Sunday, December 21, 2008

Group Dynamics

I wonder if I'm a good group member. Sometimes I know I am a bit of a jerk--especially when I'm bored with what's going on, or when I get frustrated with others about a topic. I should work on this both as a group member, and especially when I'm helping to organize whatever activity is occurring. I bring this up because I just listened to this weeks episode of This American Life (episode 370: Ruining It for the Rest of Us).

The episode began with Ira Glass talking with Dr. Will Felps about the effects of "bad apples" on group dynamics. Felps's research seems to indicate that one "bad" group member can severely derail a group's progress. Additionally, the group member's behavior actually changes the outlook/disposition of others in the group. If this is a general observation that holds for more long term situations (such as project teams at work, small departments, and even the boards of non-protifs), then it is more importnat for me to think about how best to behave as both a group member and as an organizer. Definitly an idea worth thinking some more about.

Next on the episode was a story about a measles outbreak and anti-vaccine parents. The reporter seemed to dance around this basic point: of course having everyone vaccinated is the best for society as a whole, resulting in a reduction in overall disease, and undeniable benefits of everyone being vaccinated. The idea of "herd imunity" is even discussed. However, at the margines, there is a non-zero risk (because nothing is perfect, and some people will have reactions, etc) to any individual child. And--and this is key--as long as everyone else is vaccinated, one can get all of the benefits without accuring any of the risk. So, of course, some parents will make the cost-beneift calculation weighing their child infinitly more than anyone elses. But, in the intermediate to long term, that of course would lead to a worse situation for everyone else and for society as a whole. This is why the governemnt steps in and essentially forces everyone to participate. Such partiicpation (and the loss of the assoicated invidual autonomy) is part of the price demanded for reciving the larger benefits of organized public health policy.

This topic reminds me of a New Yorker article from 2002. In this article, Atul Gawande talks about the training of doctors, and how patients with "insider knowledge" can get better care by refusing to be treated by less expereinced physiciancs or physicians in training. However, as Gawande concludes, this would destroy the way University teaching hosptials work. Any person who knows would choose the more experienced practioner--and this is precisly why the ability to make that choice should be denied (or so the arugment goes).

Anyway, I enjoyed the episode, but wished there was a clearer statment about the benefits of vaccines, and why/how government coerciion works in these situations. Not only because it would help (maybe) dampen the growing anti-vaccine movement, but would also because these examples show how liberterianism doesn't really work and how collective action is needed to achieve "larger good".

The rest of the episode, atlhought entertaining, wasn't directly related to these deeper subjects.

I've noticed online that some people were having trouble finding more info on Will Felps. Dr. Felps is currently at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University. More info about the study mentioned on the show can be found in this press release. The research discussed appears to be published as a chapter in Research in Organizational Behavior vol. 27 (available from google books here)

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