Friday, February 24, 2012

A Paradox At the Heart of Collaboration

This week I picked up a new book called This Will Make You Smarter edited by John Brockman (New York: Harper Perenial, 2012). Who wouldn't pick up a book with that title. Mr. Brockman is the founder and publisher of the online science salon known as Anyone interested in ideas should subscribe.

The purpose of the book is to “give us better tools to think about the world,” and is guided by one question: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? The book contains over 100 very short essays, and I’m sure I’ll be talking about many in future blogs.
Being interested in collaboration, one of the essays immediately caught my eye: Self-Serving Bias by David G. Myers who is a social psychologist at Hope College in Holland, MI.

What is the self-serving bias?  It is the tendency we have to take credit for success and deny responsibility for failure. It is a self-deceptive mechanism for protecting our egos. If we don’t achieve success we shift the blame from internal factors like attitudes, motivations, and disposition to external factors like my boss didn’t like me. As Prof. Myers reports:
In one College Board survey of 829,000 high-school seniors
  • 0 percent rated themselves below average in ‘ability to get along with others’, 60 percent rated themselves in the top 10 percent, and 25 percent rated themselves in the top 1 percent. Compared with our average peer, most of us see ourselves as more as more intelligent, better-looking, less prejudiced, more ethical, healthier, and likely to live longer.
  • Nine out of ten drivers rate themselves above average.
  • Ninty percent of college faculty rate themselves superior to their average colleague.
Does the self-serving bias – and related phenomena like illusory optimism, self-justification, and in-group bias - doom collaboration to a mythical status? It doesn’t help because it weakens or eliminates our own sense of responsibility, and encourages victimhood.  A desire to protect our egos can also result in self-handicapping – playing it safe to ensure success, however inconsequential and meaningless

Collaboration isn’t doomed, but it is a fragile creature requiring care. Like many challenging things in life, it is at heart a paradox: collaboration depends on the presence of confident individuals who share their talents openly, but who also have enough humility to recognize their own limitations and self-serving bias

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