Community, Consensus and Theories of Ideas #48 #cong19


If you are building, designing or participating in communities you would do well to make sure you understand how ideas enter and move around any social system, how they shift and change.  Know that we all lie (sometimes) because we are afraid of judgement and isolation. As groups we suffer from being stupider together. The only way we can defend is by driving diversity & openness into the heart of our ideas and our communities. This is a ramble through some interesting ideas in the areas of community, consensus and the theories of ideas in emerging and evolving communities including the Overton window, preference falsification, pluralistic ignorance, heterdoxy, boundary theory and more.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. Make sure you understand the range of acceptable ideas in your community
  2. Make sure you understand the range of possible ideas that could exist but aren’t expressed
  3. Try and find the shadow realities that are being created at the edges
  4. Make your community open & make it diverse otherwise BOOOOM!!!!

About Gar Mac Críosta:

Gar Mac Críosta – dad of 4 husband of 1, architect & designer of systems, experimenter, unsuccessful founder, happy human. I’m very certain that I can’t ever be certain about anything and I’m deeply committed to being constantly curious about everything.

Contacting Gar Mac Críosta:

You can follow Gar on Twitter connect with him on LinkedIn, read some smart thoughts on Medium, or browse some of Gar’s presentations.

By Gar Mac Críosta,

WARNING: this will ramble and may not have a point as I struggle to make sense of these thoughts

This is a ramble through some interesting ideas in the areas of community, consensus and the theories of ideas in emerging and evolving communities.

IDEAS: overton window, preference falsification, pluralistic ignorance, heterdoxy, boundary theory

I’m going to jump into each topic and hopefully tie this into something at the end. I’ve been involved in building and developing communities (both practice & interest). As I’ve come to understand more about these concepts it’s given me pause to consider how communities work, how they change and how they can break. The point is that if you are consciously designing a community these aspects are important.

The Overton Window

Communities convene around ideas, the ideas could be explicit in the case of a cause or implicit the desire of people to live in a place e.g. Cong.

  • Communities of interest
  • Communities of practice
  • Communities of belief
  • Communities of necessity
  • Communities of circumstance

Over time the ideas, beliefs and shared values of the community eb & flow. The community allow new ideas in or repel the same ideas based on the prevailing consensus of what’s OK for members of communities to believe. Communities are driven by consensus surrounding the idea, this acts as a binding agent to keep the idea safe and the community together. As the idea evolves so does the community therein lies the challenge if there is no room for challenge the guardians of the idea become the high-priests determining the goodness and suitability of the people in the group. There is nothing to stop the polarisation of that community. Within any community the range of interpretations of that idea can be narrow or broad. The acceptable idea space at any point in time is call the Overton Window it describes the range of beliefs that are acceptable at that point in time.

The Overton Window & Degrees of Acceptability

Overton window

According to Joseph P. Overton, the window contains the range of policies that a politician can recommend without appearing too extreme to gain or keep public office in the current climate of public opinion.

Overton Window CC BY-SA 2.0

If we extend this, the model can be used to explain the evolution of ideas broadly in society and more narrowly in communities. The model is based on the degrees of acceptance of an idea which goes from policy to unthinkable

  • Unthinkable
  • Radical
  • Acceptable
  • Sensible
  • Popular
  • Policy

Every community regardless of the origin has developed a set of views that can be mapped onto a window. The openness of the community usually determines the susceptability and speed of that community to shifting windows of acceptability.

Point 1: Watch the window -opening, closing, shifting

Preference Falsification

This podcast its long but explores the topic in detail

Preference Falsification is an observation that people will often misrepresent their personal views in public. We have all experienced both sides of this, feeling uncomfortable in a public setting about a thought, belief, idea OR being in the company of someone who we may have suspected isn’t being completely honest about their views on a subject. It lays the foundation about why things can change extremely fast and how the Overton Window can shift radically, rapidly and seemingly unexpectedly. Our assumption is that these things move slowly but our experience over the past few years of life is that things change radically all of a sudden. The Overton window sets the framework of acceptable views and if you as a member of a community begin to diverge 1) you assume you are alone and therefore vulnerable and 2) you assume that others will respond negatively to your views.

The public preference set of options will only contain things within the window of acceptability. Members of a community then limit their public preference statements to those that are in the window of acceptability. The tension builds as the friction between public and private grows until BOOOM we get a dramatic shift. Our need for approval and the reinforcing signalling mechanisms as members of the community publically communicate false signals to demonstrate adherence to the norms.

Point 2: Assume that preferences are falsified

Pluralistic Ignorance

Pluralistic ignorance describes what happens in groups where everyone agrees because everyone thinks (incorrectly) that everyone else agrees with a particular view or norm (without anyone ever actually agreeing). It’s the net effect of individual preference falsification on a group or community. This leads to all manner of problems of mindless conformance, individuals feeling alienated, undervalued and misunderstood. Although the group acts as one the links are weakened by the collective as a result of the misalignment of public and priviate. The created imagined reality is made real by the group actions in accordance with the imagined reality.

Point 3: Imagined realities become reality with real consequences

Boundaries, Borders & Openness 

Borders define the outer edge of a community they determine who is in and who is out. The mechanisms to pass the border in either direction can be formal e.g. nomination & acceptance or informal e.g. wealth to purchase in the case of exclusively wealthy communities. Boundaries are the invisible lines we draw, neighbourhood to neighbourhood, or adjacent ideas within an Overton Window. We move freely over and back across boundaries but to move further takes more energy and may result in a stagnation of ideas due to the energy required to traverse multiple boundaries. The openness of the system determines the degree of permeability to new ideas within any community

Point 4: Know where the border is, understand the boundaries and evaluate your openness

So what’s your point

I don’t have any answers is the first thing but I’m interested in building & participating in communities. I’ve experienced the situations created by the theories above and I’ve fallen victim to the consequences. If we know that these things can happen we can begin to apply design to the problem but first bring awareness to communities you participate in.

Point 1: Watch the window -opening, closing, shifting

Point 2: Assume that preferences are falsified

Point 3: Imagined realities become reality with real consequences

Point 4: Know where the border is, understand the boundaries and evaluate your openness

A Hopeful Conclusion — Heterodoxy & Viewpoint Diversity 

If we believe we have all the answers then we are doomed. If we only talk to people who share our views we are doomed. If we can’t have conversations about challenging topics without resorting to name calling we are doomed. Heterdoxy is an antonym for orthodoxy, it’s about inclusivity of a broad range of ideas rather than slavish adherence to a dogma. To foster heterdoxy we need diversity. The Future Togetherness Handbook explains diversity in a really practical way from the perspective of designing communities & human systems.

  1. Diversity of goals and desires
  2. Diversity of identities or backgrounds
  3. Diversity of what’s meaningful to the people in a group

Three Kinds of Diversity

If we limit any of these forms of diversity we are cursed to endure orthodoxy and dogma. We weaken links and we become lessened.

PS I love my annual Pilgrimage to Congregation. Eoin has done an amazing job in creating this unusual experience that embraces heterodoxy & diversity in all it’s forms. 


  • Bob Kennedy says:

    Interesting paper Gar. As an architect maybe you could develop some tangible image of an ideal community. Is it an A rated home that controls inflows and outflows?

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