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Deliberation Pathologies

Many public dialogue approaches suffer from weaknesses and deliberation pathologies, including:


  1. No agreement is reached: many democratic practices rely on majority voting, which rarely guarantees that an authentic agreement on action is achieved. The losing minority often still disagrees with the outcome and may not commit to group decisions.
  2. The majority is not always right (the ‘erroneous priorities effect’): the sum total of individual preferencesfor action may turn out to be erroneous if people have not participated in an inquiry to find out how their different ideas might synergistically integrate into a broader, more effective agenda for change.
  3. Unstructured dialogues rarely have clear divergence and convergence phases: without a process to take participants through divergence and convergence phases, time can be spent talking about irrelevant issues.
  4. Debate versus deliberation: starting in school, people are mostly trained to debate rather than deliberate, which inhibits consensus-building.
  5. Lack of active listening: limitations of time, language, culture and other factors can prevent participants from listening actively and keeping an open mind about others' ideas. Most processes do not facilitate the challenging of stereotypes.
  6. Lack of empathy: without an appropriate process to build mutual appreciation, many people will not engage in the dialogue with empathy for others.
  7. Groupthink: people can get trapped in a single way of thinking, and fail to see possible alternatives. In the extreme case of ‘clanthink’, participants are aware of alternatives, but feel under threat to conform.
  8. Limited cognitive abilities and memory span: without special measures, virtually every dialogue overloads people’s memory spans. The human brain is cognitively overloaded when too many arguments/conversations take place in parallel, or the dialogue wanders down multiple pathways.
  9. Lack of trust in an effective process: without trust in a structured process, people may self-censor, which damages open communication.
  10. Cost of time: many citizens do not engage because of the time required, which is perceived as excessive.
  11. Forced decisions (also known as the ‘voting trap’): limited options force participants to choose a lesser evil instead of designing something better.
  12. Simplification: without access to a structured approach, people are forced to rely on over-simplification, thus failing to address the complexity of the challenge in focus.
  13. Anchoring bias: the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered, which then frames subsequent thinking.
  14. Not feeling the strength of connections: A poor deliberation usually fails to empower those participants to feel the power of creating a network. 
  15. Lack of Trust: inability to share idetity as co-thinkers.
  16. Eloquence: Without a fair distribution of talking time, eloquent participants will dominate the dialogue.
  17. Exclusion of the voiceless: the interests of plants, animals and ecosystems are often excluded from deliberation. Their ‘inclusion’ requires the careful selection of participants to ensure representation.


The application of SDDPs in small groups overcomes almost all of the above problems, so it provides a good model for an online dialogue.