single bit, yes/no thinking.

It from two bits.


Differences Between Tight and Loose Cultures: A 33-Nation Study

Michele J. Gelfand, Jana L. Raver, Lisa Nishii, Lisa M. Leslie, Janetta Lun, Beng Chong Lim, Lili Duan, Assaf Almaliach, Soon Ang, Jakobina Arnadottir, Zeynep Aycan, Klaus Boehnke, Pawel Boski, Rosa Cabecinhas, Darius Chan, Jagdeep Chhokar, Alessia D’Amato, Montse Ferrer, Iris C. Fischlmayr, Ronald Fischer, Marta Fülöp, James Georgas, Emiko S. Kashima, Yoshishima Kashima, Kibum Kim, Alain Lempereur, Patricia Marquez, Rozhan Othman, Bert Overlaet, Penny Panagiotopoulou, Karl Peltzer, Lorena R. Perez-Florizno, Larisa Ponomarenko, Anu Realo, Vidar Schei, Manfred Schmitt, Peter B. Smith, Nazar Soomro, Erna Szabo, Nalinee Taveesin, Midori Toyama, Evert Van de Vliert, Naharika Vohra, Colleen Ward, and Susumu Yamaguchi

Science 27 May 2011: 332 (6033), 1100-1104. [DOI:10.1126/science.1197754]

Why do People play the Lottery?

Question mark
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Well, why do they? It’s the kind of question only those who don’t do it would bother asking. I admit I’m one of them. The lottery is a mystery to me – self-evidently daft,  like a slow-motion version of taking a pile of cash and setting fire to it. Why would anyone do it?

One way of answering this kind of question is presented by science journalist Jonah Lehrer: let’s ask some behavioural economists!

The chief conclusion is as follows:

In two experiments conducted with low-income participants, we examine how implicit comparisons with other income classes increase low-income individuals’ desire to play the lottery. In Experiment 1, participants were more likely to purchase lottery tickets when they were primed to perceive that their own income was low relative to an implicit standard. In Experiment 2, participants purchased more tickets when they considered situations in which rich people or poor people receive advantages, implicitly highlighting the fact that everyone has an equal chance of winning the lottery.

An Unsafe Bet

Jim Orford has a book out entitled An Unsafe Bet? The Dangerous Expansion of Gambling and the Debate we should be having. In it he identifies eleven commonly used discourses of gambling. Of these six discourses broadly support the liberalisation of gambling and five support the increase of restrictions on gambling. Orford is fairly relaxed about this typology and even says: ‘Other people would no doubt produce a different list’ (123).

This to Fourcultures is as a red rag to a bull, so here goes.

Source: Orford 2011:124

False Signal?

Two people on the shore of the Pacific Ocean
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“My father told me the oceans were limitless, but that was a false signal.”

NYT on collapsing fish stocks in the South Pacific.

In Mackerel’s Plunder, Hints of Epic Fish Collapse


Leadership Mismatch – what Napoleon can tell us about the evolution of leaders

Elba seen from Tuscany

The Emperor Napoleon was a consummate manipulator of other people’s expectations regarding leadership roles, and here’s how you can be too…

In an RSA lecture Matthew Taylor engages Mark van Vugt, author of Selected, over the salience of Cultural Theory to van Vugt’s evolutionary theory of leadership. [about 30:00 in]

Professor van Vugt’s idea is that evolution has primed humans for particular types of leadership which are not now particularly helpful. There is a kind of mismatch between the leadership relevant to Stone Age peoples and the radically altered demands of today.

He and his collaborators identify two key types of leadership justification:

  • The first is the ‘servant’ leadership approach , which claims that leaders benefit the group at a cost to themselves.
  • The second is the ‘selfish’ leadership approach, which says the opposite – that leaders benefit themselves at a cost to the group.

Source: Gillet, J., et al. 2010

According to social psychology there are two dominant understandings of the evolution of leadership. The first sees leadership as a kind of by-product of the struggle for social dominance. The struggle for dominance takes place because the winners secure better access to ‘reproductively relevant resources’ (I think this means mates). The dominant individuals by definition ‘occupy the top positions in the hierarchy’ and therefore ‘can exercise power over lower-ranked individuals’.

The second approach sees leadership not as a by-product of dominance battles but as a key aspect of group coordination: Leaders are useful to their followers ‘because they can reap the benefits of being in a highly coordinated and cohesive group.’

If these are the only two versions of leadership allowable, we have a big problem. The ‘selfish’ dominance model fits very well with the Individualism worldview of Cultural theory. In this worldview the purpose of leadership is to advance the individual. While not everyone actually is a leader, everyone theoretically could be. The individualist exhortation is to find the niche within which it is possible to fulfil one’s leadership potential. A hundred business speakers’ careers have thrived on this approach (a recent example of this trope in full swing is to be found in Seth Godin’s Lynchpin and Tribes books – strap line: we need you to lead us).

The ‘servant’ coordination model fits very well with the Egalitarian worldview of Cultural Theory. In this worldview the purpose of leadership begins and ends with the benefit of the group as a whole. Ideal leadership is somewhat communal (for example the group of presbyters who lead a Presbyterian church, replacing the individual bishop with a leadership group. The presbyters hire and fire the minister, not the other way around). Ideal decisionmaking is consensual, in which all make the leadership decisions (for example in a Quaker business meeting).

A working hypothesis based on Cultural Theory would be that these (dominance vs. coordination or selfish vs. servant) are only two of the possible four worldviews or cultural biases available. They are the two which fit along the Group axis. Strong Group is associated with servant leaders, which weak group is associated with selfish leaders. However, in Cultural Theory there is another axis, the Grid axis, which considers the relative significance of regulation, rules, expected social roles. A strong Grid approach to leadership makes leadership strongly deterministic. Weak Grid leadership takes little account of (or actively disparages) organised institutions of leadership. Weak Grid leadership produces two varieties just described – Selfish (Individualist) and Servant (Egalitarian). The two strong Grid leadership patterns are Hierarchical leadership and Fatalist leadership.

We could say that on the Grid axis we are measuring over-determined leadership vs. under-determined leadership.

In over-determined leadership there is a pre-established understanding and expectation of what the leadership roles will look like. In the struggle for dominance would-be leaders are not creating the social hierarchy from scratch, instead they are following well worn upward steps. The over-determined leadership contest asks, for instance ‘who will be the next king?’ The role of monarch already exists, it is well-defined and the would-be leaders vie with one another to fill the pre-existing role. Thus the nature of leadership itself is almost entirely unproblematic. A strong grid organisation will have an ideology that assumes the leadership roles are fixed eternally. This is certainly true of the monarchy, where it is mythologised that successive rulers all descend from one another (yet a brief overview of any monarchy will quickly show this to be a fabrication). But it is also true of a modern bureaucracy in which the name plate on the office door or car parking space shows the job title eternally unchanged but the individual title holder ephemeral (again, an examination of actual workplaces shows this to be a fiction – in many workplaces the individuals outlast the management reorganisations that create and destroy their job titles and whole departments regularly and almost ceaselessly).

The under-determined leadership contest, in contrast, actively worries about the nature of leadership itself. Roles, expectations, precedents are all much more fluid and subject to reinterpretation. Instead of slotting into a given role, weak Grid leaders bring with them their own leadership style. A clear example is Napoleon Bonaparte, who went from being a Corsican nationalist lieutenant Colonel to being a French republican captain then General then First Consul in a Republic (he wrote his own constitution) to Emperor in a self-created empire (he crowned himself and subsequently made kings of his brothers, brother-in-law and son). His political formation was in weak Grid Corsica: “As the nation [Corsica] was perishing I was born” (McLynn 1998: 37).

Napoleon was a consummate manipulator of other people’s expectations regarding leadership roles. On his return to France having escaped from the Isle of Elba (see photo at top) he faced unarmed and alone the French 5th Regiment that had orders to re-arrest him. “Here I am.” he told them, “Kill your Emperor if you wish.” Instead they shouted “Vive l’Empereur!” and marched with him to Paris to depose Louis XVIII (McLynn 1998: 605).

Mismatch hypothesis: ‘our modern environments look very different from our ancestral environments’ Example: why do we tend to vote for taller political candidates when height has nothing to do with their job as politicians.

The assumption being made here is that we are genetically predisposed to be impressed by tall people because our Stone Age ancestors were. But this is a cognitive trap, since it no longer matters how tall the leader is.

A counter-suggeston is that only certain cultural biases are interested in the height of the leader.  Individualist leadership is definitely interested, but only to the extent that height can be used as a proxy for individual prowess. Hierarchical leadership is impressed largely because height (like gender, race, age etc) is one more easy item to rank. Egalitarian leadership is quite unimpressed by height (in Australia, this tendency is known as the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ and any potential leader who stands out above the crowd will be ruthlessly cut down to size). Fatalist leadership knows full well that one’s height is the luck of the draw.

Interestingly, despite his many and various leadership achievements, tall is one thing Napoleon wasn’t.

My suggestion: it’s the environment that creates the leadership much as the terrain creates the apparent complexity of the ant’s path across the beach (Simon 1969: 24-25; cf. Agre 1997: 56)


Avolio, B., Walumbwa, F. O., Weber, T. J. (2009). Leadership: Current theories, research and future directions. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 421-449.

Gillet, J., et al. Selfish or servant leadership? Evolutionary predictions on leadership personalities in coordination games. Personality and Individual Differences (2010), doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.06.003

Frank McLynn 1998 Napoleon . London: Pimlico.

Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja 2010 Selected: Why some people lead, why others follow, and why it matters. London: Profile.

Image Credit: CC, adapted from Gabriele Delhey/Wikimedia

A typology of disagreement

Clerks studying astronomy and geometry. France...
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How are differences of opinion to be characterised?

That is to say, if there is more than one opinion, what is its status in relation to the others? Are there different types of difference of opinion? It’s hard to write about this matter because as soon as we do so we resort to language that is essentially metaphorical. These metaphors condition our thought and tend to beg the questions. So, for instance, to use the term conflicting opinions or competing opinions or incommensurable opinions is to assume that conflict, competition or incommensurability is a given. Of course, ‘opinion’ itself is a matter of opinion. One person’s opinion is another person’s fact. Even the term difference is somewhat metaphorical. What if it turns out our opinions don’t actually differ, after all? Perhaps by means of  Hegelian synthesis or some such trick, they can be reconciled to one another.

Michael Ruse, author of Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science, has written about the ways in which we can characterise the debate between science and religion.  He identifies four approaches, namely:

  • Warfare
  • Independence
  • Dialogue
  • Integration

The contribution of this post is to suggest that these are not merely choices freely made but are pathways already prescribed by social circumstances. We can’t just wake up in the morning and decide that today the relationship between science and religion will be conflictual, and that tomorrow it will be dialogical. The social environment in which the relationship exists conditions to a large extent the way it is characterised. Our pre-existing assumptions and ways of organising make particular lines of reasoning seem ‘natural’ rather than ‘forced’. This point matters because of our tendency to see things as being ‘just the way they are’, without further reflection. If science and religion appear to be in conflict, we tend to jump straight to ontology (‘they just are in conflict – that’s how it really is’), without reflecting on our epistemology (‘how do we know how it really is?’). It is hard to see how the likes of Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers could stop being combative, or how the likes of the Catholic Church could stop trying to be all-encompassing. Notice that method and conclusion amount to the same thing.

The relationship between the four approaches identified by Prof Ruse can be clarified by means of Grid-Group Cultural Theory, under which rubric much thought has already gone into the cultural biases, or worldviews which shape our disagreements. Viewed in this context the religion/science debate tells us as much about the institutional framework of the debate as it does about the truth of the matter.

Approach     Metaphor     Typical institution       Cultural Bias

Warfare            Competition    the market                            Individualist

Independence Isolation          courtroom/prison              Fatalist

Dialogue          Consensus       deliberative democracy     Egalitarian

Integration     Nested Truth    bureaucracy                         Hierarchical

The dialogue approach is in the spirit of deliberative democracy, or of Jurgen Habermas’s communicative action.

The Integration approach is in keeping with Donald Davidson’s ideas expressed in his seminal article ‘On the very idea of a conceptual scheme’. Differences of opinion are subordinated to a hierarchical concept of Truth.

The independence approach is in keeping with Thomas Kuhn’s concept of separate paradigms, or the idea of separate (perhaps overlapping) magisteria.

Finally the warfare approach is closest to an understanding of knowledge as competition, with the survival of the fittest and ‘the marketplace of ideas’.

My suggestion is that these types of disagreement don’t just apply to the science and religion debate, but to all disagreements. Michael Ruse has successfully described the totality of parsimonious ways in which a disagreement may be characterised in any field. These relate closely to the ideal type worldviews or cultural biases of Cultural Theory. An interim conclusion is that while you can have any facts you like, your choice of difference of opinion is strictly limited (Prof Marco Verweij’s ‘constrained relativism‘ perhaps).