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“Birds of a feather flock together” as the old saying goes. But can being surrounded by people who are very similar to each other be damaging?

“Birds of a feather flock together” as the old saying goes. But can being surrounded by people who are very similar to each other be damaging?

I am prompted to ask this question by a number of otherwise unconnected observations that have recently occurred to me.

Yesterday I chaired an event at the RSA with the excellent Ian Leslie, talking about his book Born Liars. Leslie argued that self-deception is part and parcel of human nature. As he said, there is a phrase to describe people who have an accurate picture of how attractive, funny and charismatic they appear to others and that phrase is “clinically depressed”. Unless we kid ourselves that things will get better, there is very little chance that they will.

 

A member of the audience raised the question that Barbara Ehrenreich raised in her RSA lecture, namely, isn’t there something unseemly about promoting self-deception? Ehrenreich’s examples include the careers advisor who takes money to tell you that being made redundant is the best thing that ever happened to you.

There is a phrase to describe people who have an accurate picture of how attractive, funny and charismatic they appear to others and that phrase is “clinically depressed”

Leslie was not willing to go this far, but he did say that people who are prone to extreme self-deception are not well served if they are surrounded by other people with a similar degree of self-deception. This can lead to a delusional state in which people become quite removed from reality.

I have also been re-reading the seminal article by Thomas Pettigrew on “Intergroup Contact Theory”. One of his most interesting observations is that “in all samples, Europeans with outgroup friends scored significantly lower on five prejudice measures” That is to say, white Europeans that have BME friends are significantly less prejudiced that those who do not.

I was prompted to connect these two observation by the news that the Telegraph have published documents detailing plotting around the change of Prime Minister from Blair to Brown.

I do not have much to say about the details of the plotting but I do think it’s noteworthy that senior politicians tend to be surrounded by quite tight knit cabals of advisors. Apparently, Thatcher used to ask of new appointments, “Is he one of us?”

The advantages of having a closely connected group of quite similar advisors are obvious; loyalty, shared vision, team work, but there are disadvantages too. Teams made up of very similar individuals can become delusional, can adopt a bunker mentality and can fail to adapt to changes in circumstance. It takes a brave leader to bring in potentially disruptive individuals but sometimes it is the right thing to do.

 

 

 

 

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