Understanding Unanimity Paradox and How to Effectively Handle Such Situations

A quote famously attributed to Benjamin Franklin says that “when everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking”.

When I first read it, I paused for a second and re-read it.

What do you mean by that, I thought to myself?

Thinking is supposed to be an action, isn’t it? And each one’s mind thinks differently. When each one’s thought is the same as the other, it means that the thought is inherently biased or influenced. It’s not thinking, it’s falling in line, or as I’d like to say more harshly, parroting someone’s lines.

Thankfully, our ancestors identified that all is not well when everyone parrots the same line. And so, they came up with what we call the Unanimity paradox, ie. they refused to accept something that is “too good to be true”. Imagine when all teachers in school find a child worthless, there must be some error in the way teachers in general view and judge children. By this rule, the child must be really special and gifted for no one finds anything worthwhile in him.

Statistics takes this into consideration when researchers begin an experiment by setting their benchmarks for errors occurring in the data collection. That way, they factor in the possibility of something not being right. But how does this reflect in our day-to-day life?

Imagine an office setting where there’s one manager and say, 100 employees. Every time the boss proposes something, all the employees agree to it. If the manager says let’s do it this way, everyone nods their heads in agreement. Then the manager says let’s go-to place ‘x’ for a picnic and everyone says “Yay, picnic to X”. Soon, the manager says we’re shifting to a new location and the whole office agrees. Would you, as a neutral observer, find this behavior agreeable? Would you even find it believable? I wouldn’t. Because the human mind has the capacity to think in myriad ways and as many heads, that many thoughts and opinions. When there is no diversity in thought, no deviation in thinking patterns, it clearly indicates one of the following-

  • that all employees accept the boss and his opinion without opposing
  • that no one thinks and the boss alone thinks for everyone
  • that the employees fear the boss and hence toe his line
  • that they do not feel the need for some divergent thought since it will be rejected anyway, so why express anyway
  • that they are under duress to do so
  • that they have no other alternative in life than to work but they would rebel the moment they find a better opportunity

It is indeed strange that humans who love unanimity otherwise, often raise eyebrows when it comes in absolute terms. So, in the above case, the boss would expect a few questions to be raised at least, if not dissent or opposition. In a democracy, hence, some amount of dissent is always needed to prevent this absolutism from creeping in.

Unanimity paradox explained

Simply said, too much of a good thing is not good. Lisa Zyga, in a paper published in phys.org studies this paradox in the context of a legal setting. She quotes the ancient Jewish law wherein if a suspect on trial was found guilty unanimously by all judges, then he would be acquitted for the simple reason that this unanimity is much more overwhelming than the death penalty itself, often indicating a systemic failure or a loophole in the judicial system. In an offbeat paper published in The Proceedings of The Royal Society A, a team of researchers, Lachlan J. Gunn, et al., from Australia and France further investigated this phenomenon, which they call the “paradox of unanimity.”

Coauthor of the paper Derek Abbott, physicist and electronics engineer at The University of Adelaide, Australia, says “If many independent witnesses unanimously testify to the identity of a suspect of a crime, we assume they cannot all be wrong”.

Unanimity is often assumed to be reliable. However, it turns out that the probability of a large number of people all agreeing is small, so our confidence in unanimity is ill-founded. This ‘paradox of unanimity’ shows that often we are far less certain than we think.

Examples of Unanimity Paradox

  • More frequently, in the public opinion (or lack of it) in dictatorial regimes where there is nothing but praise for the ruling folks. I hate to be political, but then dissent is a symbol that the rulers have some checks and balances.
  • When a political party starts winning elections, from the lowest to the highest level with the alarming majority, you spot something unusual.
  • When a scientific experiment gives similar positive or negative results every single time.
  • When a board backs whatever proposal a chairman lays before it, even in the light of past failures of similar decisions and when data suggests otherwise.
  • When you flip a coin and it turns up heads every single time.

This and similar situations smack of a system being rigged and biased. It happens when the entire machinery is rigged in favor of or against something or someone and it shows in results. Thankfully, the human mind is mature enough to understand and identify such patterns. Hence, from ancient times, they have recognized that when something is too good to be true, then it feels abnormal. I personally feel that it is this discretion that humans posses that has led to some democratic systems embracing dissent as an integral part of its strength. Otherwise, we would be living the paradox day in and day out, happy that our decisions have been taken unanimously without realizing that it cannot be true, at least in the case of humans. It could have a far-reaching and drastic impact. Imagine when no one expresses dissent, there would be no diversity in thought and ideas would be nipped in the bud without being expressed. Even flowers prefer diversity when it comes to pollination and that’s how healthy flowers bloom. There’s something about humans that never fails to fascinate me.

So the next time you find everyone agreeing to what you’re saying, flip it on its head yourselves and see the magic.


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