It’s coming up on 30 years since Chuck Spinney and the group working with Boyd coined the term “incestuous amplification.” You can Google it to see how it has entered the mainstream.
Some of the definitions roughly equate it to “groupthink” or to situations where people limit their associations to those who agree with them. But the underlying idea can manifest itself in many other ways, none of them beneficial to an organization’s ability to thrive and grow or even to survive.
Chuck’s definition is: “It occurs when the preconceptions in the decider’s Orientation (which is his/her repository of ideology, belief systems, cultural heritage, previous experiences, education, genetic heritage, etc) misshape the Observations feeding that Orientation.” As he notes: “Once IA is set into motion and is left uncorrected, it always tears any decision cycle to pieces from within. Boyd showed why there are very fundamental epistemological reasons for this unfolding evolution.” For more detail, see Chuck’s essay “Incestuous amplification and the madness of King George.”
What we’re talking about, then, is the (incestuous) relationship in the OODA “loop” between Observation and Orientation. Observation is the only feed into Orientation, but Orientation also implicitly guides and controls Observation. It is so tempting in some people and organizations for Orientation to steer Observation so that only agreeable facts, data, and other input are observed, and Orientation itself possesses enormous powers to interpret contradictory information in ways that actually reinforce existing beliefs and mindsets.
Research is now beginning to get a handle on this latter effect. In an article published a few years ago in the journal Nature (paywall), Yale scientist Dan Kahan concluded that:
Cultural cognition also causes people to interpret new evidence in a biased way that reinforces their predispositions. As a result, groups with opposing values often become more polarized, not less, when exposed to scientifically sound information.
This is scary. It says not only “Don’t confuse me with facts,” but “There, you see, your facts prove exactly what I was saying!” Typically, in this situation, providing even more facts will only make the situation worse.
This idea of stuck Orientation, or even Orientation reinforcing itself despite all evidence to the contrary, is central to the new definition of “delusion” in the psychiatric world. It used to be that something was considered “delusional” if the belief was false and evidence couldn’t shake it. The problem, as an article in yesterday’s Guardian points out, is that it can be hard to determine whether a belief is false or just implausible or merely unpopular. So the new definition brings the concept more into line with incestuous amplification:
The new definition of delusions describes them as fixed beliefs that are unswayed by clear or reasonable contradictory evidence, which are held with great conviction and are likely to share the common themes of psychosis: paranoia, grandiosity, bodily changes and so on. The belief being false is no longer central and this step forward makes it less likely that uncomfortable claims can be dismissed as signs of madness.
The problem here, as the Nature study indicated, is that in a political controversy, each side will come to regard the other as delusional — that is, irredeemably mad — and interpret all new data to reinforce its own position. You can see great examples of this in the debate on climate change over on the Fabius Maximus blog.
What’s the solution? Generally speaking, I’m not sure there is one. In one arena of human endeavor, however, the answer is simple: In a conflict, as Boyd insisted, the opponent whose Orientation best matches with reality will eliminate its more deluded opponents. In business and war, therefore, delusion is self-correcting.
From time to time I get to interact with senior leaders in business and the military, and to a person, they all insist that this doesn’t apply to them. While others may feed the flames of delusion, they insist on the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. Furthermore, they have mechanisms in place to ensure that their view of the world isn’t corrupted. Admirable indeed, to which I can only reply, “Oh, really? Show me.”