Emotion, consensus, and power.
From: Stuart Staniford-Chen (stuartSiliconDefense.com)
Date: Tue, 19 Oct 1999 18:31:02 -0600 (MDT)
I've recently had the experience of single-handedly defending a strongly felt
position, against a large number of people who felt very differently than me
based on their different life experience and view of the world.  (This was
not in a cohousing context, but I feel like processing it here and think I
can give it enough of a cohousing spin).  Every argument I made was
challenged, dissected, and disagreed with by a half-dozen people.  Almost all
of the discussion was polite and professional, but forceful.

My experience of doing this was that it was totally draining, emotionally. 
For the few days last week that I participated in that decision making
process (by email), I couldn't concentrate on anything else, but was consumed
with the topic at hand.  Every time email came in on the subject, my heart
rate would rise and my stomach would knot.  I wrote passionately, producing
text at three times the normal rate, trying to challenge every new argument
that came up.  My sleep was disturbed at night.  Eventually, I decided to
unsubscribe from the relevant mailing list before a decision was reached in
order to protect myself and get on with the rest of my life.  I wasn't
persuaded at all by the arguments I heard against mine.  I just had to stop.

It seems to me clear that human biology is designed to make it stressful to
disagree with a significant number of other people.  It's obvious why that
would be adaptive for a social animal.  My emotional machinery was directly
involved in the situation.  Thus my ability to continue to dissent was a
direct function of how much my limbic system could take.  Call that quantity,
that emotional ability to continue to dissent, my "emotional power".  I
didn't have enough to hold on in that particular discussion.  

I believe that this quality of emotional power is an important factor in who
has how much decision-making power in a consensus situation.  There are
people who's limbic system will not allow them to make any comment in a large
group; the mere thought of speaking up produces uncontrollable anxiety. 
There are other people who, without breaking a sweat, can block consensus in
a group of 200 people who are irate at them.  I think that this quantity of
emotional power is not something it's easy to change as an adult.  It's not a
matter of learning new skills; it's a matter of genes, how securely one
attached to ones parent's as a young child, etc.

My question is: isn't this really a massive hole in the idea that consensus
decision making is democratic.  We do not all have equal power, because we
are equipped with widely varying abilities to sustain dissent.  I'm sure we
all know this intuitively; I'm trying to surface it and formalize it somewhat
so it can be examined.

And I'm warning you now; if you all disagree with me, I'm going to
unsubscribe :-)


[For any biologists out there - I know the limbic system is now considered a
fiction.  But it's a convenient fiction for talking about the brain's
emotional systems as a whole.]

Stuart Staniford-Chen --- President --- Silicon Defense
                   stuart [at] silicondefense.com
(707) 822-4588                     (707) 826-7571 (FAX)

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