Lazy Luddite Log

25.9.07

Just Say No... Just Say Yes...

I have been involved in a number of different formal groups in my life and have experienced different decision-making methods. The two kinds I am most familiar with are 'majoritarian' and 'consensus'. The former is the most common one utilised in everything from sporting associations to national parliaments. The latter is presented as an alternative to traditional meeting procedure despite the fact that it also has a long history (e.g. Quakers in the eighteen hundreds).

I have a strong preference for the majoritarian method. It is criticised as a method in which a majority always dominates a minority. This overlooks the likelihood that the majority and minority in most groups shifts and changes from proposal to proposal such that nobody is always one or the other. It also opens consensus method to the response that in practice it is really "the rule of the most stubborn minority".

Under consensus method a decision cannot be made till everyone agrees to a proposal and the proposal must be altered and altered till such time as it wins unanimous support. One would hope that everyone involved in such a process was in a mood to compromise but this cannot be assumed or assured. It is all too likely that those with the greatest commitment to a given course of action will always dominate in such circumstances.

The specific actions undertaken in the two processes are worth picturing. In a majoritarian meeting there is debate followed by a vote (usually) by show-of-hands. The 'yays' hands rise. Then the 'nays' hands rise. Then the hands of those abstaining rise. Everyone can see what everyone thinks. Everyone is expected to have personally shown assent or dissent. Even those who have been silent during debate now must take some active role and express an opinion. In majoritarian method everyone is asked to say yes or no. Everyone accepts the decision but the mistake of assuming everyone is happy is never made.

In consensus however one is simply asked "is there any dissent". Debate ends once nobody responds. Dissent may have evaporated because everyone is content but it may also have ceased because everyone is tired and wants to go home. Under the consensus method silence is consent and everyone is assumed to be content.

On experiencing consensus method I quickly decided I preferred majoritarian processes on grounds of speed and efficiency. However I now think there is more behind my preferences than that and these lie in my feelings on inter-personal relations.

Translate these two methods to everyday informal life circumstances. We have a natural tendency to want to mutely go along with things. If a salesperson proffers a pamphlet at us as we walk past in the street then we are inclined to take it even if we lack any interest in the product. It takes effort to resist even this mild form of pressure and I would hazard a guess that the majority of such pamphlets are taken by shoppers only to be binned seconds later.

Most of us want to minimise contention and we want to be polite. We also are inclined to bend to those who seem surer of things than we feel we ourselves are. If we seem indecisive then others will jump in and make decisions for us. In this way we can be swept along in a cascade of propositions and find that we never truly participated in that decision-making process. It can happen among friends and relations and produce all sorts of simmering issues.

With all this in mind I think it is worth saying this:
It is better to ask than to assume.

Also: It is better to say "yes" or "no" than to go "m-hmmm..."

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8 Comments:

  • I tend to agree that "consensus" decision making is not really a way of including everyone in decision making. This style pre-supposes that people are reasonable and willing to make compromises. All too often the actual result is the victory of the most bloody-minded and unreasonable people in the group.

    By Blogger vcollins, At 28 September, 2007  

  • I feel that way Vivienne. Mind you it does depend on who is involved and what kind of decisions need to be made. Also there are many meetings that reflect elements of both.

    I have been in many Australian Democrats branch or committee meetings in which many votes are unanimous (a case of majoritarian involving a mood of consensus).

    Conversely in Nuclear Free Australia we can if need be resort to a vote if debate has stalled for too long (a case of consensus model which in the last resort is in fact majoritarian).

    By Blogger Daniel, At 03 October, 2007  

  • There has been a problem in the past with Aboriginal people in the legal system displaying what is called "gratuitous concurrance". This means a defendant will say 'yes' in a police interview purely because the path of least resistence leads quickly to the interview being over. People are now recognising and addressing this problem, but it has been going on for a long time. I think there is definitely something in what you say about passivity and a preference for non-confrontation being part of human nature.

    By Blogger Hooch, At 14 October, 2007  

  • The anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin writes about this same subject with basically the same conclusion.

    I think there are other decision making methods as well. As you said, most people will just go along if there isn't a pressing interest either way. Votes are really only necessary if there is some sort of disagreement. Often times "consensus" can just be the lack of strong disagreement. I've seen meetings and decisions made without the need of explicit votes work fairly effectively.

    In the end though, confrontations need to be dealt with, and I would also support the majoritarian approach in this case.

    By Blogger Jacobian, At 14 October, 2007  

  • To Eugenie

    Thanks for that example. I suspect that it in part arises from a difference in cultural ways of interacting and can produce some destructive results even if they are entirely accidental.

    To 'Jacobian'

    Thanks for that link. I understand that a lot of activist groups derive a preference for concensus from the anarchist tradition so it will be interesting to look at an anarchist critique of the method.

    By Blogger Daniel, At 15 October, 2007  

  • To put what Vivienne said in a broader way: Any system that presupposes human beings are reasonable creatures will disproportianately favour bastards. I just read an interesting article that touches on this issue at http://www.shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html , although it is specifically about internet forums.

    I personally prefer consensus method, providing the two following conditions are met:

    1. It is not a simple yes / no proposition

    2. The personalities in the room are prone to reason

    Of course number 2 is a tricky judgement call and has to take things such as dominant personalities into account.

    By Blogger Cormac Lenihan, At 16 October, 2007  

  • Hey Conrad you never responded to my request (in another forum) to link my old broken test site to my new shiny active political test site...

    By Blogger Daniel, At 12 May, 2009  

  • Hey Conrad you never responded to my request (in another forum) to link my old broken test site to my new shiny active political test site...

    By Blogger Daniel, At 12 May, 2009  

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