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Let us not be seduced by false consensus

May 19, 2013 Leadership, Sunday Nation

The mood was upbeat. Speaker after speaker had highlighted the fact that Kenya is on the move, that the direction is right, that the economic fundamentals are now very attractive.

Then the final speaker stood up, and struck what felt like a false note. He asked us to be careful. He wondered what Kenyans being asked to ‘accept and move on’ really meant. Should we be so grateful that we’ve had a peaceful election in Kenya, that we should numb ourselves to the problems we still face? The awful events in Bungoma and Mandera right after the election, for example, should warn us that there is a great deal to be done before we are ‘cured.’

That speaker was our excellent singer, Eric Wainaina. I applauded loudly, for it is people like Eric who keep societies honest. Most of us are all too ready to ‘go with the flow.’ Few are willing to stick out like a sore thumb by saying things that are unpopular or unfashionable. And it really, really matters that a few people are so willing.

To understand this, consider the following experiment. A few people are asked to sit around a table and shown a card that contains three straight lines of obviously different lengths, marked A, B and C. They are also shown another card, with just a single line on it. The experimenter asks the subjects to state which of the three lines on the first card matches in length the single line on the second card.

The task is designed to be very easy; the answer is obvious. But there is a catch. All but one of the people sitting around the table are actors placed there by the experimenter. The genuine subject does not know the others are actors, and is asked to give his answer last. The actors are asked to confirm which line matches, and all deliberately give the wrong answer. By the time the subject is asked to give his answer, he is so baffled by all the wrong answers that he usually falls in and also gives the wrong answer.

As few as three actors preceding the subject in giving wrong answers are sufficient to cause him to confirm the same wrong answer. The poor fellow will believe the (wrong) answers of the majority rather than believe the (correct) evidence of his own eyes.

Now here’s the thing: if even one actor in this experiment is asked to provide a different answer from the rest, the subject will often feel emboldened to give his own correct answer rather than fall in with the majority. Just a single dissenting voice can burst the bubble of false consensus.

This famous experiment, conducted by the psychologist Solomon Asch, is recounted in the recent book ‘Adapt’ by Tim Harford, one of my favourite authors. Harford uses it to warn against the dangers of seeking unanimity in decision-making. He points out this undid America in the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson shut out all dissenting voices in his team regarding the decision to to get drawn into the Vietnam war. Harford also tells us that America repeated the mistake forty years later, when Donald Rumsfeld similarly would not countenance alternative courses of action in handling Iraq.

This need leaders have to seek ‘harmony’ and rely on ‘team players’ can have dire consequences.

In Kenya in 2003, we collectively inhaled a gas called euphoria, something that caused us to hallucinate that we had solved all our problems simply by voting out a bad regime.

Let us not repeat that mistake in 2013. There is much to be cheerful about, and our young and energetic nation can indeed now mature into a stable adult. But have no doubt: tough battles remain. Only when we have overcome the dark forces of tribalism, corruption and impunity should we begin to rejoice.

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