How human groups and other supra-organisms make decisions
We are living through a very real and public lesson in how human groups adopt beliefs, make decisions, and take actions, as related to the beliefs, decisions, and actions of the individuals who belong to those groups. This can teach us a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of our species and our long-term prospects for survival.
As I write this, people in the United States are divided in their beliefs about who is their President-elect. A significant minority are unwilling to concede that the recent election is over and the result is known. Yet it is very likely that, within a few months — by late January at the latest — almost everyone will agree that one candidate will be inaugurated as and will be the new President, whether we like it or not. So this is an opportunity to reflect on how the group decision-making process works, and how it relates to decision-making processes in the minds of the individuals who make up a group.
First, let’s see if we agree on what a decision is. I understand the word “decision” to mean a choice between two or more mutually incompatible beliefs and/or actions. If your idea of a decision is significantly different from my idea, you and I have a problem of communicating. In that case, you will probably stop reading this essay now, unless you are curious about exploring ideas different from your own.
If a decision involves actions rather than just internal beliefs in our minds, those actions may be either reversible or irreversible in time. Furthermore, even reversible decisions can have irreversible consequences, if the reversible decisions cause further, irreversible events before the original decisions are reversed. I can pull my finger back from touching a hot stove, but the burn and its memory remain.
Kinds of supra-organisms
Supra-organisms differ from individual organisms in how tightly their components are coupled. The components of individual organisms usually cannot survive very long if they become separated from the overall organism. When living organisms die, they usually decompose into their chemical constituents. But components of a supra-organism can often split into two or more smaller supra-organisms, some of which can survive on their own.
Human groups are supra-organisms similar to and differing from supra-organisms of other species, such as flocks of birds, herds of caribou, troupes of apes, packs of wolves, colonies of ants, and forests of trees. Such groups differ in how they make group decisions and how those group decisions relate to the behavior of individuals in the group.
Some supra-organisms, such a forests, seem to be essentially leaderless groups. The individuals in the group communicate with one another but make decisions on their own, based on the communications they receive. At best, such groups may have dominant members, which, because of their size and/or amount of accumulated knowledge, are more effective at communicating to other members in the group relevant information for the individual decisions the other members will be making.
Other supra-organisms, such as colonies of ants, have fixed leaders — individuals that are selected by some process — such as genetic or biological differences — to make decisions on behalf of the group as a whole. Other members of such a group normally make their own decisions in conformity with the decisions of the leader.
Still other supra-organisms, such as herds, troupes, and packs of mammals, have chosen leaders that are selected by group processes — often involving witnessed combat among candidates for leadership — to make decisions on behalf of the group.
Human supra-organisms differ from, and are more complicated than, supra-organisms of other species in several ways. We individual people belong to many overlapping human groups, which can result in conflicts in our individual decision-making processes. And many of our groups have group leadership and/or leadership hierarchies, consisting of leaders and sub-leaders. Human group decisions, including selection of leaders, may be made by election processes, that involve combining individual decisions in some way to become group decisions. In all those ways, human supra-organisms make us unique among known species of life.
How individual and group decisions affect the behavior of human groups
The behavior of a supra-organism as a whole depends on what kind of supra-organism it is, in terms of how it makes decisions. Human groups exist in almost all varieties of supra-organisms. Some, including groups of people who meet and share common interests on the internet, are essentially leaderless at the beginning. Over time they may develop leadership by dominant individuals or even by election processes. Other human groups — absolute monarchies and dictatorships — have fixed leaders, often for the leader’s lifetime. Still others have group leadership and leadership hierarchies, whether chosen by the members of the group or not. In the United States and many other nations, the political groups have a combination of group leadership and leadership hierarchies, headed by leaders chosen by election processes.
Under normal circumstances, the behavior of human groups depends on the kind of decision-making structure it involves. Leaderless groups often behave in uncoordinated ways as the individuals involved in them make their own decisions as to how to behave on behalf of the group. Such groups are often unstable, easily gaining and losing members over time.
Human groups with leaders and leadership hierarchies tend to act in coordinated ways, as their individual members make action decisions that conform to the decisions of their leaders. In rare cases significant numbers of individuals may act contrary to the decisions of their leaders. That can result in leaders losing control of group behavior, as, for example, when an anti-war movement disrupts a country’s war-making action that resulted from decisions of group leaders.
How group decisions affect the behavior of individuals in a group
In the reverse direction, the reaction of individual people to group decisions also varies, depending on the kind of supra-organism the group is and the position the individual occupies within the group. Individuals in leaderless groups usually feel free to act either with or against decisions of other members in the group. Individuals involved in groups with more complicated leadership structures may be more likely to behave in accordance with decisions of group leaders, although some may act in contrary ways to subvert the decisions of group leaders, and others may offer passive resistance by failing to cooperate with group decisions.
Finally, in many cases individuals who disagree with group decisions may decide to leave the group, if they can do so and are not prevented in that act by actions of other members of the group, or of other groups (such as law-enforcement groups). Some such decisions have serious, even life-threatening consequences for the individual.
Prospects for our future as a species
As I mentioned earlier, we humans usually belong to multiple, overlapping supra-organisms, from our families, to our local communities, religious and other interest groups, employment and other business groups, political states, and nations. Decisions of those groups can cause conflict for us as individuals and for the groups involved.
Some human groups are created and/or destroyed fairly rapidly, while others persist for long periods of time. The internet has accelerated the process of group change, making interactions of human supra-organisms less stable than they have been previously in our history. As the physical circumstances here on earth change, the new speed of change of human supra-organisms can have both positive and negative effects. On the positive side, new groups can form and grow rapidly to combine individual actions into group actions in order to address newly-identified dangers. On the negative side, new groups can form and grow rapidly to spread misinformation and motivate individual actions and group decisions that fail to address dangers or which actually the compound dangers to our planet and species.
As a species we are in an increasingly precarious position as our numbers increase and our impact on earth’s resources increases. It is important that as many of us as possible come to understand ourselves as a species, so we will successfully navigate our journey through our dangerous near future.