Review: Scott E Page, The Difference

by Henry on June 27, 2007

Scott E. Page, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies (Princeton University Press). Available from Powells, Amazon.

Scott Page, who’s in the political science department at University of Michigan, has written a book that’s valuable on two levels. First, it provides a more rigorous take on some of the issues that James Surowiecki dealt with in his popularizing book, The Wisdom of Crowds. To say that Surowiecki’s book is written for a popular audience of course isn’t to say that it’s bad (to the contrary, see dsquared’s review), but it certainly doesn’t go to the same kinds of lengths as does Page’s to establish careful definitions, dot terminological i’s, and cross conceptual t’s. Page also goes rather further than Surowiecki in specifying his arguments about group decision making (providing a very good, if individually flavoured, account of the relevant cognitive science literature in the process), which means that he’s able to offer more specific claims than Surowiecki about the circumstances under which groups will or will not be able to beat experts. Second, Page uses this to offer a broad defence of the cognitive virtues of diversity. When the members of a group have diverse sets of mental tools, group decision making (under certain assumptions) is less likely to get stuck at suboptimal solutions, and more likely to arrive at superior ways of doing things. As Jim Johnson pointed out a few months ago, this means that Page is able to offer a pragmatic defence of diversity practices in hiring, education etc – having a diverse set of points of view in a group means better decision making.

First, Page’s underlying theory, bits of which have been developed at greater length and in more forbidding detail in his academic work. He starts from basic arguments about heuristics – mental tools or rules of thumb for dealing with complex situations – and perspectives, basic mappings of reality. Given a perspective, a heuristic tells individuals how to search for a solution or to identify an appropriate action; some are simple rules of thumb; others such as simulated annealing are more sophisticated. Individuals can also have different interpetations, which allow them to lump things together into categories by highlighting one dimension and ignoring others in ways that exploit underlying structures of some kind. Finally, predictive models are interpretations which provide a prediction for each set or category created by the interpretation.

This framework allows Page to argue that individuals will build from their perspectives and interpretations towards quite different predictive models. When individuals have different perspectives and/or interpretations, and when they communicate with each other, they are obviously likely to arrive at better solutions than they might in isolation from each other. Different interpretations allow individuals to highlight different aspects of the situation they find themselves in, and thus make them less likely to get stuck at inefficient local optima. This carries a number of interesting implications.

First, there are quite plausible conditions under which groups composed of diverse individuals will be able to outperform groups of ‘experts;’ individuals who are better capable of solving problems on their own. Page uses some simple agent-based modelling to support this claim, and outlines the underlying logic of a “mathematical proof that provides sufficient conditions for the … result.” The necessary conditions are that there have to be enough agents, groups of moderate size, agents who are sufficiently smart, and problems that are sufficiently difficult. The reason why this result holds is fairly straightforward; experts tend to be quite like each other, so that they tend to converge on the same solution, while heterogenous agents have a better chance of coming across other, superior solutions. This suggests both that there is an important role for diverse groups of non-experts, and that the dumbed down versions of the Wisdom of Crowds thesis don’t hold (i.e. that experts will still beat people who don’t have a clue about the underlying problem). In Page’s words:

when solving problems, diversity may matter as much, or even more than, individual ability. From this we can infer that organizations, firms, and universities that solve problems should seek out people with diverse experiences, training, and identities that translate into diverse perspectives and heuristics. Specifically, hiring students who had high grade point averages from the top-ranked school may be a less effective strategy than hiring good students from a diverse set of schools with a diverse set of backgrounds, majors, and electives.

This all suggests that diversity of outlooks holds quite considerable benefits for decision making. Indeed Page argues that the accuracy of prediction models and the success of diverse teams in problem solving provides substantial evidence of these benefits (but see below). However, in the final section of the book, Page complicates things by looking at how diversity of outlooks and diversity of preferences interact. He provides a quick tour of the basic social choice literature, moving from single peaked preferences to the various chaos results in order to illustrate how preference divergence may make it hard (or even impossible) for people to coordinate. More specifically, he argues that where people’s fundamental preferences over basic social goods – conflict, then diversity will obviously lead to political conflict of one sort or another. It’s considerably less problematic where people hold diverse instrumental preferences (i.e. they agree on basic goals, even while they disagree about which means are best to reach these goals). Page argues that overall, diversity is beneficial even if it goes along with the likelihood of increased conflict – but presumably, this claim depends on the degree to which one values better solutions over a higher risk of conflict. Indeed his empirical analysis suggests to me that more risk-averse types may prefer less diversity; this may be associated with worse average results, but also with a lower degree of variance in expected results too.

Which leads on to the most politically interesting claim in Page’s book – that his arguments provide quite strong support for hiring or admitting people from diverse identities and backgrounds. He notes that the empirical evidence provides only mixed support for the claim that identity diverse groups are better at problem solving, and argues that this may not only be because identity diversity is not always linked to cognitive diversity, but also because there are tradeoffs between preference diversity and cognitive diversity. There seems to be some plausible evidence of this from studies that show that even while diversity produces higher revenues, say, in business, it also is associated with lower cooperation and employee satisfaction, both of which likely lower revenues and to some extent weaken the positive (putatively cognitive) consequences. Nor is it likely that cognitive diversity is likely to produce positive outcomes when the tasks assigned to the group are simple and repetitive, or when people’s conceptual toolboxes are limited, say, by poor education.

However, the book does nonetheless offer a set of arguments supporting diversity as a means of selecting students, employees, or others who might contribute to group problem solving. If one goes for a narrow pool of the ‘best’ people according to some categorization, one is likely to draw upon a pool of individuals that are quite like each other in some very important ways, and that are likely to have broadly similar conceptual toolkits. If, instead, one draws upon people who are only good, but from a wide variety of backgrounds, one is likely to end up with people who have a much broader range over-all of problem solving tools, and who (communications problems discounted) can probably do a better job of figuring out interesting things. This argument for diversity notably doesn’t suggest that one hires or admits a token group of visible minorities in order, in Walter Benn Michael’s terms, to assuage the class guilt of the rich elites who form the very substantial majority of, say, the student population at elite universities. It means that one should select from a genuinely diverse set of class backgrounds, cultural viewpoints etc, in order to maximize the likelihood of collective problem solving.

As I said at the beginning, there’s a lot to like in this book. There also are a couple of holes. Some of the arguments about the empirical benefits of, say, prediction markets, are more heated than this book suggests; I’ll leave it to those who are better versed in these arguments (e.g. dsquared) to get into this in comments if he feels like it. More to the point however, the big gap in Page’s argument is that there’s little to no discussion of how individuals communicate with each other, or don’t, and how this affects problem solving. His exposition for the most part assumes that individuals communicate with each other in such a way that the additive benefits of different perspectives cumulate unproblematically; where one person’s cognitive tools prove insufficient, and strand them at some not-very-satisfactory local optimum, another person’s cognitive tools kick in without the need for explicit coordination and perhaps get both of them to a better overall outcome. Page does touch on problems of communication a bit when he talks about preference divergence, but only a bit; the basic social choice results that he draws on don’t explicitly model communication processes either, so that whatever discussion there is is mostly in the way of side-arguments that don’t fully connect with his underlying theoretical claims. This is a problem because there is good reason to believe that communication problems can have serious consequences for the nice results that Page is talking about; they can lead (as Cass Sunstein notes) to various failures of deliberation when people are talking to one other, or to various forms of self-reinforcing death-spirals in markets where the participants are watching each other in order to figure out what is going on. Fair enough that Page doesn’t want to go into detail about these issues – he has enough on his plate as it is trying to explain agent based modelling to the masses – but a few pages towards the end which talked to these problems and what they might mean for his findings would have been nice.

My other niggle is writing style – at times, Page goes a bit too far for my tastes in reaching out for homey metaphors to sugercoat the occasional indigestible theoretical horsepills that he has to shove down the reader’s craw in order to get his point across. Trying to make the Gibbard-Satterthwaite Theorem (that any nondictatorial rule for aggregating diverse preference orderings over more than two outcomes is manipulable) more palatable by describing its consequences for recipes for slow-cooked tarragon chicken is less likely to elucidate the subject matter than to induce fits of double-vision-induced migraine in the reader.1 I suspect that this style is in part a response to the success of Gladwell and his scions in identifying or creating a new market segment for the quasi-mathematical bestseller. But I don’t think that this book belongs inside this market segment (although it isn’t entirely outside it either). Its actual virtues are largely academic ones – it’s quite careful in stating the limits of its claims, building up a coherent argument, employing careful terminology etc, none of which sit well with folksy anecdotes and everyday examples (this is not to say that there isn’t a middle ground between Gladwell and the academy, but it’s bloody hard to write for it). What the book does do is to illustrate the benefits of a way of thinking about problem solving, to provide people with the conceptual tools to understand what lies behind some of the more popular treatments of the topics (and to evaluate their more breathless claims) and, perhaps, to reshape the public debate about the benefits and disadvantages of diversity. All of which are good things, which may not land the book on the bestseller list, but which should, I imagine, appeal to a fairly broad swathe of people who have some idea of the basic landscape of these debates, but want to find out more.

1 This said, it has to be acknowledged that Page makes a quite significant contribution to the field of comparative ketchup research. How he knows that Irish people, unlike Americans, don’t keep tomato ketchup in the fridge, I don’t know (unforgivably, he provides no footnotes to document his source for this claim). But it’s undeniably true (and the source of minor domestic friction over appropriate ketchup-heuristics in this cross-cultural household.

{ 44 comments }

1

Martin Bento 06.27.07 at 4:34 am

Sounds very interesting. So if one were building a Internet company, say, a good approach might be to try and hire from a diversity of majors and ages, rather than pull in all the 22 year old software hotshots? Racial diversity, when it actually maps to cultural, and therefore likely cognitive, diversity, would also be good? As for communication, it seems to me that internal company email discussion lists, blogs, wikis and such have become rather important. Perhaps this amplifies the advantages of diversity by making communications more efficient? Does the book cover communications as a kind of transactions cost to be weighed against the advantages of diversity, kind of a Coase sort of thing?

2

Ron Davison 06.27.07 at 5:50 am

Thanks. It sounds like an important book.

I, too, was struck by the problem of translating that diversity into better outcomes. Consulting inside a variety of Fortune 500 firms, it isn’t obvious to me that the diversity in the room often finds expression. That is, even if people argue from multiple perspectives, there doesn’t seem to be an agreed upon perspective able to consolidate or resolve these conflicts. Generally, diversity in perspective is managed by putting marketing folks into one silo, engineers in another, etc., and then letting them all commiserate about the intractable positions of “them” in the other functional silos.

3

JP Stormcrow 06.27.07 at 5:56 am

…he argues that where people’s fundamental preferences over basic social goods – conflict, then diversity will obviously lead to political conflict of one sort or another

I would think that in most business settings (and many other institutional ones as well) that this effect would be mitigated by the fact that to a significant degree, the “free ranging” goals of each individual are superseded by the specific goals of the organization while they are operating in that setting. So unless you are talking about the level of the organization where the overall organizational goals are actually set, or the diversity of individual goals is so great that they cannot be “temporarily suspended”, the benefits from instrumental diversity should trump any negatives associated with the potential for conflict. (Now it may well be that the continual sublimation of people’s “real” goals over time may lead to stress and low morale in proportion to their distance from the organizational goals, but it is not clear that “diversity” would increase that average “distance”.)

4

soru 06.27.07 at 11:55 am

building a Internet company

That seems more like the classic case where an adequate answer agreed and delivered 6 months before a marginally better answer can be agreed on is the way to bet.

Increasing diversity of thought seems like a better bet for a market leader, a google or micrsoft, that wants to stay that way.

5

Slocum 06.27.07 at 11:58 am

As Jim Johnson pointed out a few months ago, this means that Page is able to offer a pragmatic defence of diversity practices in hiring, education etc – having a diverse set of points of view in a group means better decision making.

Hmmmm. That strikes me as a pragmatic reason for selecting a group that is heterogeneous with respect to cognitive style, skills, innate abilities, personality type, philosophies, even politics, but it doesn’t strike me as a defense of actual diversity practices which ignore all of the above and focus only on skin color (and sex). Especially given that there are ways to actually assess all of those kinds of things that actually matter for better group decision making, so there is no reason to use skin color or sex as poor proxy measures.

6

Jacob T. Levy 06.27.07 at 12:14 pm

My [American, partly Scottish but not at all Irish] wife and I [same plus partly Jewish] haven’t been able to figure out the source of our divergence about ketchup. She’s firmly for the fridge, I’m firmly against. We both grew up with those rules; we have ‘people’ (as they say) from similar ethnic and class backgrounds along at least some branches of our family trees; and neither of us can convince ourselves that the othe rone’s rule isn’t bizarre.

Terrific review; the book goes onto my acquire-at-APSA list.

7

SamChevre 06.27.07 at 12:27 pm

I’ll jump in and re-iterate slocum’s point; there’s a serious disconnect in the argument as it’s shown here.

I’m an actuary–a numbers guy, who by instinct and training always errs on the side of caution. If you want a diverse group, in terms of “predictive models”, you need to put me in a room with a marketing person–not my female Pakistani colleague. She may not look like me, but she thinks a lot more like me than ANY marketing person, even one who is demographically just like me.

8

Barry 06.27.07 at 12:36 pm

Jacob, then You Must Split the Difference (Broder, chapter 3, verse yadda yadda yadda).
Keep it in the basement, where it’ll be cool but not cold.

9

Eszter 06.27.07 at 12:59 pm

Jacob, how about having two around, one in the fridge, one not?

Henry, thanks for this!

10

functional 06.27.07 at 1:27 pm

Haven’t read the book, but this seems like quite the non sequitur:

when solving problems, diversity may matter as much, or even more than, individual ability. From this we can infer that organizations, firms, and universities that solve problems should seek out people with diverse experiences, training, and identities that translate into diverse perspectives and heuristics. Specifically, hiring students who had high grade point averages from the top-ranked school may be a less effective strategy than hiring good students from a diverse set of schools with a diverse set of backgrounds, majors, and electives.

And what’s the evidence that people with high GPAs from a top-ranked school (in any given field) in any way lack “diverse perspectives and heuristics”? In the law, you could look at the top graduates from the top ten schools, and you’d find people enamored with critical legal theory, people who like economic theory and game theory, people who are more comfortable with straight-up doctrinalism and legal formalism, people who are intrigued by behavioral psychology and its implications for the law, people who want to study empirical effects of various legal reforms, people who study law-and-history, and so forth. Indeed, it would be harder to cobble together any meaningful group of people who AGREED on a single perspective/heuristic.

By the same token, if you’re a Fortune 100 corporation that needs to litigate a class action lawsuit, hiring lawyers from the bottom-ranked schools doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting extra “perspectives” (as if those would be helpful in any event). Indeed, you might be getting fewer perspectives deployed by dumber lawyers (sorry to be so blunt).

So again, what’s the evidence for this in any specific field?

11

LizardBreath 06.27.07 at 1:50 pm

In the law, you could look at the top graduates from the top ten schools, and you’d find people enamored with critical legal theory, people who like economic theory and game theory, people who are more comfortable with straight-up doctrinalism and legal formalism, people who are intrigued by behavioral psychology and its implications for the law, people who want to study empirical effects of various legal reforms, people who study law-and-history, and so forth. Indeed, it would be harder to cobble together any meaningful group of people who AGREED on a single perspective/heuristic.

I’d strongly disagree on this. As a graduate (not a ‘top’ graduate, if we’re talking Supreme Court clerks, but top quarter of my class) of a top ten law school, who works in a firm composed mostly of people with similar backgrounds, I don’t hear perspectives from my colleagues that fundamentally surprise me (and I don’t seem to provide such perspectives). While I have a lot of disagreement on matters of legal philosophy with many of my colleagues, those are disagreements on perspectives of theirs that I reject, or vice versa, not perspectives that I’m completely unfamiliar with.

We do good work, but I wouldn’t be surprised if mixing the firm up with some people trained in an entirely different manner, or with fundmentally different life experiences, didn’t add some ideas we don’t have now.

12

Dan Miller 06.27.07 at 2:01 pm

Wait a minute, ketchup doesn’t go bad if you don’t keep it in the fridge? Even after you open the bottle? My mom has some serious explaining to do.

13

bill lewis 06.27.07 at 2:07 pm

In a recent article in Episteme, “Deliberative Democracy and the Epistemic Benefits of Diversity,” James Bohman makes a similar argument and gives an explicit pragmatic justification for preferring diversity. At first, my thoughts on his article and the comments you make about Page’s book were similar to that of other CT commentators on Page’s argument. First, in order to make this work, you need to have democratic institutions and democratic communication. Second, you need to have real diversity of ideas (and this does not necessarily correspond to diversity of racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds). Thinking more about it, though, I believe that the second criticism is easily overcome: if, for instance, racial difference in a specific person does not equal difference of experience or opinion, then this specific person is not diverse. However, this does not mean that you cannot find diverse persons or that diverse experiences, including those of being from a different class, race, or ethnicity do not tend to produce a diversity of opinion. The first criticism is more difficult but it may be overcome by recognizing this type of argument as proposing a hypothesis: if it is the case that deliberation is improved by the communication of diverse opinion and by collective decision making, then this should be testable. As most of our institutions are, today, insufficiently diverse and insufficiently democratic for this hypothesis to be tested, then we need to make sure that our institutions have sufficiently diverse representation and that they have a mode for facilitating and acting upon the results of diverse democratic inquiry. After this has been done, we can then compare it to other types of decision making.

14

Henry 06.27.07 at 2:45 pm

slocum: you say:

Hmmmm. That strikes me as a pragmatic reason for selecting a group that is heterogeneous with respect to cognitive style, skills, innate abilities, personality type, philosophies, even politics, but it doesn’t strike me as a defense of actual diversity practices which ignore all of the above and focus only on skin color (and sex). Especially given that there are ways to actually assess all of those kinds of things that actually matter for better group decision making, so there is no reason to use skin color or sex as poor proxy measures.

This is partly (but only partly) right. Page’s arguments specifically support current diversity practices _only to the extent that_ the kinds of diversity they support are correlated with diversity in experience (and consequently mental tools etc). This is however arguably _more_ radical than current diversity practices – it suggests that having a few upper middle class minority people around in a law firm or elite university is unlikely to provide the appropriate diversity (their experiences are likely not to be that different from upper middle class people of the majority). If you want genuine diversity, you need to cast your net much wider (hence my ref. to Walter Benn Michaels above). I can imagine that there would be circumstances under which Page’s arguments might cut against the more usual equity arguments for diversity (although I think that practically speaking in the US today a move towards Page’s ideals would be justified on equity grounds too). I share lizardbreath’s skepticism in re: top schools producing the appropriate amount of intellectual diversity at law firms (my skepticism is based on the experience of my wife, who’s a lawyer at a top 20 firm).

15

functional 06.27.07 at 3:08 pm

I don’t hear perspectives from my colleagues that fundamentally surprise me (and I don’t seem to provide such perspectives). While I have a lot of disagreement on matters of legal philosophy with many of my colleagues, those are disagreements on perspectives of theirs that I reject, or vice versa, not perspectives that I’m completely unfamiliar with.

Be specific — if you think that any “perspectives” are missing, you must have some inkling of what those might be. What are they? And, more importantly, what conceivable evidence is there that people with lower grades would provide such perspectives in greater number than people with higher grades? (Remember: the non sequitur here is not the mere factual observation about the number of perspectives in a given situation, but the claim that people with lower grades from lower-ranked schools will provide “more” perspectives, whatever that means.)

16

F. Blair 06.27.07 at 3:40 pm

It’s not a non sequitur. In his computer simulations, Page is able to show that lower-performing agents rely on different perspectives and heuristics than higher-performing agents, and that higher-performing agents tend to rely on similar tools and perspectives. This makes intuitive sense: the reason the lower-performing agents aren’t as good at solving the problem is because they’re thinking about it in a flawed way, one that’s different from the people that solve the problems more quickly.

In the real world, it’s easy to see why this would be the case: one of the things that law schools or medical schools do is train people to think in a particular way. Medicine would offer the most obvious example: where you go to school and where you train has a huge impact on the kind of treatments you think work, the kind of care you provide, and so on. (That’s why there are huge differences between the way hospitals — even hospitals in the same state — treat the very same condition.) If you were building a medical team and only recruited people from Yale and Harvard, you would end up with very different care protocols — and almost certainly worse, because you’d be drawing on more homogeneous sources of information — than if you built a team of people that included doctors from state universities, inner-city hospitals, etc. And I would be shocked if the same were not true of the law as well.

17

functional 06.27.07 at 3:51 pm

Try it this way: If you’re litigating a class action suit, I can imagine how different perspectives might be useful. One guy says, “We’re going to get hosed; let’s talk settlement as soon as possible.” One woman says, “Wait, let’s flood the other side with paper first, drive up their litigation costs, and they’ll be more willing to come to the table.” Another guy says, “But this particular judge hates abusive discovery practices, and that might get us into trouble if the other side complains.” And so forth. Having a lot of different perspectives would hopefully force everyone to think about new aspects of the problem.

But what I can’t imagine is why anyone would think these different perspectives are more likely to emerge if you hire less experienced and less qualified lawyers.

Not to turn this into a discussion of law practice — can anyone else name a specific field where different “perspectives” really are more common among dumber people, in any way that would be relevant to good decisionmaking?

18

functional 06.27.07 at 3:57 pm

If you were building a medical team and only recruited people from Yale and Harvard, you would end up with very different care protocols—and almost certainly worse, because you’d be drawing on more homogeneous sources of information—than if you built a team of people that included doctors from state universities, inner-city hospitals, etc.

Almost certainly worse? Are you speculating here, or are you speaking from experience? I ask because my (limited) experience is that higher qualified and smarter doctors are more likely to be up-to-speed on the latest techniques, or the latest studies showing that a particular drug isn’t as effective as once thought. Why would their practice be improved by looking to [again, being blunt here] dumber doctors who rely on out-of-date information? Maybe you could come up with a hypothetical case or two where that might be true, but I don’t see how you could possibly justify such a systematic conclusion.

19

SamChevre 06.27.07 at 4:15 pm

Functional asks:

Can anyone else name a specific field where different “perspectives” really are more common among dumber people, in any way that would be relevant to good decisionmaking?

I certainly can, if you define dumber as “lower math IQ”. The “brightest” people in the insurance world are actuaries; there’s a very good reason why insurance companies employ sales people and management people, and give them a lot of influece–the very bright actuaries tend to be less good at communicating clearly with the average customer, or figuring out how to motivate people, than sales people are.

20

James Wimberley 06.27.07 at 6:09 pm

I’m sympathetic to the diversity-is-good-for-you argument, and I enjoyed working in a multinational, multilingual organisation where you got a lot of friction but also a lot of stimulus when people were actually trying to solve problems (as opposed to playing office politics).

But here’s a nice quote the other way from Admiral Sir Jackie Fisher, dynamic creator of the British dreadnought fleet before 1914 (the fleet that didn’t lose Jutland). When a critic accused him of appointing friends and relations to plum jobs, he replied: “Nepotism? That’s the secret of efficieny!”

21

functional 06.27.07 at 6:27 pm

The “brightest” people in the insurance world are actuaries; there’s a very good reason why insurance companies employ sales people and management people, and give them a lot of influece—the very bright actuaries tend to be less good at communicating clearly with the average customer, or figuring out how to motivate people, than sales people are.

OK, that’s a useful point. But flip it around: Suppose someone says, “We’ve got too many sales and management people in here trying to figure out how to design our marketing campaign in a way that will appeal to the public. To increase diversity, we need some number-crunching actuaries whose idea of social interaction is a blank stare.”

Is THAT going to increase the ability of the group to make a good marketing decision? If not, then why not? [Note: Maybe it's because actuaries are indeed "dumber" here along the relevant metric, i.e., knowing how to appeal to people.]

22

SamChevre 06.27.07 at 6:35 pm

Actually, including actuaries might help. SOME of the population wants numbers; marketing campaigns by salespeople tend to provide the information that salespeople would look at, and it has happened that actuaries said, “And if I wanted to know the _, where would I find it?”

23

functional 06.27.07 at 6:41 pm

OK, fair point.

Even if it’s good to have those different perspectives in an insurance meeting, I still don’t see the logical connection between that idea and the conclusion that you should be hiring people with lower grades from less respected colleges. Put it this way: If you do want an actuary in the room to supply the figures that are needed from time to time, would it be better to have 2 actuaries — one who actually knows his stuff, and one dropout who failed his only community college class in algebra? After all, the latter would no doubt add “diversity” to the facts and figures in question.

24

Henry 06.27.07 at 6:55 pm

functional – this isn’t what the book argues, as I note above (as stated in the main post Page’s results require that agents be ‘sufficiently smart’). The argument isn’t that stupid or simplistic – instead it finds that recruiting the very best (to the extent that these people tend to have similar training and converge on quite similar solutions) is likely to leave you less well off than recruiting from people who appear quite good but who come with a broader range of perspectives. The community college dropout example simply isn’t germane here.

Page’s claims furthermore translate into obvious advantages in the law too (at least in litigation, which is the area I am indirectly familiar with; perhaps it is less important in other, less intellectually demanding areas of practice). When you want to persuade a judge, you not only need technical expertise, but the ability to formulate interesting and novel arguments that build on existing precedents in a manner that is often non-obvious. It’s highly plausible that different heuristics that are gained from different life experiences are likely to provide attorneys in a team with a variety of novel perspectives that can greatly improve their argument, and that overly similar training (and from what I read in the legal blogs there is a consensus that most big schools, Yale aside, have a cookie-cutter approach to legal education) among your lawyers is likely to decrease the diversity of points of view and hence the likelihood of coming up with a killer interpretation.

25

SamChevre 06.27.07 at 6:59 pm

Well, since actuary is a certification, not just a title, you wouldn’t care. (I have now fulfilled my professional obligation to nitpick.)

However, in the legal context, I can certainly see the possible benefit–it relies on some heroic assumptions, but I can see it. The assumption is that almost everyone who went to a top 10 law school and got good grades is a certain type of person–very logical, very diligent, most likely very focused on book knowledge, etc. Someone who went to a lower-tier law school is much more likely to be a different sort of person–more risk-taking, more story-based (rather than logical), more likely to look for the easy answer, etc.

So the person from the top school is “brighter”; he knows more law. That doesn’t mean he’s better at building a case that will convince a jury, or better at seeing which (legally-sound) argument will make the general public boycott the corporation in droves.

26

functional 06.27.07 at 7:12 pm

The argument isn’t that stupid or simplistic – instead it finds that recruiting the very best (to the extent that these people tend to have similar training and converge on quite similar solutions) is likely to leave you less well off than recruiting from people who appear quite good but who come with a broader range of perspectives.

OK, I understand and may even agree with this — purely as a matter of theory. But is it any more than that? You say that Page presents this as a mathematical proof. Where does this play out in the real world? In what field or endeavor do all of the “top” people have such similar perspectives on everything that they would be meaningfully enlightened by the smart state university grad who has a different “perspective”? Enough abstractions; give a specific example.

When you want to persuade a judge, you not only need technical expertise, but the ability to formulate interesting and novel arguments that build on existing precedents in a manner that is often non-obvious.

I don’t think that’s right at all. If you want to persuade a judge, you want to avoid “interesting and novel” arguments at all costs. Instead, you want to make it seem as if your argument is completely predictable and humdrum and in correspondence with what every other judge has ever done in a similar situation. If you can get the judge to think that the OTHER SIDE’s argument is “novel,” you’re 90% of the way there. Judges don’t usually like to be innovators, especially district judges — it’s a good way to get reversed.

It’s highly plausible that different heuristics that are gained from different life experiences are likely to provide attorneys in a team with a variety of novel perspectives that can greatly improve their argument

This is too vague and abstract to be meaningful. Anyway, what “life experiences” does anyone have that could possibly relate to most of the problems that lawyers have to face? What life experiences does anyone have that are relevant to the question of whether a Supreme Court ERISA preemption case is controlling, or whether a particular provision in the IRC applies to a certain type of convertible bond transaction, or whether the putative class representative has proven that there is commonality under Rule 23?

Again, I do think it is useful to have different perspectives on each of these questions that a lawyer might face, but I can’t even imagine how “life experiences” or “went to a lesser school” are going to be proxies for that. THAT is what seems to be the non sequitur here.

(and from what I read in the legal blogs there is a consensus that most big schools, Yale aside, have a cookie-cutter approach to legal education)

If you’re worried about “perspectives,” it would be far truer to say that every professor in law school has a different “perspective” than to say that they all think alike.

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Henry 06.27.07 at 7:27 pm

Where does this play out in the real world? In what field or endeavor do all of the “top” people have such similar perspectives on everything that they would be meaningfully enlightened by the smart state university grad who has a different “perspective”? Enough abstractions; give a specific example.

I don’t have the book in front of me, but there is an extensive literature on this that Page refers to (not on the state university stuff but on diversity more generally). He interprets this literature, reasonably in my view, as suggesting that diversity does have important advantages, which are sometimes swamped by conflict (I describe some of this stuff in the post).

I don’t think that’s right at all. If you want to persuade a judge, you want to avoid “interesting and novel” arguments at all costs. Instead, you want to make it seem as if your argument is completely predictable and humdrum and in correspondence with what every other judge has ever done in a similar situation. If you can get the judge to think that the OTHER SIDE’s argument is “novel,” you’re 90% of the way there. Judges don’t usually like to be innovators, especially district judges—it’s a good way to get reversed.

That one doesn’t want to present arguments as being novel doesn’t mean that in fact they are not novel, or that one is being paid several hundred dollars an hour merely to robotically apply existing precedent. The value added is in the ability to combine existing precedents into an argument which is itself often original in that it highlights non-obvious ways in which disparate cases are connected. I don’t think that I am at all going out on a limb when I say that the ability to argue and persuade is what provides most of the value added. This ability is inherently novel in the way that it recombines existing resources in unexpected ways to shape choice – cf Riker on heresthetics etc.

Anyway, what “life experiences” does anyone have that could possibly relate to most of the problems that lawyers have to face? What life experiences does anyone have that are relevant to the question of whether a Supreme Court ERISA preemption case is controlling, or whether a particular provision in the IRC applies to a certain type of convertible bond transaction, or whether the putative class representative has proven that there is commonality under Rule 23?

Lawyers necessarily rely on analogical reasoning in order to make their briefs coherent and their claims stick (this is a pretty uncontested claim in the literature that I at least am familiar with). Different classes of analogies are precisely heuristics in Page’s sense of the term – and people with access to uncommon forms of analogical reasoning are ipso facto likely to contribute to group product. Page demonstrates this with regard to scientific invention where the connections are rather more tenuous appearing at first sight than legal argumentation.

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functional 06.27.07 at 7:43 pm

Well, let me get this straight: Lawyers who have an ERISA preemption case need to make analogies about something or other; people with lower grades or who went to lower schools are, by that fact, somehow better able to perceive different analogies for ERISA; therefore, bringing such people into the mix will benefit the team of lawyers arguing the case.

That’s an interesting argument, but every step seems very otherworldly. I wonder if there’s concrete evidence for any of it.

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functional 06.27.07 at 7:49 pm

Lawyers necessarily rely on analogical reasoning in order to make their briefs coherent and their claims stick (this is a pretty uncontested claim in the literature that I at least am familiar with).

I don’t think there’s any literature that could possibly say that lawyers need to think of “analogies” that are drawn from “life experiences.” The usual theory, instead, is that lawyers need to analogize to previous cases — preferably from the same state or federal judicial circuit. But analogizing to previous cases is one of those jesuitical skills that is taught in law school, and that top law school graduates tend to be better at doing than middling law school graduates. So this example cuts directly against your theory.

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Henry 06.27.07 at 8:41 pm

Not so. Grabbing from Scott Brewer’s “Exemplary Reasoning: Semantics, Pragmatics, and the Rational Force of Legal Argument by Analogy,” 109 Harvard Law Review 923 (1996), which is a fairly widely cited article in these debates, we get famous cases where judges had to decide whether steamboats were more like inns or motor cars, whether motor homes were more like parked cars or houses etc. Arguing about analogies of this kind clearly _does_ require some level of jesuitical legal skill that can be imparted by training. It also, however, very obviously requires an ability to draw creatively on forms of knowledge and experience that are not legally codified.

More generally, the art of creating apt analogies involves what Brewer describes as “an uncodifiable imaginative moment” which “is not unfamiliar in other areas of reasoning in whose rational force our intellectual culture has placed great confidence – namely both the empirical and the demonstrative sciences.” (p.954). Page demonstrates how these “uncodifiable imaginative moments” in the natural sciences may draw upon heuristics from completely non-scientific experiences, including those from everyday life histories, allowing apparently insoluble problems to be understood in novel and illuminating ways.
It seems to beggar belief that this doesn’t apply in the law too (and indeed I’m quite sure from extended experience with lawyers that it does). It’s a commonplace among people studying innovation that the sources of creativity often exactly involve the application of perspectives or heuristics from one field of endeavour into another, which is apparently entirely unrelated (Page provides us with one conceptual language that we can use to grasp how this happens).

This is why simply hiring people who graduated near the top of their class at elite schools isn’t necessarily a good idea. These people are _very_ likely to have the appropriate jesuitical skills. They may however have quite similar backgrounds in other ways, meaning that as a group they have less conceptual resources to draw on when dealing with issues that require genuine creativity than would a more variegated bunch of people.

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functional 06.27.07 at 9:21 pm

I grasp your point, but analogies involving steamboats and motorcars are (trust me) vanishingly rare in law firm work. Whereas your previous claim was that “lawyers necessarily rely on analogical reasoning in order to make their briefs coherent and their claims stick.” If you’re talking about analogies to “life experiences” and whatnot, that broad claim just isn’t true as to the overwhelming majority of cases. In any event, I don’t see how, at least in the law, there’s a viable argument for hiring lesser qualified people just on the theory that (1) the law firm might occasionally have a case where odd analogies are potentially useful; 2) the lesser qualified people might have some marginal advantage in being able to think up such analogies that would outshine the analogies perceived by smarter lawyers; and 3) the benefit produced by the new analogy in that one-in-a-hundred case would outweigh the fact that the lesser-qualified lawyers might (on average) be less capable at writing and arguing and legal research (which are relevant to about 100% of all cases).

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F. Blair 06.27.07 at 11:37 pm

Functional, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that in the case of the law, the benefits of better writing/arguing/research skills outweigh the improvement in problem-solving and strategizing that you would get from having a more diverse legal team. Page is not saying that, in some circumstances, the benefits of expertise outweigh those of diversity. He is saying — and demonstrating — that when it comes to a wide range of complex problems — including things like forecasting the future, choosing from among an array of possible tactical or strategic options, etc. — teams of diverse individuals who have at least some knowledge that’s germane to the problem will outperform homogeneous ones.

Your incredulity at this argument is itself a demonstration of Page’s point. There is a vast literature out there on the limits of expertise and the fact that expert knowledge is, in general, no better calibrated than amateur knowledge. (In other words, most experts don’t know what they know and what they don’t know — they’re as confident in their wrong judgments as in their right ones.) There is also a vast literature out there on the perils of homogeneity in groups, and the way homogeneous groups find it difficult to see their own blind spots and to anticipate problems. We know that experts are likely to be homogeneous in their thinking, because that’s what gets them defined as experts — in general, expertise consists in performing well according to certain well-defined protocols. So teams made up of the cream of the crop, particularly those that have all been educated at the same universities, are more likely to be (not guaranteed to be, but more likely to be) homogeneous than teams that draw from a wider range of performance abilities. The benefits of the latter may not outweigh the former in all cases, but that the benefits of the latter exist has been demonstrated both in the laboratory and empirically. Familiarize yourself with the literature, and then come back and explain why it’s wrong, instead of simply offering up hypotheses.

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john c. halasz 06.27.07 at 11:54 pm

The book reviewed addresses the benefits of a diversity of perspectives in the information-aggregation underlying decision-making processes, but it doesn’t seem to address the issues of organizational structures, how decisions are transmitted, implemented and enforced, and the relations between organizations and their extra-organizational social “environments”. Hence its perspective seems confined only to academic, professional, or business sites of decision-making, but it doesn’t seem to address the larger processes and stakes by which decision-making gets generated, channeled and skewed. Conflicts and communicative opacities in decision-making are not simply the result of differing “preference orderings”, but of fundamentally different distributions of stakes, life-chances, fates and ways-of-life, hence of values and interests that are not reducible to optional “preferences”. Class struggle and other forms of social inequality and exclusion can’t really be eliminated from the “picture”, and that seems to be a horse-pill that the book doesn’t sugar-coat because it doesn’t even swallow it. It may well be that we would all be better off, if controlling institutional hierarchies and their decision-making elites were more open to diversity. But that doesn’t address the question of the “necessities” of such hierarchies and the interactions between different organizations in controlling and regulating their external social “environments” and those who must live in those “environments” and be subject to regulatory impositions. So aren’t we just dealing here with another liberal academic exercize in attempting to rationalize and reconcile formal equality and substantive exclusion in the name of “democracy”? (N.B.: this comment is an equal opportunity employer; however, lawyers need not apply.)

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functional 06.28.07 at 1:19 am

teams of diverse individuals who have at least some knowledge that’s germane to the problem will outperform homogeneous ones.

Look, I can accept this. Intellectual diversity > intellectual homogeneity. What I find to be a complete non sequitur is this notion that people who make lower grades and who attend lower-ranked colleges are thereby more intellectually “diverse.” Says who? In what field is that true? Stop being so damn abstract (this goes for Henry too) and give a specific example.

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Ryan Muldoon 06.28.07 at 5:29 am

functional:
I think you might be fighting with a strawman here. You seem to be focused on a claim “one should hire dumber people because they will be more diverse”, whereas the claim that Page actually makes is that (given certain conditions about the kind of problem) “one should hire a diverse group of people, even if that means that some of them might be individually lower-achieving”.
The reason why this might have gotten confusing is that, if we look at how we might want to design a simulation to test this hypothesis, and we stick with the hill-climbing problem that Page uses, we find that the only way to get diversity of agents is to have them be “dumber”. If we implement fully-rational agents (ones that always go uphill), they can get stuck at local maxima on a given landscape. If we implement agents that aren’t quite smart enough that they always want to go uphill, and are in fact dumb in different ways, we find that they wander off those local maxima, and eventually find themselves at the global maximum. This is glossing over a bunch of details of course, but the basic idea is that in a simulation, you usually only have one way to be fully rational, and a lot of ways to be less than rational (unless one includes something like a difference in your priors amongst the fully rational).
So, I think page would be happy to claim that if you can find a bunch of top 1% lawyers that all happened to be extremely diverse somehow in the relevant ways (maybe some started as engineers, others were english majors, and still others were philosophers, and some grew up in the inner city, others grew up in an ethnic enclave, etc etc) that would be great. But the more interesting claim is that what might be socially optimal for the group is different from what is individually optimal for a member of the group in a decision-making context. You may get the prediction right 85% of the time, but it isn’t very useful to add someone who gets it right those same 85%. It would be better to add someone who gets it right only 70% of the time, but can get it right in some of the cases where you get it wrong. The goal is to increase coverage of the problem space. Sometimes this will not be the same as hiring the highest-achieving individuals. But it is not claiming that one should hire the dumb people – it is claiming that you should hire people that have different approaches to the same problem.

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JP Stormcrow 06.28.07 at 5:42 am

Stop being so damn abstract (this goes for Henry too) and give a specific example.

Okay, against all better judgement, ignoring the many questionable aspects of the narrowly conceived strawman argument that you have constructed, let me offer a specific hypothetical example from … gee, let’s say the practice of law.

A competing law firm employs uniformly very bright, well-schooled attorneys, who are walking encyclopedias of nuance and precedent in their various specialized fields. Competence, neigh brilliance (and the academic credentials to prove it), reigns supreme. However, after a series of comments period of time you notice that there appears to be a lack of “out-of-the-box” and empathetic thinking, that the lawyers of the firm seem to be unable to “walk around in the other fellow’s shoes”, that they instead seem to increasingly cling to their own confidence, and reputation for brilliance in interpreting and manipulating the specialized constructs of the law.

Is there an opportunity here? Possibly. Put together a team to develop and execute strategies for winning over a significant proportion of the customer base from the competing firm. What are some of the avenues open for attack? Anticipate the likely response of the competing firm.

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john c. halasz 06.28.07 at 7:26 am

“Competence, neigh brilliance”… a line worthy of Swift.

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F. Blair 06.28.07 at 8:29 am

Functional, you think we’re being “damn abstract” when I think most of us believe we’re being completely concrete, because it seems self-evident that people who decide (for whatever reason) to go to law school at a state university, for instance, are likely (not guaranteed, but likely) to have different perspectives than people who go to Harvard or Yale, and that those perspectives will manifest themselves in their strategic and legal thinking. If you don’t believe that people who go to Ivy League law schools are more like each other than they are like people who go to state university law schools, then you are, I think, completely out of touch with reality.

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SamChevre 06.28.07 at 12:55 pm

John Halasz,

What do hierarchies have to do with anything? It seems the results of this study should be robust wrt hieracrchies. They’d seem to apply equally well to a group planning a block party (no hierarchy), to a neighborhood group trying to get the city to improve the street lighting (figuring out how to deal with superiors), and a group designing a high-school curriculum (figuring out how to deal with inferiors.)

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functional 06.28.07 at 1:05 pm

Functional, you think we’re being “damn abstract” when I think most of us believe we’re being completely concrete, because it seems self-evident that people who decide (for whatever reason) to go to law school at a state university, for instance, are likely (not guaranteed, but likely) to have different perspectives than people who go to Harvard or Yale, and that those perspectives will manifest themselves in their strategic and legal thinking. If you don’t believe that people who go to Ivy League law schools are more like each other than they are like people who go to state university law schools, then you are, I think, completely out of touch with reality.

Yes, this is completely abstract and hypothetical. I’ve been asking for something specific, and that shows why these differing “perspectives” have any relevance to any practical problem.

For example, let’s say that the guy who goes to the state law school in Kansas is more likely to have lived on a farm than Yale Law graduates. I’d bet anything that that’s true. And if the subject in question is agricultural law, then maybe there’d be a point in having lawyers who know something about agriculture.

But how on earth does that turn into a general principle that in the 99% of cases that don’t involve agricultural law, this Kansas lawyer is by definition going to add a new and valuable “perspective”? What is it that farmers, qua farmers, have as a perspective on cases that involve the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, or ERISA, or the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, or the Internal Revenue Code, or the 1996 Telecommunications Act?

THAT’S WHAT I MEAN when I say “be specific.” I’m not interested in abstractions about “perspectives.” I want to know why all of these “perspectives” are going to be useful in specific cases.

And this is not just about the law — I want to know why the traditionally-trained oncologist is going to benefit from teaming up with the homeopathist, and so forth.

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otto 06.28.07 at 7:05 pm

Henry, do you have a book to recommend which does explain agent based modeling to the masses?

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Ryan Muldoon 06.28.07 at 9:20 pm

Miller and Page have a new book called _Complex Adaptive Systems_ that is pretty nice. Thomas Schelling’s _Micromotives and Macrobehavior_ is a great book that helps one think like an agent-based modeler, but does not really deal with computer simulation. Either book will give you a good sense of what goes into agent-based models, and they are easy reads.

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leederick 06.28.07 at 9:32 pm

If Page and Surowiecki really think groups make better decisions than experts, then why did they write their books alone? I think we should be told.

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functional 06.29.07 at 1:29 am

Yes, yes, yes. How often have we heard or experienced the fact that a committee sucked the life out of something, by killing every interesting or innovative (read: potentially risky) idea? The best ideas usually come not from the boilerplate gobble-de-gook issued by a corporate committee, but by an individual (perhaps a “maverick”) who is more willing to stake out a risky claim. Yet there could be nothing less “diverse” than a single individual. What gives? Does Page address this sort of point?

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