Social Decision Making: Chaos Theorem

The more people there are trying to come to a consensus, the harder it is to reach a consensus.

I know I write a lot about bringing as many people as possible into the decision making process. When a certain issue affects a lot of people, it’s important to get a sense of the scope of the problem and the solutions that may already exist. Including the people that may be normally excluded makes everyone involved feel empowered and generates more ideas. That being said, with each additional participant comes an additional agenda, differing interests, and another voice to consider. In an effort to become more democratic, a decision maker can quickly turn conversation into chaos. There must be a way to hear the best ideas while drowning out the extra noise.

When a decision is being made across a single dimension, it’s simple to tell which ideas will prevail. An idea wins out if the majority of the people involved are known to favor a given idea (regardless of other unrelated ideas). It’s also easier to get input on a specific issue rather than a broad topic. When energy is focused instead of scattered, the decision making process is smooth. Small teams can quickly come to a consensus; a focus group on a single feature can easily give feedback; a townhall on a simple local issue can foster rich discussion. But the world is complex, and no one issue is that far removed from other issues. Furthermore, humans can rarely consciously remove themselves from larger agendas, even when focusing on a relatively specific issue. Our overarching values and opinions influence our daily lives and decisions. So even though getting everyone in the room to talk about what the next team outing should be can become more complex than anyone had anticipated.

Democratic decisions in a vacuum are easy. But once we leave the vacuum and enter the real world, you run right into the chaos theorem. As I mentioned, a vote or decision on a single dimension comes down to numbers. Once other dimensions are involved- that is, once other issues come into play- chaos ensues. This is due to the fact that different majority opinions exist for different issues, and there are infinite ways to combine these majorities. It’s the driving force behind any decision-making body’s inability to come to a consensus. Even if two people desire similar outcomes in a given conversation, they could come to the conclusion for vastly different reasons. These underlying reasons could drive them in different directions on the final decision, or on other decisions. Still, even if underlying forces are not in play, the sorting and acknowledgment of extra ideas necessitates extra effort.

So, how can a group overcome the chaos theorem? It takes creativity and dedication. Different voting rules, or holding more meetings could combat the problem. Agora was created to give everyone a voice on an issue, but give decision makers the ability to see the top ideas as decided on by the people. If a community of 100 people has 500 different ideas, the top 10 or 20 will be most visible because Agora has sorted them based off of conversations sparked, reactions added, and ideas that are similar. Everyone decides what the best ideas are, while a decision maker can decide the single best action to take. But that’s just us.

The chaos theorem is the antithesis of social decision making. But just because democracy is hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Dictatorial-style leadership is efficient, but it (obviously) hasn’t led to great outcomes. There are ways to give a voice to everyone who deserves one while organizing the chaos that comes with it.