January 18, 2006

Cognitive Limits and Group Size

Revised Topic Oct 2008

I am considering some of the arguments debated during the Canadian and US federal elections in 2008. Here is my perspective:

I assume that each human has limited cognitive ability and will only be competent in the performance of a limited number of tasks. I am not convinced that elections select the most competent people for the very demanding tasks of governing. I am not suprised when politicians rely on dogma and slander as they attempt to win the popular vote. I am sure that our current election methods are obsolete and need to be replaced with more sophisticated methods of achieving representational government. The quality of election-time argument is poor. The policies being promoted lack detail and often are not credible solutions to problems that have deep roots in human nature.

Dunbar and others established an important relationship between brain size and cohesive group size. The basic idea is that the cohesion of primate groups is limited by the information-processing capacity of the neocortex. One human can only maintain social and working relationships a limited number of individuals by meaningful personal contact. In simple terms, you can only know a small number of people well enough to understand their individual characteristics, to evaluate what they are likely to do and to develop cooperative work habits. You can only form intimate contacts with a few select individuals.

Each human has a people sphere around them with a central region of intimates and a peripheral region of acquaintances. Just as there is a range of human cognitive ability, there is a range of human social ability. The most gifted humans have larger people spheres that might include up to 150 people. Beyond the boundaries of the known-people sphere, other humans blur into an undifferentiated “public.” Humans can recognize more than 150 faces, but the faces are often nameless and meaningful associations are obscure or absent.

Less socially gifted humans have difficulty maintaining connections with a smaller number of people and may not be able to sustain even one intimate relationship.

Dunbar states: ‘overnight camps can readily be identified as demographic units in time and space and the tribal groupings can be identified either by linguistic homogeneity or geographical location, the intermediate level groupings are often defined more in terms of ritual functions: they may gather together once a year to enact rituals of special significance to the group (such as initiation rites), but for much of the time the members can be dispersed over a wide geographical area and, in some cases, may even live with members of other groupings. …”

Most primates live in complex, multi-tiered social systems in which different layers are functional responses to different environmental problems. Chimpanzees, like humans, have a fission/fusion form of social system. The community is divided into a number of temporary foraging parties whose composition changes with changes in the environment. A larger group may divide into smaller foraging groups when food is scarce. Smaller groups may fuse when food is abundant or when an external threat makes alliances more attractive.

The cohesion of primate groups is maintained by grooming each other. Body contact and grooming establishes and services friendships and coalitions. Coalitions protect their members against harassment by the other members of the group. The more harassment an individual faces, the more important coalitions are. A coalition’s effectiveness is measured by its members' willingness to come to each other's aid and is directly related to the amount of time its members spend grooming each other.

An emergent idea is that smaller groups based on kinship and affinity work better and larger groups require formal external structures that define and enforce specific roles and behavior. In modern businesses, smaller work groups increase job satisfaction and allow the coordination of tasks and information-flow through person-to-person links. In some high tech software companies, smart and nice employees are happiest working in a village atmosphere that includes children, pets and combines work with play. In contrast, highly regimented and anonymous work environments disconnect employees from every other expression of their lives and produce “alienation”, a common feature of urban life.

This discussion in continued Group Dynamics by Stephen Gislason.

January 15, 2006

Group Dynamics

In my book, Group Dynamics, I make frequent references to the local group and emphasize the importance of group activity and group identity. The aptitude and skills required for affiliations and bonding originated with interactions in small groups. Human tendencies developed in small hunter-gather groups with humans who knew each other and depended on each other to find food, protect the young and defend the group from predators.

Rather than viewing society and culture as real things, an observer can recognize that humans live in groups that repeat and modify innate behaviors to produce prolific variations on a few underlying themes that are common to all societies. The smart observer will consider the grouping characteristics of humans and discern basic patterns and problems underlying the apparent complexity of modern civilization.

The organization of society begins with small local clusters that link family groups into clans that are more or less cooperative units. Clans associate forming bands that tend to affiliate with other bands forming tribes, looser affiliations that occupy larger geographic areas. The band-tribal structure emerges from ancient animal groupings. Patterns of organization, rules, and institutions that regulate human behavior are in flux and will continue to be unstable.

As human populations expand and interactions become increasingly complex, innate abilities are stretched and distorted. The ability of individuals to relate to other humans remains limited and limits the effective management of enlarging groups. Managers and leaders do not become smarter as the organizations they lead become larger. It is axiomatic that organizations that exceed a threshold number become dysfunctional. It is matter of empirical study to recognize group size thresholds, and too little is known about the cognitive limitations of leaders.

At the level of the largest organizations, small groups decide on policy and procedures that effect many nations, even the fate the entire species. International negotiations often involve numbers of people in crowded assembles such as the United Nations. When crises arise and critical issues need resolution, the best results are often achieved by single individuals or small groups who intervene above and beyond the complexities of rules and the rituals of large assemblies and work out a deal. Individuals can make deals and settle disputes when other more complex and impersonal negotiations fail.

The tendency to impose rules and policies from the top down is, however, risky because individuals and small groups cannot understand the needs, values and beliefs of large numbers of local groups.

World-wide policies will tend to fail since they emerge from limited understanding and ignore the tendency for humans to relate most strongly to a small local group. At the deepest level, humans discriminate and select only a few humans out of many to trust and share time and space.

In modern urban communities, humans of many descriptions come together to learn, work, and play. They pass through a common space every day. Strangers are ignored or actively avoided. A ride on an elevator reveals a remarkable innate resistance to interaction with strangers. Most humans feel tense and awkward in an elevator and avoid eye contact with other riders. If you override this strong tendency and say something to your fellow riders, the tension builds, and everyone is focused on getting out of the elevator as soon as possible.

The human brain can scan a thousand faces every day, ignoring most; reliably identifying an occasional attractive face or the face of a friend in the crowd. This remarkable facial identification is essential to social adaptation.

Modern humans belong to many groups of different size and importance and will create a hierarchy of allegiance characterized by shifting loyalties and even reversals of allegiance. Blacks will suspend conflict with other blacks to fight white oppression. Black and white will unite to fight a common external aggressor. Women will stand together to fight a common male enemy; if the patriarchic oppressors leave them alone, they will resume fighting among themselves and split into sub groups. Lesbian women will stick together when faced with hostile heterosexual women or male discrimination, but if left alone, will fight among themselves over other issues that divide the group.

Group loyalty is like a plastic set function – an expanding-contracting series of inclusion/exclusion boundaries; the boundaries solidify when there is an external threat and become fluid again when the threat is withdrawn.

The basic inter-group rules are:

1. Groups have inclusion /exclusion rules.
2. Groups have boundaries
3. Group identifiers tend to be hierarchical and nested
4. Groups can be nested with nested intensities of affiliation.
5. Intragroup conflict is suspended by intergroup conflict.
6. The suspension rule is nested.


Adapted from Group Dynamics by Stephen Gislason

Idealist’s Fantasy

One useful device is the idealist’s fantasy of a better human world that is quite different from the one we are used to. For example George W. Bush, as president of the US, bristles with innate tendencies and no understanding of human nature. He insisted that a good way to introduce democracy to Iraq was to destroy the infrastructure of the country, impose military rule, imprison and torture any one who objected. In an idealist’s counterfactual world, G.W. Bush would not become the President of the US and no-one would believe that military invasion was a tool of democratic reform.

Any man or woman qualified to be the President of the USA would be nice and smart with a deep understanding of human nature and an aversion for killing. The President would obey Christian ethics, love his or her enemies, turn the other cheek, and love neighbors, even people who were very different.

He would know that two wrongs do not make a right.

In my counterfactual world, in fact, there are only defensive military organizations and no adventitious killing. Nations are respectful, generous and tolerant of each others’ differences. Disputes are resolved by negotiation, grooming, gift-giving, sports and shared celebrations. There are no “terrorists” since all humans would have constructive ways of expressing and remedying their grievances. The United Nations would be reorganized and would flourish as a forum of cooperation.

Belligerent politicians would be given the opportunity to duel with each other in public displays of their skill and courage as warriors. They would not be seen as heroes but as irrational pugilists, atavistic misfits that need to do battle in ceremonial combat without harming others. If Bush disliked Hussein, he would challenge him to a duel. Let the best man win. You would save a hundred thousand lives and a billions of US dollars spend on destroying Iraq’s infrastructure. The domestic economy of the US would flourish with constructive, humanitarian enterprises and would not miss the vanishing munitions industry.

We can thank G.W. Bush for demonstrating how reptilian belligerence is no longer an acceptable expression of world leaders.

Dalai Lama and the Good Person

Speculation about how the mind works in terms of who thinks what and who disagrees is the exoteric version popular in philosophy. There is a need for insightful, esoteric studies and reports on the inner human experience. Buddhist philosophy is esoteric. Buddhism developed in India, Tibet, Nepal, China, Japan, Southeast Asia and Indonesia and Buddhist practitioners and scholars worked out observations and techniques of the human mind studying itself.

The mind-study traditions of, for example, Zen and Vajrayana Buddhism provide concepts and tools for working with our own experience and exploring our own minds - strategies that can alleviate suffering and promote the expansion of each persons' consciousness toward a more universal common-mind, the goal of enlightenment practice.

These are strategies that also guide research in cognitive neuroscience and are essential to ask meaningful questions about consciousness, thoughts, feelings, memory, goals and beliefs. Thus, the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist Scholar, and some neuroscientists are interested in each other and have had fruitful discussions about the nature of mind and its inner workings. The Dalai Lama has become a spokesperson for sanity and human goodness. He holds each person responsible for what humans do or do not do. He won the Nobel Peace Prize and his life-story has become familiar to millions people through the movies Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun.

The Dalai Lama states that the pursuit of spiritual goals and ultimate liberation from suffering and evil requires the intention to be of service to others. Selfish goals and methods alone are not sufficient and inevitably lead to unhappiness.

He teaches that each person can work with his or her own mind to develop a higher consciousness, characterized by compassion and ethical conduct.

From the Book of Existence and the Human Mind by Stephen Gislason

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