The Problem of Counselling with Councils

July 13, 2007 | 31 comments
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Much of church government is carried out in councils and recently they have been received new emphasis, particularly from Elder Ballard. Councils are, however, a problem.

At least one of the points of counselling with councils is to deliberate about policies, programs, and decisions. The idea behind this is that a lot of information and wisdom is dispersed and councils provide a way of aggregating it in one place. The problem is that deliberation is by and large a bad way of aggregating information. There are a fairly large number of experimental studies showing that deliberation very seldom changes the minds of deliberators. Rather, it has a tendency to polarize decisions. If you were slightly in favor of X at the beginning of deliberations, you are likely to be strongly in favor of X at the end of deliberations. The problem is greatest when the deliberating group already has wide areas of agreement.

For example, Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago Law School has done a massive study of voting behavior by three judge federal court of appeals panels. What he found is that when all of the judges on a panel were Democratic appointees, the judges were much more liberal than the same judges were when on panels with with one or two Republican appointees. Republicans showed the same tendency. (Interestingly, minority judges tended to behave the same regardless of party affiliation, e.g. a Republican judge sitting with two Democrats behaved virtually identically to a Democrat sitting with two Republicans.)

All of this suggests that there are reasons for believing that deliberations within councils are likely to produce polarized and extreme decisions rather than wise decisions. (Although clearly sometimes an extreme decision may be wise.) There are ways, of course, of avoiding some of these problems. One approach is to create a strong norm in favor of vigorous dissent within the council. The internal deliberations within the Reagan Administration, for example, did this, while those within the current administration do not. (Also, from what I gather the Quorum of the Twelve has norms along these lines: vigorous dissent within the council and absolute unity outside of the council). Even this approach, however, only mitigates the problem. Vigorous dissent often means that deliberators migrate to multiple poles rather than a single pole.

Another possibility is to require anonymous statements of position at the outset. This is a rule favored by Sunstein. It is not clear, however, that it avoids the polarizing effect of deliberation after the fact, although it does encourage the disclosure of private information and views. Another option was used by FDR, who rather than deliberating in large meetings, would solicit as many independent views as possible in one-on-one settings, which tend to avoid the polarizing effects of group deliberation.

Of course, even if deliberation is a bad way of aggregating dispersed wisdom and information, councils still have other virtues. Most notably, deliberation and participation increases the legitimacy of decisions and encourages buy-in by participants, even if the decisions themselves are not so good. There are other, however, non-deliberative ways of aggregating information that probably work better than deliberative councils standing alone. Widespread voting is one method. This is not necessarily a brief for “democracy” as we conceive it, since elections involve public deliberation — albeit of a fairly low quality — that tend to lead to polarization. Rather, I am talking about something like asking the audience the answer on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” They usually got it right.

Of course, the best way of aggregating dispersed information and wisdom is through some sort of market that produces prediction based on all of the decisions of participants to invest their own resources and rewards them for being right. Political futures markets, for example, have been uncannily accurate in their ability to call elections. The trick, of course, is to figure out how to set up a prediction market in something like successful programs for the young men in my ward.

31 Responses to The Problem of Counselling with Councils

  1. Julie M. Smith on July 13, 2007 at 10:59 am

    Fascinating stuff. I would hope one difference between a secular council and a church one is that the church one is not so much a variety of opinions but a variety of revelations. Having actually served on church councils, however, I realize the difference between the ideal and the reality.

  2. Adam Greenwood on July 13, 2007 at 11:29 am

    Another difference is that the individual members of the secular councils don’t really defer to the collective authority of the council, though they probably should. I am not denying that this is a problem, though.

  3. Keith on July 13, 2007 at 11:57 am

    Nate, I think discussions in councils can lead to polarization as you say here, but I’ve seen them have a more moderating effect as well. One proposal seeks to do such and such a thing. Someone replies that we need to consider such and such as thing. The plan gets modified to account for this. And so it goes. This, of course, takes a real effort to make people in the councils feel free to state their concerns and objections. Such efforts have to come both from those at the head of the council to invite and welcome honest discussion, and from its various members who must be willing to state what they think and to listen to others. The challenge in all of this is to truly want to do what’s best, what the Lord wants, and not make the give and take in decision making a matter of egos against each other.

  4. roland on July 13, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    Then there is the story I heard from a new convert that thought the church was rather cookie cutter and everybody just follow along until she/he got to sit in on a ward council. There she saw many of the prominent members of the ward initiate suggestions and attempt to resolve conflicts, challenges facing the ward through the proper application of Christian principles.

    She was of the opinion that was the most exciting part of the church operations she got to participate in.

  5. Alan Jackson on July 13, 2007 at 12:02 pm

    I\’ve read a couple of books about group decision making and agree with most of the points, but I think that Julie makes a good point in that church deliberations are fundamentally different than everything else because of revelation and unity of purpose. Everyone in a church council should believe essentially the same core truths of the gospel and should be working for the welfare of those they serve — uncommon traits among groups of decision makers.

    Perhaps this could lead to a discussion of good ways of having group discussions or group decisions within the church, such as letting everyone have a turn to speak without interruption that all may be edified. Too often in a group, a couple people dominate the conversation and others back down to not cause contention.

  6. Nate Oman on July 13, 2007 at 12:11 pm

    Interestingly, you could read the procedures set forth in D&C 102:12-17 as providing an institutional mechanism designed to limit the polarizing effects of deliberation.

  7. Adam Greenwood on July 13, 2007 at 12:35 pm

    One thing that might tend to make a difference is that in secular councils the members usually aren’t committed to accepting the collective wisdom of the council, though they probably should be.

    Discussion isn’t the same thing as councilling, per se, but I can see that in most of my discussions the same polarizing effect has been at work. People leave more convinced of their starting position rather than less–unless, of course, the discutants refrain from airing disagreement altogether. The only times I’ve had my mind changed is (1) afterwards, as I’ve had a chance to chew on what we were talking about and (2) when reaching an agreement was as important or more important than the content of the agreement, as in family and church discussions.

  8. Mark IV on July 13, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    Oh ye of little faith. I’m a big fan of church councils, and I think they usually manage to avoid the problem of polarization. The key is for all parties involved to understand that unanimity is the goal. My understanding of deliberations that take place among the apostles is that no action will be taken if there is even one dissent. While there are known exceptions, I think the idea of unity shows a lot of respect to a minority voice. That is a fundamental difference that does not exist on the USSC, for instance, where there is always a tiebreaker vote. The dynamics change when you have to persuade everybody instead of just 51%.

    Julie,

    I agree with your description, and will go even further. I think the deliberations of a church council can often be the mechanism through which revelation is made manifest.

  9. Mark IV on July 13, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    By the way, instead of looking at panels of judges as examples of councils in action, it might be more fruitful to examine the ways that juries reach decisions.

  10. Peter LLC on July 13, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    “Most notably, deliberation and participation increases the legitimacy of decisions and encourages buy-in by participants, even if the decisions themselves are not so good.”

    Amen. I reckon this is the thinking behind many international organizations, where I’ve observed another behavior–going on record with a dissenting view, but joining the consensus in the end anyway. In consensus-based organizations that try to avoid taking a vote in order to preserve the consensus, it’s amazing how long it takes to get anything done, yet how powerful the normative effect can be in keeping extreme positions to an infrequent occurence.

  11. Jonovitch on July 13, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    Mark IV (7), I think you hit the point cleanly. Indeed, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

    I think this revelation/inspiration is the major difference between a city council meeting and a ward council meeting. In the case of the latter, the participants, whether they even remotely share the same opinions, are usually working toward the same goal and for the same purpose.

    Also, there are no political-type parties in the Church, only issues that need to be resolved. People sitting on church councils might disagree outside the office, but in that room, they typically understand what they are there to do, and it doesn’t matter who you voted for in the last election.

    Jon

  12. Adam Greenwood on July 13, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    I think this revelation/inspiration is the major difference between a city council meeting and a ward council meeting. In the case of the latter, the participants, whether they even remotely share the same opinions, are usually working toward the same goal and for the same purpose.

    True. Church councils can work because certain viewpoints are excluded from the start.

  13. R. Gary on July 13, 2007 at 1:21 pm

    I posted some thoughts about this on the Spinozist’s blog last year.

  14. TMD on July 13, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    It seems to me that the nature of the group dynamics in church councils are fundamentally different from those among judges, or in cabinets where the collective can overwhelm the leader. In church councils, there is an implicit, or in some cases, an explicit agreement from the start that the deliberators will accept the decision of the leader or bishop. This being the case, there is no ‘outside option’ in ward council, pec, bishoprics, auxilary presidencies, etc. There is often disagreement, but rather than trying to convince others, the effort is to convince the leader. Once he or she decides, he/she will then try to convince those who were earlier doubting the plan (etc.). This, I think, changes the dynamics in important ways. Rather than trying to convince each other through argument, with each having a veto or vote, conversations are tailored to the Bishop (etc.).

    Second, church deliberations may well also limit polarization because they encompass a wide range of business, rather than a single issue (as is the case in the study of judicial decisions). This makes it less likely that a dissenting coalition (and thus group polarization) will form–since disagreements about home teaching and welfare are unlikely to be structurally related to disagreements about the next temple trip.

    FWIW, it seems to me unlikely that Sunstein’s anonymous statements would work in the appellate context, since what he seems to be finding is that there is a strategic element to judicial opinion crafting. So long as you know who else is in the group, and their likely proclivities, you can and likely will appeal to them in pursuit garnering more support for your argument.

  15. JM on July 13, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    “I think the deliberations of a church council can often be the mechanism through which revelation is made manifest.”

    I believe I heard Monson say once “Information preceds inspiration”. I would think through a council, you would tend to reveal more information on a topic than you would individually. That being the case, a properly run council would tend to be a greater catalyst for inspriation and revelation.

  16. Jonovitch on July 13, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Adam (11) and JM (14), I disagree and agree, respectively, although I think the Monson quotation was “perspiration precedes inspiration.”

    I believe the diversity of viewpoints is essential in Church councils (see especially the Council of the Twelve Apostles), and it is not the exclusion of viewpoints that enables their success, rather (again) the focus of purpose.

    Different opinions do not automatically lead to ineffective councils. On the contrary, it is the multiplicity of perspectives, focused by the unified purpose, that enables the group to truly “see” the issue. The minds and experiences of the many, combined with impressions offered by Him who has ultimate experience, make it possible for the group to overcome their individual desires, and “see” things as they truly are, even if only briefly and vaguely. But this unified and unifying consensus is only achievable in such councils because of and through the vast diversity of individual opinions, viewpoints, and experiences.

    We learn from each other even as we teach each other, and we become one in Christ as he is one in the Father.

    Jon

  17. Steve M on July 13, 2007 at 2:37 pm

    This phenomenon, along with its apparent solutions, seem very similar to the research done on Groupthink by Irving Janis.

  18. TMD on July 13, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    Steve: I disagree. Groupthink is produced by the small-group dynamics of decisional groups under pressure who, motivated by their needs for self-esteem, consistency, security (all of which are augmented by stress), collectively exclude contrary information, derrogate dissent, and ignore or demonize external opposition. Indeed, if there is polarization arising within a group, groupthink is most likely not occuring. While it is not at all clear what is going on in the Sunstein work (that is, what is making the process work), the conditions for group think do not exist. (Or, for that matter, in most church councils.)

  19. Ray on July 13, 2007 at 3:15 pm

    The most effective council of which I have been a part thus far was the one that modeled what TMD described in #13. The Bishop took full responsibility for the final decision, but he asked for and listened to input from each and every member of the council – often with his eyes closed in an obvious and sincere attitude of prayer. He made it explicitly clear from the start that he wanted honest and full expression of opinion – not matter what that entailed. He forbade personal attacks, but he encouraged direct and blunt dissent and disagreement. He then asked that everyone support whatever decision he reached, no matter how different it was than their own proposed solution or input.

    It was amazing to watch how well that approach worked, since he obviously considered each and every expression seriously and carefully and prayerfully. The irony is that this approach has worked well when it is directed by a truly humble person; less so the less humble the leader is. Perhaps that’s why the model breaks down so quickly in secular councils – because, as has been emphasized by others, the intent going in is not to contribute to a consensus but rather to win an argument.

    FWIW, although this is not a council, I enjoy most those threads where it is obvious that the participants are trying to understand and learn from each other – rather than trying to change someone else’s mind and “win” – even when there is a strong “dissenting” voice or two.

  20. Adam Greenwood on July 13, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    Mr. Jonovitch,
    Church councils wouldn’t work if they included jihadis and Alistair-Crowley gnostic Satanists, or, less outre, a random sampling of the American population. Church councils work because Mormons of all viewpoints (and they differ widely, on theological as well as practical questions) have an enormous amount of common ground and common goals to work from.

  21. Adam Greenwood on July 13, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    Great story, BBell.

  22. ROG on July 13, 2007 at 4:32 pm

    Elder Oaks gives critical insight on the success of councils and his suggestion here is that advocacy work that must be done ahead of time.

    \”Dean (of University of Chicago Law School) Edward H. Levi was a master at honoring and leading his faculty. His faculty meetings were always routine, because he had already thoroughly analyzed every difficult matter, worked out the needed compromises, and done the advocacy with key individuals before the meeting was held. He avoided contention.\”

  23. Robert C. on July 13, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    Nate #5, I think you failed to include perhaps the most interesting and differentiating verse, D&C 102:19ff, which clarifies (apparently) that the council is not decided on by majority rule (aren’t judicial panels majority rule?), but by the president himself who then “call[s] upon the twelve councilors to sanction the same by their vote,” and then the conditions for re-hearings are spelled out if one of the councilors objects. I’m not sure what the implications of this are, but I think it does present a very important difference….

  24. Mark IV on July 14, 2007 at 7:06 pm

    There is also another benefit of councils we should not overlook. The process of counselling together can help a leader avoid his own worst tendencies. Counselors see things in us we don’t see in ourselves, including the things we would rather not mention. A bishop or SP who seeks honest advice from counselors will often spare himself future embarrassment or the need to backtrack.

    It could be argued that two mistakes made in the restoration were the implementation of polygamy and the implementation of the priesthood ban. For various reasons, those two practices were not discussed before they were initiated. Perhaps the council approach could have spared us some heartache.

  25. Ugly Mahana on July 15, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    Of course Joseph spoke to at least Hyrum (Historians: was this while Hyrum was in the first pres.?) regarding polygamy. And many, if not most, of the ‘successful’ steps in the restoration, including the creation of councils in the first place, were not discussed before being initiated, either.

  26. Jonovitch on July 16, 2007 at 11:16 am

    Adam, your first sentence in #20 seems to have deliberately misunderstood me. Most of the comments here, including mine, have been concerning Church councils, which obviously would not include your jihadis and Satanists. The second sentence in your comment seems to confirm and reflect my #16 comments. I roll my eyes and nod in agreement, respectively.

    Jon

  27. Adam Greenwood on July 16, 2007 at 12:28 pm

    My comments have also been concerning Church councils. One of the reasons they work is that by their very nature they exclude an enormous diversity of viewpoints. If they did not, they wouldn’t work.

  28. k l h on July 16, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    Fascinating.

    Early Saints convened lots of general councils among the populous to do lots of back and forth before they’d slowly wend their way towards commonly agreed upon decisions (or something like that).

    (Which reminded me of what I’ve read about the Saudis – who also subscribe to some kind of ideals of a theocratic kingdom, yet one that’s somewhat theodemocracy in that it’s their long-established habit to rarely move on something before they’ve basically reached consensus.)

  29. Bart Mortensen on July 18, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    I appreciate the story of the wise bishop who sincerely requested opinions. But, I\’ve also sat in on church councils where the outcome was known within 30 seconds of sitting down. Any attempt at offering differing viewpoints or at least mellowing those presented were summarily rejected by the rolling of eyes, deep breathes, and the like.

  30. Riker on July 18, 2007 at 10:48 pm

    I think another reason why councils work; I am sure this has already been addressed. It is a very rare moment indeed when a leader proposes something so outrageous that his council that he is sitting with rises up and destroys the meeting ( not saying this hasn\’t happen; but it\’s rare in our day and location ). Most choices that are made within our councils are of a positive nature without room to classify them as outright evil or offensive. They might not be as effecitive but almost always positive.

    Although my missionary correlation meeting is torture due to the lack of leadership of the ward mission leader. Even this though is not so bad where we can\’t function.

  31. Riker on July 18, 2007 at 10:48 pm

    I think another reason why councils work; I am sure this has already been addressed. It is a very rare moment indeed when a leader proposes something so outrageous that his council that he is sitting with rises up and destroys the meeting ( not saying this hasn\’t happen; but it\’s rare in our day and location ). Most choices that are made within our councils are of a positive nature without room to classify them as outright evil or offensive. They might not be as effecitive but almost always positive.

    Although my missionary correlation meeting is torture due to the lack of leadership of the ward mission leader. Even this though is not so bad where we can\’t function.

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