By Dr David Laing Dawson
In the late 1960’s at UBC we replicated a social psychology experiment. The focus was the study of human behaviour in groups. In this activity two groups are formed numbering 6 to 8 people per group. One group sits in a circle discussing the subject or problem presented to them, the other group sits in a larger circle observing the inner group for later discussion.
Three kinds of tasks are given, one at a time, to the inner circle. One of the tasks is straight forward and concrete, such as “Can you name all the birds native to Canada?”
The second task is more abstract, difficult. Today it might be, “How should Canada help prevent war between Russia and The Ukraine?”
As one might expect, with the simple concrete task, someone quickly volunteers to take notes, someone quickly takes the lead and organizes the task, everybody offers names of birds, discussion ensues. Nobody challenges the person taking the lead.
With the more difficult task, some leadership conflict often occurs, people lean in, talk, struggle, lean back, go silent, argue, challenge.
Then the third task: The group is asked to discuss a grammatically correct sentence chock full of feel good words that ultimately make no sense whatsoever. This would be something like, discuss how “The optimization of inclusive democracy could be achieved by the utilization of a scoping and realist review targeting human capacity and technology.” (I borrowed that last bit right from the Mental Health Commission of Canada)
Given this third task the group struggles, leaders arise and fall, opinions are given and challenged, members get active and fall silent, body language speaks volumes. But nobody, at least during the twenty minutes the group is asked to discuss this topic, ever says, “Wait a minute, this sentence simply does not make any sense at all. It is a bunch of gobbledygook. It is nonsense.”
A little twist on this can be added at the twenty minute mark: A stranger is brought in and introduced as an expert on the subject visiting from Harvard. You can guess what happens. The group immediately turns to the “expert” and listens attentively to whatever the “expert” has to say on the subject, nodding agreement. (one maybe hopeful sign for humanity in all this is that each of these subject groups appeared to accept the expertise of the designated expert no matter their age or ethnicity or gender).
But I am writing about this because the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Report titled “Towards Better Mental and Physical Health: Preventing and Managing Concurrent Mental and Physical Conditions – A Scoping and Rapid Realist Review” offers us dozens of sentences that could be used as fodder for the third group.
What a waste of time and money.