The Need to Belong

Should it surprise us when experts actually agree? They frequently are invoked to express clashing points of view. But, sometimes, when they are free to look at the evidence and reach their own conclusions, they can achieve a high level of unanimity.

A recent survey of professional economists, “which asked whether the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the Obama ‘stimulus’ — reduced unemployment,” produced a surprising response. “All but one of those who responded said that it did, a vote of 36 to 1. A follow-up question on whether the stimulus was worth it produced a slightly weaker but still overwhelming 25 to 2 consensus.”

Paul Krugman recently made this point. Hammering away at the need for economic stimulus for a couple of years now, he was clearly enjoying the evidence that he was not the “unicorn” one commentator on CNBC said he was. But there is a larger point here: people hold on to their beliefs in the teeth of evidence to the contrary.

It depends on the context. Members of a group will be profoundly influenced by what the other members believe. Those engaged in partisan politics find it hard to separate from the crowd. Those whose identities are tied to specific ethnic or religious sectors of the population tend to conform to their dominant myths. The pressure to be accepted or included, to be seen as “reasonable” or “intelligent” or just “one of us,” is profound, whether you are a presidential advisor, a scientist, just playing a game of pick-up basketball on the street or managing a hedge fund.

In short: the need to belong trumps the need for reality. It is not so much that we are deceiving ourselves and others as that we fall under the sway of a stronger and more compelling pressure.

On the other hand, there is what James Surowiecki called “the wisdom of crowds,” the fact that the collective judgment of many can be uncannily accurate. And we have the example Krugman cites of economists substantially agreeing on the meaning of economic data. Another example: climate scientists converging in agreement on global warming.

The point is that if individual minds can be freed from the pressure to fit in with other minds, if they are not bent into conformity, suppressing their differences — and if they are not deviant or wildly idiosyncratic – they can be relied upon to give us useful and reliable pictures of reality. And they can agree.

But our perceptions do need to be confirmed by others, and we need affirmation. We want to belong. And that’s not just because we are weak or insecure – though, of course, we are that too. We are social beings, living in families and communities. We have to understand each other and act together to get anything substantial accomplished.

Those needs easily lead into being intolerant, opinionated and wrong. And frequently we have no idea it is happening to us because everyone else seems to be in agreement that we are completely correct.

That’s why it’s good to have experts, people who study facts. But the experts need to be independent, not only not for hire but also able to speak their minds without the contagion of group process. How rare is that.