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Monday, February 1, 2016

Diversity vs. Consensus in the Primary Process

The US primaries are in full swing with Iowa and New Hampshire about to start voting. In this post we will examine the peculiar way that the primary process is conducted and how this process is optimized for consensus building as opposed to diversity.

Diversity has as many meanings are there are people in this world, so let's throw down a definition which will hold for this article: Diversity is including everyone's ideas. Lots of business justifications for diversity revolve around this concept. This theory is built off of the wisdom of crowds. Now a simple example of this is to ask 17,205 people how much a cow weighs. Ask allot of people, and you'll get really close to the true answer. You don't want to leave anyone out of the decision making process or bias them, because you'll eventually arrive at a suboptimal answer.

Now the primary process interestingly enough favors consensus over diversity. What do we mean by consensus? We mean people agreeing with each other on what candidate to vote for. In the cow example, this would be shown by everyone guessing very close to the same value (not necessarily the right value). How does the primary process favor consensus you ask? In a typical ideation session, where you're trying to come up with new ideas and select the best ones, you have people write down their votes before announcing them to the group. This prevents the first few voters from skewing the results through social norming.

Detailed Example: Everyone brainstorms ways to improve the company. At the end of an hour you've identified 30 different ways and you have to select the top 4. Now if everyone writes down their votes first, before telling the rest of the group (simultaneous voting), you'll have quite a different spread than if say Lisa, whom everyone likes goes first and tells you her top 4 (sequential voting). If you let Lisa go first before you've written down what you think your top 4 are, you'll social norm to some of Lisa's choices. This will cause Lisa's selections to be overly popular compared with the case that everyone wrote down their vote first. This is completely independent of how good Lisa's choices were overall.

Now why is sequential voting used in the primary election process? Because it's an effective means to leverage social norms and get people to vote for a popular candidate, even when they would have preferred a different candidate. And the most profound part of it all, is that you convince yourself that it was you're idea to vote for that candidate all along!

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