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Subject: Groupthink and the dangers of the received view. rss

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Cathal O'Siochru
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Groupthink and the dangers of the received view.

In a few of the TTA strategy threads here on BGG you will see the following scenario played out in a number of different guises.

Player A : Why did they even print insert card name? It’s totally useless.
Player B : Are you mad? That card is one of THE best cards in that Age.
Player A : Rubbish, it’s useless we never play use it in our group
{...after much exchange in which sanity is questioned, stats are cited, others get embroiled, gauntlets are thrown down etc etc etc...}
Player B : Well if I was playing in your group I would show you what this card can do. It’s the cornerstone of the insert strategy name approach to winning this game.
Player A : Well we don’t play the insert strategy name approach so I guess that’s why we don’t rate this card.

Another variant of this debate centers around a rule of play. Player A believes that under no account should you ever make a specific move in the game because that move is inefficient and will lead to disaster. Player B believes the opposite and on it goes.

In a lot of these debates it often appears to be that the difference in opinion springs from the differing playing styles of the group that each commentator plays with. You could say that each player is echoing the "received view" in the group, the viewpoint that the majority of the group subscribe to. But in a game like TTA, in which there are numerous strategies and countless card combinations possible, why should any one view become so dominant in a playing group?

One possible answer is that with any group there is always a danger that the group will stop welcoming new ideas and new suggestions and start falling into fixed habits. In psychology this is called Groupthink. It doesn’t happen all at once and quite often the group doesn’t notice that it’s happening. Slowly the group stops coming up with new ideas. Suggestions of new approaches and new solutions to old problems are treated with suspicion, derision or even open contempt. Even when a new approach is tried by the group unless it produces an immediate and noticeable improvement it is dismissed as a failure. Those who were sceptical of it from the start become more confirmed in their opinions and those who previously might have considered new approaches are discouraged. If it goes on for long enough the group can become creatively bankrupt and end up locked in fixed patterns. Groups like this tend to stagnate and are unable to adapt when the unexpected happens. Usually it will take a major disaster to break through the groupthink mind-block and expose the flaws in the existing strategies.

If you want historical examples of disasters that spring from groupthink you need only think of things like the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Enron collapse or the more recent Credit Crunch victims like Leaman Brothers.

Games like TTA can be quite susceptible to this kind of breakdown in the creative thinking of a playing group. The game is not quick to play and so many groups find they don’t get to play it very often. Long playing time and infrequent play can increase the tendency towards conservative play. After all, you don’t want to take too many risks in case one of them sabotages your entire game. Do you really want to go out on a limb and try out a card or strategy you’ve never tried before? Nothing is worse than making a mess of your whole strategy early on in a long game and having to limp along in last place for the entire game-time unable to catch the front runners. Infrequent play can make innovation difficult since you may not remember everything you did in the last game and so will find it harder to learn from both good and bad play in the previous game. Lastly, the combination of infrequent play and long play-time simply means fewer games which can mean it takes a lot longer before trends in the gameplay become apparent and you will have fewer opportunities to try different strategies.

To be fair those who were involved in the threads that I draw my hypothetical examples from (there are several) seem to be already aware of the things I’m talking about here. I would wager that most of us have realised that our views on which cards/combos we rate and those we revile owe something to the playing habits of our group. This awareness isn’t enough unfortunately. Knowing that groupthink or something like it exists is not the same as being immune from it, you need to go further. Mind you, that’s easier said than done, but there are ways you can try.

Firstly you need to actively seek out new ideas and new strategies. Reading strategy threads like these is a good start, but it’s only a start. Secondly you need to actually engage with these new ideas, give them a real try. This may mean getting mauled in your first attempt to implement a new strategy but that shouldn’t let you be discouraged. Maybe the strategy isn’t flawed, maybe you’re just inexperienced in implementing it. Practice makes perfect and the more strategies you can claim to be the master of the better your chances. TTA rarely presents us with the same opportunities in each new game and so a player with a limited strategy portfolio might see the cards they need pass them by. A varied portfolio of strategies can mean you make the best of it no matter which cards you end up with.

Thirdly, we shouldn’t become complacent just because we read the strategy threads. You can consider the community of TTA regulars here on BGG to be just another group and as such just as prone to its own groupthink. We need to make sure we don’t get too confident in the righteousness of our own arguments. We may have crunched the numbers, we may have a dozen recent victories under our belt but in a well designed game there will always be subtleties and variations in each new game. These variations might expose the flaws in what otherwise appear to be unsinkable strategic plans. Or to put it another way... despite everything we know it’s possible, just possible mind you, that we’re wrong.

Don’t misunderstand my intention here. This isn’t a criticism or any person or persons or even a misguided attempt to discourage people from critiquing the ideas they see posted here. As long as we remain aware of our own limitations and acknowledge the limitations of our arguments when we make them then there is no harm in vigorous debate. Indeed, if we want to escape the dangers of groupthink then a free and open exchange of ideas is the only way. Also, the new ideas we find on strategic threads can sometimes lead to us bringing a whole new approach back with us to our gaming group. A crushing victory with a new strategy can really shake up a gaming group and disrupt the groupthink patterns that might be forming. Like I said earlier sometimes it takes a dramatic event to shake up a group that is become complacent.

So the next time someone tries to sell you on this awesome Hammurabi - Colossus - Printing Press combo that they’ve come up with... hear them out because you never know. ;-)

Cathal

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David desJardins
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cathal wrote:
One possible answer is that with any group there is always a danger that the group will stop welcoming new ideas and new suggestions and start falling into fixed habits. In psychology this is called Groupthink. It doesn’t happen all at once and quite often the group doesn’t notice that it’s happening. Slowly the group stops coming up with new ideas. Suggestions of new approaches and new solutions to old problems are treated with suspicion, derision or even open contempt.


I think the word "groupthink", as applied to boardgames, often means something slightly different. I think "groupthink" refers to the phenomenon where player A thinks that strategy A is dominant, and he is right, and player B thinks that strategy B is dominant, and he is also right. This can occur when the players in A's group all tend to adopt strategies that reinforce strategy A and each other, while players in B's group all tend to adopt strategies that reinforce strategy B and each other.

For example, in a different context than Through the Ages, if you play a trading game with a group that has a lot of boycotts and strategic alliances against the leader, then setting up a self-sufficient position that avoids depending on others for key resources may be a dominant strategy. But if you play the same game with a group that tends to trade very freely whenever there is mutual advantage, then maximizing your production even if you are not self-sufficient, assuming that you can trade for what you need, may be a dominant strategy.

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If you want historical examples of disasters that spring from groupthink you need only think of things like the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Enron collapse or the more recent Credit Crunch victims like Leaman Brothers.


This is getting off topic, but Enron and Lehman Brothers were very profitable for the insiders for a long time. I think there's no reason to think that the people running those enterprises acted irrationally. They acted rationally by looting the companies, while taking unsustainable risks (and profits), and eventually leaving them bankrupt.
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Chris May
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Yeah I hated this type of thinking in my Magic the gathering group several years ago. They would get dead set on a couple of cards/strategies and all others were made fun of. That is until you soundly killed them with the odd Kamigawa block card drawing deck.......

The downside is that usually the odd strategy is odd for a reason it does not work. You must be willing to lose big trying and untested strategy to reap that humongous moral and actual victory.
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mark allen
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Good Analysis.

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Geoffrey Engelstein
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Interesting analysis, but I think (in TTA at least) that most of the 'argument' posts about unbeatable combos tend to come from people playing the game for the first few times. There seems to be a definite progression in strategic approaches in TTA -- early on people love Michelangelo, then he falls by the wayside, for example. I think this is partially exploring the game space, and partially due to the programmed style of the rule book. The simple and advanced games reward certain approaches more than the Full game does.

I agree with David's definition of 'group think'. I believe that often it is that the group has found a 'local maximum' in the play space, and it requires several people to move off of it before alternate strategies become viable. There can be a variety of local maxima depending on what the other players are doing, and adapting to this is part of the fun of learning a new game or playing with new people (for me, at least).

Geoff
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Thom Denholm
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cathal wrote:
Secondly you need to actually engage with these new ideas, give them a real try.


Doing just that in a play by email game now. Let me recommend this method to anyone who wants to get a game in - our 2 player games have lasted 2-3 weeks; the 4 player games just over a month.

--Thom
 
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Thom - I'm interested in the email game. Where do I go for more information?

Thanks,
Tony
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Eric Phillips
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David's distinction is a good one. Often it's not just fear of new things that keeps a group from trying something, but the fact that every time someone in that particular group DOES try it, it fails.

But each game of TTA is so different, with so many moving parts and endless configurations, I'm pretty sure that just about every strategy will work in just about about every gaming group at least once in a blue moon. The secret to zen-mastery of TTA is being able to sense what factors are different from game to game and adjust play accordingly.
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Greg Meyer
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I think there is always room for new strategies.
I just know some people are playing a more "friendly" game of TTA than our group.
We once had a player come to our advanced civilization group that was very successful in his group and he developed a quick lead. We often refused to trade with early leaders as a common tactic in our game. When he found everyone refused to trade with him or made very lopsided deals to impose a "leader tax" he was very upset. He said that this was not in the "spirit of the game". In our game, winning is in the spirit of the game.
So the friendliness of the game can influence how good military might and good military leaders are.
Some groups seed lots of colonies, other groups seed very little.
All in all, this forum is a good source for quality play. Still, if you don't prepare for the "main strategy" which is econo-military, you are not evolving to the next level of Zen Mastery of TTA!!wow
 
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Eugene Hung
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I am happy to hear that others feel the main strategy is econo-military. In fact, I posted those articles to validate that my strategy was not a result of local groupthink.
 
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Ben Foy
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Yes, 'groupthink' exists. The whole reason I play games at conventions and post here, is to avoid the pitfalls of 'groupthink'. Those discussions you reference are beneficial overall.
 
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Ben Foy
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eyhung wrote:
I am happy to hear that others feel the main strategy is econo-military. In fact, I posted those articles to validate that my strategy was not a result of local groupthink.


Well this strategy has changed slightly. Now you try to evaluate your opponents ability to wage war and only do the military strategy when it benefits you. You try to catch your opponents by suprise with a quick buildup. If you get a significant culture advantage, you go with a military strategy to keep your opponents occupied. And if you are losing , you do a desperation buildup.
 
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Tim Seitz
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engelstein wrote:
Interesting analysis, but I think (in TTA at least) that most of the 'argument' posts about unbeatable combos tend to come from people playing the game for the first few times. There seems to be a definite progression in strategic approaches in TTA -- early on people love Michelangelo, then he falls by the wayside, for example.

I agree with David's definition of 'group think'. I believe that often it is that the group has found a 'local maximum' in the play space, and it requires several people to move off of it before alternate strategies become viable. There can be a variety of local maxima depending on what the other players are doing, and adapting to this is part of the fun of learning a new game or playing with new people (for me, at least).


This importance of skill-level in "anonymous" strategy discussions can not be overlooked.

There's a lot of garbage that gets passed off as "strategy" articles that generally only work for new players playing against other new players. Since new players usually have no way to verify the skill levels or experience of individual posters, they are left with a hodge-podge of contradictory analysis to sift through.

Also, as David mentioned, certain strategies can be effective in certain environments and a player's perspective on a given strategy may shift if he changes environments.

Bobby Fischer was famous for publicly bashing Queen's Pawn openings, and (almost) exclusively opened with King's Pawn openings throughout his entire career ... except when he faced Spassky for the world championship.
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Joe Lux
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With any game, unless someone is willing to test his theories in a competitive environment like an open tournament, his theories aren't really worth a gain of salt. A tournament that attracts players from around the country can avoid groupthink, at least for the first few years of the game.
 
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David desJardins
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Joe Lux wrote:
With any game, unless someone is willing to test his theories in a competitive environment like an open tournament, his theories aren't really worth a gain of salt.


This is pure ad hominem. The merits of a theory or argument are independent of what the author is prepare to do. If you dismiss the ideas of people who don't express or promote them in the way you want, you could be missing out on a lot. This is certainly true in the world of science, where novel and important ideas come from people who don't happen to be all that good at promoting them, all the time.
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DaviddesJ wrote:
Joe Lux wrote:
With any game, unless someone is willing to test his theories in a competitive environment like an open tournament, his theories aren't really worth a gain of salt.


This is pure ad hominem. The merits of a theory or argument are independent of what the author is prepare to do. If you dismiss the ideas of people who don't express or promote them in the way you want, you could be missing out on a lot. This is certainly true in the world of science, where novel and important ideas come from people who don't happen to be all that good at promoting them, all the time.


I don't think this is pure ad hominem. Maybe I am being too generous, but I don't think the poster was suggesting a dick-measuring contest every time someone posts a strategy post.

But I think it's reasonable that the ideas of a grandmaster carry more weight than those of an amateur, and not just in chess. Some effort to legitimize claims such as ratings, number of games played, or depth of analysis (see this post for example) can go a long way to establishing some credibility. As opposed to the guy posting after playing his first game ... where the rules were not followed correctly!
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Cathal O'Siochru
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Where there are official or widely accepted rating systems it's sensible to suggest that we might pay more attention to the strategic views of the more highly rated players. Comparatively few games have such a rating system though.

Without such a system people will fall back on more ad-hoc methods of determining credibility, such as number of games played. Maybe that's why "games played" is occasionally cited by the posters themselves in a number of threads as a method of establishing some credibility.

Personally I don't think that any of these ad-hoc methods offer a reliable metric for credibility or experience. The example of someone who has played one game with incorrect rules is a bit of a straw-man. Once you move outside such extremes it's hard to establish the experience of the poster. The difference in experience between someone who has played 20 games and someone who has played 40 might be tiny or massive. They may have played lots of games but how many have they won? Against what opposition? A proper rating system needs these facts, without them it's not much help. Judging depth of analysis on the other hand can be in the eye of the beholder. Some people like to see stats used to support arguments, others don't. Sometimes there is just something about a posting that we respond to, as much as anything it feels right to us and so we believe it.

Another problem I have with these ad-hoc methods is that I believe they can give people as false sense of superiority. Using games played as an example again it can lead someone who has played the game many more times than the poster to leap to the conclusion that they know a lot more than the poster. But as has already been pointed out, repeated playing with the same group can lead to a very limited experience of the game.

Personally I tend to prefer to rely on the wisdom of crowds. I'm not so much impressed by the supposed cred of the poster as an individual as much as I am interested in seeing how the group responds and debates the ideas they post. Somewhere in the debate is the truth.
 
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out4blood wrote:
But I think it's reasonable that the ideas of a grandmaster carry more weight than those of an amateur, and not just in chess.


That is exactly what ad hominem means. If you say, "I am going to listen to the expert more than the novice," that's a reasonable filter to budget your attention. But if you say, "The argument of a novice must be without merit because he doesn't have expertise," then that is exactly what argumentum ad hominem means.
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DaviddesJ wrote:
out4blood wrote:
But I think it's reasonable that the ideas of a grandmaster carry more weight than those of an amateur, and not just in chess.


That is exactly what ad hominem means. If you say, "I am going to listen to the expert more than the novice," that's a reasonable filter to budget your attention. But if you say, "The argument of a novice must be without merit because he doesn't have expertise," then that is exactly what argumentum ad hominem means.

I'm reading your definition that you linked to and it says: "An ad hominem argument ... is an argument which links the validity of a premise to an irrelevant characteristic or belief of the person advocating the premise."

Maybe I am way off base here, but I think experience is relevant.

This is not a logic class. It's mostly opinion. Would you take medical advice from someone not trained in the medical field? Or legal advice from someone with no legal experience?

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David desJardins
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out4blood wrote:
This is not a logic class. It's mostly opinion. Would you take medical advice from someone not trained in the medical field? Or legal advice from someone with no legal experience?


No, it's not mostly opinion. There is objective truth---a theory or analysis of the game is either valid or not. As I said, and will repeat, if you are trying to decide whether you want to believe the speaker, it is entirely reasonable to consider the expertise of the speaker. But that is different from arguing, as the OP did, that a theory is invalid because of a lack of expertise or because of a lack of interest by the analyst in demonstrating his theories in the way that a particular observer wishes.
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DaviddesJ wrote:
out4blood wrote:
This is not a logic class. It's mostly opinion. Would you take medical advice from someone not trained in the medical field? Or legal advice from someone with no legal experience?


No, it's not mostly opinion. There is objective truth---a theory or analysis of the game is either valid or not.

LOL. That's just horse hockey, particularly when applied to TtA strategy discussions. For example: You can't "objectively" prove that Caesar is a better strategic choice than Homer.

Here's the TtA strategy forum. It's filled with stuff like that.

As further evidence, allow me to highlight this brilliant post.
 
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Joe Lux
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out4blood wrote:
DaviddesJ wrote:
Joe Lux wrote:
With any game, unless someone is willing to test his theories in a competitive environment like an open tournament, his theories aren't really worth a gain of salt.


This is pure ad hominem. The merits of a theory or argument are independent of what the author is prepare to do. If you dismiss the ideas of people who don't express or promote them in the way you want, you could be missing out on a lot. This is certainly true in the world of science, where novel and important ideas come from people who don't happen to be all that good at promoting them, all the time.


I don't think this is pure ad hominem. Maybe I am being too generous, but I don't think the poster was suggesting a dick-measuring contest every time someone posts a strategy post.

But I think it's reasonable that the ideas of a grandmaster carry more weight than those of an amateur, and not just in chess. Some effort to legitimize claims such as ratings, number of games played, or depth of analysis (see this post for example) can go a long way to establishing some credibility. As opposed to the guy posting after playing his first game ... where the rules were not followed correctly!


Tim has the right idea. Even Einstein's theories needed some sort of experimental proof to give it credence. Going out into the world, (ie: playing in tournaments) and seeing whether your approach holds up, is the only way to know you are right.

I played in the finals of the TTA event at the World Boardgaming Championships. Boy, was I outclassed! But I walked away, I believe, as a better player for the experience. I learned from others, which I hope I can apply and expand on in the future.
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But the fact that somebody whipped your butt in a tournament doesn't mean that an idea is no good unless it's tested in a tournament. Evidence can be obtained in other ways. In games with simpler rulesets, one could even get said evidence from monte carlo simulations.

And yet, an idea is good or bad regardless of how tested or untested it is. Now, if you happen to only be interested in reading strategy articles that are tested by the sobs that want to play at WBC, feel free, but you'll lose all kinds of valuable information by doing so.
 
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Why are people that want to play at WBC SOBs?
 
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DaviddesJ wrote:
cathal wrote:
One possible answer is that with any group there is always a danger that the group will stop welcoming new ideas and new suggestions and start falling into fixed habits. In psychology this is called Groupthink. It doesn’t happen all at once and quite often the group doesn’t notice that it’s happening. Slowly the group stops coming up with new ideas. Suggestions of new approaches and new solutions to old problems are treated with suspicion, derision or even open contempt.


I think the word "groupthink", as applied to boardgames, often means something slightly different. I think "groupthink" refers to the phenomenon where player A thinks that strategy A is dominant, and he is right, and player B thinks that strategy B is dominant, and he is also right. This can occur when the players in A's group all tend to adopt strategies that reinforce strategy A and each other, while players in B's group all tend to adopt strategies that reinforce strategy B and each other.

For example, in a different context than Through the Ages, if you play a trading game with a group that has a lot of boycotts and strategic alliances against the leader, then setting up a self-sufficient position that avoids depending on others for key resources may be a dominant strategy. But if you play the same game with a group that tends to trade very freely whenever there is mutual advantage, then maximizing your production even if you are not self-sufficient, assuming that you can trade for what you need, may be a dominant strategy.

Quote:
If you want historical examples of disasters that spring from groupthink you need only think of things like the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Enron collapse or the more recent Credit Crunch victims like Leaman Brothers.


This is getting off topic, but Enron and Lehman Brothers were very profitable for the insiders for a long time. I think there's no reason to think that the people running those enterprises acted irrationally. They acted rationally by looting the companies, while taking unsustainable risks (and profits), and eventually leaving them bankrupt.


First, Cathal, I think this is an excellent post and a rather welcome change much of the contentless drivel we seem to spend so much time with.

Second, David, I think "Groupthink" is acceptable concept/term for Cathals point. After all, military history is filled with commmanders who were deemed brilliant simply because they tried something new when scads of able commanders before them simply practiced the "accepted" or approriate tactices and doctrine.

More importantly, and with respect, I must question whether the inside benefactors of the Enron and Lehman Bros. acted "rationally". Certainly, there was a brutal and amoral logic to the methods employed to reach their particular ends. However, it must be asked whether such ends are rational in and of themselves.

Cold calculus and zero sum attitudes have long held sway in commercial applications. We are recently seeing a great deal of study of "game theory" which suggests such thinking is non optimal. I know that there are elements within the legal community that are taking a second look at negotiation strategies from a perspective of promoting win/win strategies as an alternative to zero sum. In addition there is a great deal of economic study on the subject calculating hidden social costs to modify product cost calculations.

Put simply, if your sole goal is profit (which current corporate laws promote) then theoretically any action taken to promote that goal, however immoral or amoral is rational. However, if you expand your goals beyond pure short term profit then, the same actions may be deemed irrational.

I think that those who knowingly benefited from the scandals did not have rational goals (anti social values are not rational in my world view) and therefore the actions taken were not rational.

Perhaps as our "groupthink" approach to short term profit goals is challenged by new ideas we will see a paradigm shift in our strategies and behavior.

Just sayin.
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