"Co-stupidity" describes the collective inability
of groups, communities, organizations and societies to see what's
happening in and around them, and to deal effectively with what
they find. It is the opposite of collective intelligence.
It is important to understand, however, that to say a group
or society is behaving co-stupidly or co-intelligently says nothing
about the intelligence of the individuals involved.
Some of the most co-stupid groups are made up of brilliant
people who use their brilliance to undermine each other so that
together they add up to nothing. Or they may be trapped in a
dysfunctional group process or social system that erodes or wastes
their brilliance. Worse yet, a social system can transmute individual
brilliance into collective catastrophe, perhaps by using it to
create devastating weapons of mass destruction or technologies
that predictably run amok or investment strategies that collapse
entire regional economies.
Co-stupidity can also arise from group or international dynamics.
Co-stupidity can arise from both competition and conformity.
A clear example of competitive co-stupidity at the global scale
was the US/USSR deterrence strategy called "Mutually Assured
Destruction" (MAD), in which an arms race of ever-more-powerful
weapons sufficient to destroy the world were kept at hair-trigger
alert to prevent the other side from launching their own weapons.
In contrast, cooperative, conformist groupthink happens when
the people in a group keep their views to themselves because
they don't want to be different or rejected. Each person in the
group goes along with a leader or with what they think the group
wants, without challenging ideas that don't quite make sense
to them or offering creative alternatives.
Furthermore, co-stupidity can arise from neither competition
nor conformity but simply from poorly designed systems and feedback
loops that reward people for doing -- or punish them for not
doing -- actions that are destructive over the long term or endanger
the life around them. When millions of people do actions like
that -- such as driving internal combustion vehicles, pumping
toxics into the environment or letting TV replace community and
citizenship -- the systems they are part of can end up doing
a lot of damage. These acts of collective self-destruction, seen
from the outside, may seem quite stupid, suggesting that co-stupidity
is at work.
In contrast to all this, it turns out that people of very
ordinary or even low intelligence can, if they collaborate creatively
within a well-designed system or good group process, generate
a level of collective brilliance that far exceeds what they could
do under the control of a brilliant leader.
Once we are in a group or society, our collective intelligence
or stupidity has little to do with how clever or slow we are
individually -- and everything to do with how well our system
is designed, how good our process is, how wisely we handle information,
and how well we all work together, how open we are to diversity,
challenge and novelty.
Irving Janis did some famous research on conformist co-stupidity
-- which he called groupthink -- published in books like GROUPTHINK:
PSYCHOLOGICAL STUDIES OF POLICY DECISION and VICTIMS OF GROUPTHINK.
For quick summaries of Janis' research on groupthink -- including
his recommendations fo dealing with it -- see http://www.abacon.com/commstudies/groups/groupthink.html
A closer look at societal
Co-stupidity and our collective
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