Issue: Committees
The Independent Thinker--Critical Thinking, Activism, Dissent, Metanoia

There seems to be a growing trend to make decisions in committees. At work, at church, in our clubs we send decisions to committee for discussion and recommendations. Our colleges and universities seem to do almost everything by committee. Is this rational behavior?

There are several jokes about committees which indicate that common sense may not agree with the use of committees. A camel is called a horse created by a committee. Committees are defined as 'bodies that take minutes and waste hours.'

In fact, studies show that groups are willing to take greater risks than would their members acting separately (this is known as the 'risky shift' phenomenon). In addition, group attitudes and decisions are more extreme than those of individuals (Sutherland 64; Moscovici 125-135).

"Several studies have shown that.. the members of a group are more confident about the correctness of the group's decisions than about that of their own... group decisions.. in general are worse than those made by individuals" (Sutherland 65; Janis and Mann).

We must also consider the phenomenon known as "Group Think." In a tightly knit group, or in a group in which the individuals respect each other, each individual is apt to make his or her decision based on what they think the others want rather than on their own best judgement (Janis and Mann).

"...members may develop an illusion of invulnerability coupled with extreme optimism; they ignore inconvenient facts; their belief in their own morality may lead them to commit immoral actions as a means to an end; they hold stereotyped views of rival or enemy groups; individual members attempt to silence dissent from others in the group; each member suppresses his own doubts in order to conform; there is an illusion of unanimity resulting from this suppression; and finally, they protect other members by concealing information not in line with the group's views" (Sutherland 65).

As critical thinkers, we must ask with Stuart Sutherland (67) "If committees so often come to less rational decisions than an individual, one may ask why they are so popular." A major reason suggested by Sutherland is that they are "safe." No single individual can be held accountable for their decisions or recommendations. Of course, such lack of accountability leads to many other organizational ills.

Another strength of committees, we are told, is that they facilitate "buy-in" for the decisions made. Well, yes they do!

"..the voting process is a sham. Totalitarian states love voting. You get people to the polls and they register their approval" (Zinn 410). The same can be said for the committee process in most cases. Sending something to committee is a way to divert attention indefinitely. It's a great administrative tool for cooling off hot issues. And, of course, there is also the great "rubber stamp" advantage of committees.

Works Cited

Janis, I.L., and L. Mann. Decision Making. NY: Free Press, 1977.

Moscovici, S., and B. Personnaz. "Studies in Social Influence V: Minority Influence and Conversion Behaviour in a Perceptual Task." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 12 (1969): 125-135.

Sniezek, J.A., and R.A. Henry. "Accuracy and Confidence in Group Judgements." Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 43 (1989): 1-28.

Sutherland, Stuart. Irrationality: Why We Don't Think Straight!. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Zinn, Howard. The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy. NY: Seven Steps Press, 1997.

Please send comments to: Colby Glass, MLIS

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