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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Politics, Organizational Management and The Brazil Nut Effect

© 2012 by Tom King
License: some rights reserved by Melchior

There is an odd phenomenon to be found in a bowl of mixed nuts called the Brazil nut effect. Some unknown physical property of a bowl of nuts makes big nuts rise to the surface and smaller ones to sink. What does that have to do with organizational management, politics and practically any endeavor involving groups of people? I’m glad you asked.

Any time you collect a large group of people, leaders of men (and women) are faced with a curious phenomenon. It always seems, in any crowd, that the more, shall we say, “colorful” characters in the group tend to vie for a place at the crowd’s center.

When I was in college, the president of the college hosted a beautiful testimony service one fine Sabbath afternoon. Dozens of students and visitors took turns standing up front describing how God had blessed them in one way or another. I noticed a slight disturbance down front as Elder L., the college president got up to close the meeting.

It was Erma (not her real name)!

Erma was an odd little woman who wandered around town in her own private world conducting some business none of us could ever quite figure out. She dressed in bag lady clothes and sometimes pushed a little cart. I think she lived with her elderly mother. She was quite religious and attended church every week which often led to incidents like this one.

Erma insisted she be allowed to testify! She had a message for the congregation of 2,000 some odd college students and local families. Elder L. looked pale, but he was also a very kind-hearted man and couldn’t say, “No,” to her without being mean about it.

Erma mounted the stage, and took her place behind the mike. Stand there in her faded brown dress with her long stringy hair, grandma boots and wild eyes, she solemnly announced, “I know what’s wrong with me.”

The audience drew its collective breath. You could hear it – a kind of choral gasp.

Erma proceeded to explain that for years she’s had this terrible problem and she finally had figured out what caused it.

“It was spices!” she said in deadly earnest scanning the auditorium with a stern gaze. The crowd was holding it’s breath.

“They make me sexy!”

The place erupted in what can only be described as a choral snort. The noise of 2000 people trying their best not to laugh is excruciating. The student body president nearly fell off his pew. He buried his head in his jacket and began to shake violently, emitting pathetic little hooting noises.

The reverant atmosphere that had earlier pervaded the meeting now shattered, Elder L. thanked her politely for her words and a couple of deacons gently helped her down off the rostrum and guided her to her seat. Elder L.'s closing prayer for God to give us all strength was completely heartfelt and shared by the entire congregation..

You may have noticed at parties or get-togethers that if you set out a bowl of mixed nuts and shake it a few times, pretty soon the Brazil nuts all seem to be sitting atop the pile. No one really knows why, but if you pile up any assortment of things of varying sizes, be they nuts, nails or dirt and rocks, the big stuff in the mix always rises to the top. That seems counter-intuitive because big things are usually heavier than smaller things and you would think they would sink to the bottom. No one has yet quite demonstrated why, rather than sinking to the bottom, Brazil nuts, big brass buttons, Doritos or boulders gradually work their way to the top of the heap.

License: Some rights reserved by s58y
It’s why, for no matter how many centuries the Irish have tilled their fields relentlessly removing literally tons of rocks over the generations, new stones keep popping up out of the dirt every year. It’s why you reach into a bowl of mixed nuts and always lay hands on the Brazil nuts first. If you come later, there's only peanuts and filberts at the bottom. No one’s ever successfully explained why this is so.

I think that the Brazil nut effect must also apply to groups of people. I do notice that the people with the most “gravity”, the obnoxious, overbearing or embarrassing among us don’t sink out of sight in groups. They tend to rise to the top and dominate the proceedings.The biggest, most "colorful" or the most seriously mentally disturbed individuals in any nation's political ruling class seem to inevitably rise to the top spot. Look at the glorious collection of megalomaniacs, eccentrics and downright lunatics that have dominated the top spots in government after government. The Brazil Nuts of history stick out like big old sore thumbs - Stalin, Hitler, Napoleon, Nero, Caligula, Nebuchadnezzar (who spent seven years crawling around in a field eating grass), Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein and King George III to name a few of the more spectacular individuals. There were also some decent sorts of larger-than-life individuals who also set their mark upon history; gentlemen like the great George Washington, eccentrics like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, odd-ducks like Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt and unlikely characters like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Mahatma Ghandi.

Jesus said, the meek (that's the small unobtrusive nuts) will inherit the earth. Does that mean the big old Brazil nuts among us will be left behind - plucked from the top of the bowl and cast aside?

Perhaps, so, though I don't think every Big Nut will necessarily be winnowed from amongst the chosen. God seems to like colorful characters. He picked an awful lot of unusually colorful  men and women for his service over the centuries. The disciples were rag-tag lot of hard-living rough-talking fishermen, terrorists and tax-collecters. God may, however, hone the bigger of us nuts down to size in order to insure the peace and safety of the New Earth. If that's the case, I suspect that the Good Lord will need to work me over with a rasp to whittle my ego down to proper size.
Living in hope,

Tom King  
UPDATE 2016:  Once again the principle is demonstrated that, if you shake a bowl of mixed nuts, the biggest nuts will always rise to the top. Given that "The Donald" is leading the 2016 Republican presidential race and that the Dems can't make up their minds whether to go with Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, it seems that the Brazil Nut Effect is still influencing American Politics.

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