Why Groups Tend Towards Mediocrity

Lemmings running off a cliffMany of our achievements, including those of our race, stem from our special ability to band together and work in groups. By doing so we not only generate social dividends, but also enhance and magnify our effectiveness as individuals (for which the social benefits are likely an evolved incentive). Cooperation is how gargantuan pyramids get built and astronauts propel themselves to the moon and back—and how a million smaller successes are achieved.

But there is a serious paradox built into this usually-advantageous group dynamic: the collective, in its zeal for cohesion, can often stifle and predispose itself to mediocrity and failure.

The reason for this isn’t hard to grasp. Whether we are on the hunt, fighting a war or building a mega-structure, a high degree of group cohesion—a single-mindedness of purpose and action—is required for success. Too much disagreement and working at cross-purposes is counter-productive, which is why we both consciously and unconsciously seek out like-minded people and demand conformity in our groups. It’s hard-wired in us.

But that tendency, like anything else, can overreach with negative consequences. In excess, it can negate one of the greatest assets of any group: dissenting views and a diversity of perspective.

We’ve all seen or experienced this drive towards uniformity. Companies, organizations and other collectives tend to cherry-pick their recruits based on a certain ‘type.’ Once brought in, they are further homogenized through various pressures. Groupthink dynamics create a singularity of perspective. Dominance hierarchies and status considerations discourage the less influential from sharing dissenting views that might more accurately reflect reality and be beneficial for the group.

Matthew Syed Rebel IdeasMatthew Syed, in his book Rebel Ideas, argues that these group dynamics can be deadly for organizations and companies as it creates monocultures and encourages myopic thinking that result in cognitive errors or mistakes.

Syed cites the failure of the CIA to predict the September 11 attacks and the bad team decisions at the heart of the disastrous 1996 Mount Everest climbing expedition made famous in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air.

He adds that mistakes that cost lives in both the healthcare and airline industries have occurred when subordinate staff were too intimidated to contradict their superiors who had made errors in judgment. Airline pilots and surgeons wield military-like authority over their juniors. I’ve also seen similarly poor outcomes result from discouragement of dissent during my time working as a television news writer and producer. The hard news business can be just as hierarchical and fanatically top-down in its decision-making as the most martially-structured collective.

So, what is the takeaway from this?

Syed says groups can avoid the crippling damage that this myopia can cause by actively seeking and building what he calls “cognitive diversity.” He defines this as group diversity marked by differences in perspective, experiences and thinking styles among its members. When diversity in a group is embraced and encouraged, it results in a kind of easygoing natural feedback, “rebel ideas,” which provide a wider range of options for the collective for seeing the world and navigating it.

“Groups that contain diverse views have a huge, often decisive, advantage,” he writes. Those collectives tend to make far better decisions resulting from seeing a the bigger picture, while still retaining the necessary cohesion, leadership and hierarchy required to effectively channel its energy to get things done.

Daniel Boorstin’s ‘The Image’ and the News Media

Daniel J. Boorstin's book 'The Image'

Several months ago, I picked up Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America. A 1960s classic of American cultural criticism, the book is a scathing indictment of what the author saw as the emerging tendency in the United States at the time to manufacture and worship virtual experiences over the real.

Boorstin exposed these changes (fuelled by rampant capitalism), in several different areas and professional fields: from the news media to the burgeoning global tourism industry, to advertising, the entertainment business, and the propagation of the “American Dream.”

Daniel J. Boorstin's book The ImageIn each field, the projection of an ideal image or product—what Boorstin famously coined a “pseudo-event”—had come to replace some real-life version preceding it.

He tells us, for instance, that whereas fame had in the past become attached to individuals who had in some way earned their notoriety through great acts of will or genius, modern “celebrities” by contrast had merely become “famous for being famous.”

For Boorstin, this marked the beginning of America’s decline: a descent into fantasy, illusion and lies whose trajectory would reach no good end. The mind-altering and culture-warping impacts of digital and screen-based technologies that came to us decades later, make The Image a kind of prophetic work.

As a writer and journalist, the one thing that stood out for me in Boorstin’s tome is his depiction of the news media’s behaviour. One instance he illustrates is particularly poignant.

Early in the book, the author writes about the relationship between political demagogue Senator Joe McCarthy and the American press corps, whom, Boorstin argues, empowered the rogue politician through the coverage they gave him in the 1950s. What amazed me is that Boorstin could have been writing about the relationship between today’s news media and former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Boorstin writes of McCarthy:

He had a diabolical fascination and an almost hypnotic power over news-hungry reporters. They were somehow reluctantly grateful to him for turning out their product. They stood astonished that he could make so much news from such meager raw material. Many hated him, all helped him. They were victims of what one of them called their “indiscriminate objectivity.” In other words, McCarthy and the newsmen both thrived on the same synthetic commodity.

He goes on to say:

Senator McCarthy’s political fortunes were promoted almost as much by newsmen who considered themselves his enemies as by those few who were his friends. Without the active help of all of them he would never have created the pseudo-events which brought him notoriety and power. Newspaper editors, who self-righteously attacked the Senator’s “collaborators,” themselves proved worse than powerless to cut him down to size. Even while they attacked him on the editorial page inside, they were building him up in front-page headlines. Newspapermen were his most potent allies, for they were his co-manufacturers of pseudo-events. They were caught in their own web. Honest newsmen and the unscrupulous Senator McCarthy were in separate branches of the same business.

Understanding News Distortion

Book cover - Veils of DistortionI’ve always been intrigued by the gap between perception and reality. Our preoccupation with fake news has made us forget that ‘real news’ can—even if in more subtle ways—skew our picture of reality. The endless offerings of news in the digital age, whether fake or otherwise, are fast replacing direct knowledge of, and personal experience with, the immediate world around us. This is perhaps why so many people have made the decision in recent years to ‘tune out.’

I’ve written a book about this—a respectful and what I hope is a thought-provoking critique of the hard news biz from the perspective of a newsroom journalist.

Veils of Distortion explores the unseen and subtle dynamics by which mind, medium, and professional practice amalgamate into this strange creature we call ‘the news.’ It also looks at what we can do—both as news workers and consumers—to begin to mitigate its warping effects.

Available from major online book sellers.

Risk-Takers and the Risk-Averse

A Toronto pub closed during a COVID-19 lockdown

The friction between business entrepreneurs and public servants during the Covid-19 pandemic, reflected here on this pub window during lockdown in Toronto, is reminiscent of the age-old tension between agrarians and pastoralists.

It also begs a recurring question: how much of what we believe-in and support is determined by our proclivities and mindset, including what is—or is not—at stake for us?

Vancouver’s North Shore Rescue

Search and rescue volunteers dangle from a helicopterI have an article appearing in the Winter 2019 issue of Montecristo magazine about the life and work of Mike Danks, the Team Leader of Vancouver’s North Shore Rescue. Danks and his volunteer colleagues sacrifice their free time and sometimes put their lives in harm’s way to rescue hikers, skiers, snowshoers and climbers who becomes lost or injured in the Coast Mountains north of the city.

You can read about their work here.

Sasquatch in the Media

Image of a Sasquatch postage stamp from CanadaSince the release of In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond in the USA in July (and in Canada in August, respectively), I’ve been up to my eyebrows in work plugging the book.

I’m grateful that the response has been unanimously positive (so far) from literary reviewers and the media.

In addition to Amazon featuring the work as one of its 10 Best Books of July 2019, the work has garnered a medley of print, online, radio, podcast and TV plugs in North America and the U.K. A list of the more notable mentions with links, including from The Washington Post, can be found on the Press page of my website.

For the more hardcore Sasquatch buffs out there: you might be interested in reading an essay I wrote in July for Lit Hub in which I wax philosophically some more about Bigfoot and reveal details about a strange incident that occurred to me on Vancouver Island just before the book was published.

I’d like to offer a heartfelt thanks for everyone’s interest and support.

The Year of the Sasquatch

The Six Million Dollar Man SasquatchTomorrow, my first book, a work of narrative non-fiction, entitled In The Valleys of the Noble Beyond: In Search of the Sasquatch is being published in by Grove Atlantic in the U.S. In the run-up, I’ve posted a couple of Bigfoot related interviews on my other web blog, The Planisphere, that will be of interest to wildman aficionados.

The first is with Daniel Taylor, an American conservationist who spent over 60 years searching for the Yeti of Nepal. I question him on his findings and conclusion that the Yeti is in fact nothing more than a species of Asian bear. Taylor recently published a book about his more than half-century journey in search for an answer. In the interview, he explains how and why he came to that conclusion.

I also speak with Canadian adventurer, “Survivorman” Les Stroud. Sasquatch enthusiasts will know Stroud from his popular Survivorman Bigfoot TV series that ran a few years ago. He shares his thoughts about working on the documentary program and what he’s learned from his years navigating Sasquatch subculture.

The Psychology of Survival

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and WhyI’ve taken an interest in stories of survival in extreme, life-threatening, situations. I got hooked after reading the better known mountaineering classics like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void – jolting, fast-paced reads about the unrelenting power of the natural world and our frailty when faced with it.

Since finishing those titles I’ve devoured virtually everything found on the topic from Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, about the sinking of the American whaling ship Essex in 1820, to Erik Bjarnason’s Surviving Logan about an ill-fated climbing expedition on Canada’s highest mountain in 2005.

As a travel and adventure writer, I was bound to become entangled in this subject sooner or later. Not only have I met lots of people who’ve had close brushes with death, but as an avid hiker I’ve found myself increasingly cognizant of the dangers of travel in the backcountry. Those of us who are active outdoors are more acutely aware of stories about wilderness mishaps and people becoming lost, or simply vanishing without a trace. These incidents are far from rare. I’ve been disoriented in the mountains myself, and have had a few close calls with bears, so I know how quickly and unexpectedly one’s fortunes may turn for the worse.

I’ve just read a superb book that conveys the essence of why people tend to get into trouble in the outdoors – and how they either pull through, or succumb to, their difficulties. Laurence Gonzales’s Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why is a book about the psychology of survival. His work examines case studies of tragedy – and near tragedy – in the outdoors to explain how those situations came to pass. Gonzales weaves in cognitive psychology, philosophical perspectives on human behaviour and his own do’s and dont’s in dangerous scenarios to create a sort of tao of survival.  The book argues that our mental attitudes, habits, perceptions and the state of our awareness play a huge role in our ability to avoid, and survive, life-threatening situations.

For Gonzales, self-awareness is the fundamental ingredient. “To survive, you must find yourself,” he writes. “Then it won’t matter where you are.”

Deep Survival is not just applicable to extreme sports and the outdoors. It is a guide to surviving life. Below are just a few of the many ideas running through this rich and thought-provoking book.

1. The ability to manage high emotion arousal is an important survival skill.

The reason we are constantly adjured not to panic in an emergency is because we become mentally handicapped as result. We flee or freeze and become obtuse, unable to see and find potential solutions to our dilemma. High stress, excessive emotion, and panic narrows our perception. Gonzales writes, “Cortisol and other hormones released under stress interfere with the working of the prefrontal cortex. That is where perceptions are processed and decisions are made. You see less, hear less, miss more cues from the environment, and make mistakes. Under extreme stress, the visual field actually narrows.”

2. Mental flexibility increases our survivability by allowing us to adapt to changing circumstances.

Humans have a notoriously hard time changing their minds about something, even when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Too many people get into trouble in the outdoors because they are attached to their plans, even when the conditions or circumstances on which the successful execution of those plans are based, change.

“Survival is adaptation, and adaptation is change,” writes Gonzales, “but change is based on a true reading of the environment.”

3. Humility can save your life. Arrogance and boldness can forfeit it.

This is related to the point above. There is no dishonor in turning back or forfeiting an outing or expedition if the conditions or circumstances appear untenable beyond reason. Desire and ambition result in a rigid ego that drive blind, willful execution of goals. For that kind of mindset, nothing but the objective, matters. Sometimes not even survival. And that has often lead to tragedy.

4. The right information will increase your chances of survival.

This not only applies to knowing what to do in various emergency scenarios, but in how to avoid trouble in the first place. For instance, novice hikers tend to get into accidents because they don’t do sufficient research on their hike. Specifically they sometimes don’t ask themselves whether they are fit enough for the hike, or how long they require to complete it. The result can be injury and/or getting stranded on a mountain after dark.

5. Patience is often a pillar of survival.

We don’t realize that our goals always take longer to accomplish than we estimate and want. Because faster is considered better and more efficient in our “time is money” culture, we tend to push to do things quicker than we should. This heightens the risk of accidents.

6. When people become lost in the woods, or mountains, they often try to make their surroundings fit their mental map of it (a behaviour known as ‘bending the map’). They constantly seek out the landmarks they know, but instead tend to become more lost and expend precious time and energy in the process, increasing their chances of death.

People who are lost in the wilderness should aim to recreate their mental map to reflect the new surroundings, which makes you at home in a place, relaxes you somewhat, assists you in seeing and thinking better, and helps you survive long enough for someone to possibly come to your aid.

7. By helping others In a survival situation, we also help ourselves.

Helping another person survive – whether it means attending to an injured friend, or trying staying alive for the benefit of a loved one back home – offers an increased chance of living because it gives you the deeper purpose and drive that runs contrary to the mentality to simply give up. “When Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was lost in the Lybian Desert, it was the thought of his wife’s suffering that kept him going,” Gonzales writes.

Unalaska Island Photo Essay

Unalaska Island in the Aleutian archipelago of Alaska, United States. BBC Travel is running my photos from a trip to Unalaska Island in the Aleutian archipelago of Alaska. It’s a corner of the US once occupied by Russia and whose residents were interned after the Japanese invaded the region during World War Two. Click here to see more.

On the Experience of Time

Clocks and watches and clockworks
Photo by Mobilos via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been noticing something very peculiar about time of late. When I’m deep in my more regular routine, working a day-job and seeing the same friends and family under the usual circumstances, it feels like time is passing very quickly. Life feels shorter, contracted, and devoid of a certain pithiness. Time ticks-by evermore briskly. During these periods, it even seems to vanish or disappear when gazed at in retrospect. “Where did all that time go?” I sometimes ask myself. It is something we all experience.

On the other hand when I travel to new places, or when I see and do new things, time feels expanded, stretched, and lengthened in a very positive way. There is a sense that more time is available, and elapsing, than is usual. It unfurls like the volume of surface territory in a mountain range if one were able to flatten and stretch it out. No matter what kind of journey I’m on, whether it’s a long-weekend away, a trip of a few weeks, or a period of months, the time that elapses always seems to feel double or triple that indicated by the calendar.

I was recently in the U.K. for two and a half months living in a new city I had never before visited. Almost everything was novel about the experience. By the end of my stay, I felt as though half a year had elapsed. It’s a pleasant and uncanny experience to feel like you’ve been handed a slight extension to life.

We know from scientific research in a field known as quantum gravity that time is neither uniform nor experienced in the same way by everyone everywhere. Contrary to our learning and conditioning there are many versions of time. The way we experience it depends on numerous factors and circumstances.

Author Carlo Rovelli writes in his recent book The Order of Time that time goes by faster the higher you are; it moves slower the faster you are moving; that it has no fixed forward directionality; there is no “present” apart from nanoseconds between past and future; and the further you travel from another person, the more time separates notions of a shared “now.”

“In the 2014 film Interstellar,” writes Rovelli in the Financial Times, “the hero travels to the vicinity of a black hole. On his return to Earth, he finds his daughter older than himself: she is an elderly lady, he is still middle-aged.

“This is not Hollywood fantasy, it is how the world truly works. The film’s scientific consultant Kip Thorne has since received the Nobel Prize in physics for his role in detecting the gravitational waves emitted by merging black holes. He knows his topic. If we do not experience similar time distortions in our daily life, it is only because here on Earth they are too small for us to notice.”

Though too slight to perceive, the time distortions Rovelli mentions nonetheless demonstrate that time is relative and malleable. Where its relativity matters most at present is within the context of our own experiences and consciousness. This is proven by our observations and comments regarding time. We often describe time as “dragging,” or “flying by” or “standing still.” In adulthood, with its incessant busyness and tyranny of routines, it is common for time to feel like it is escaping us entirely – taking much of our lives with it.

I’ve been wondering what it is about travel, or about seeing and doing new things, that makes time feel more like it is giving – rather than taking.

Photo: John Zada

While I was in the U.K. I went on a 3-day hike with my partner through the rolling countryside of Yorkshire Dales National Park in the north of England. As usual, by the end of the trip it felt like at least a week had elapsed. When I asked myself what happened during the trip that was different from my regular routine at home, a few things stood out. My partner and I were constantly problem solving, trying to determine the correct route through the park (the trail we were following would sometimes fade or vanish). Our visual background was constantly changing as we moved through many landscapes. Farmland and pastures would quickly give way to forested ravines that soon changed to hilly, windswept moors which then gave way to roads and village squares. It was as if theatre sets were being constantly rolled in and out in succession. We saw lots of animals, insects, trees, plants and flowers. Many people crossed our path, some of whom we met and conversed with. And there was loads of conversation between the two us – and silent thoughts to occupy us when we weren’t speaking. In other words: we were fully engaged with life, taking in lots of new stimulus and learning at almost every turn.

It occurred to me that if time is partly a register of the amount of change we experience from one moment to the next – as Aristotle defined it – then the more visual and mental stimuli one takes in, the more time seems to unfold – thereby lengthening it. Put another way: we may unconsciously quantify time based on how much, or little, we learn. When we are seeing new things and having novel experiences, time feels expanded relative to our normal lives, which are by comparison filled with the familiar.

When we travel it feels like we’ve lived two or three times our normal lifespans because we, in a sense, are actually doing more living. We are using our brains differently, processing new patterns or thinking differently to address new situations. Our experiences are denser and richer than when we are re-experiencing the same patterns again and again as part of our regular routines, which are essentially journeys along neuronal ruts akin to well-worn highways. This is when the feeling comes that time, and our lives together with it, are slipping away.

This has potentially big implications. If we try our utmost to fill our time with real learning and new experiences, whether at home or while travelling, then perhaps life won’t feel quite as short as the famous refrain suggests it is.