We hand our most important decisions over to groups, but groups aren't always the best decision-makers.
We tend to think that groups are better than individuals at making big, critical decisions because groups better represent everyone's perspective and feel more 'fair' than individual decisions. There is a common wisdom is 'two heads are better than one.'
While groups can regularly out-perform the average individual at decision making, they still typically make worse decisions than the best individual (i.e., the most expert) in the group would make on his/her own. Only groups with exceptional processes out-perform the average and best individual members2,5,15.
The brain makes decisions by choosing the 'louder' option, and groups operate like a big brain.
When your brain is in the midst of making a decision, it rapidly switches between alternatives (not unlike how different alternatives keep bubbling in and out in group conversation). When a choice has been arrived at, the neural networks associated with the chosen option get louder, and the neurons associated with the failed alternatives grow quieter.
Similarly, science views groups as a holistic, information processing systems, where alternatives are tested and discussed, and decisions are swayed by emotions and loud voices until consensus is reached and the group settles their discussion with some action3,14,15.
Groups typically make decisions by merging individual preferences with consensus.
Groups typically strive to achieve consensus, and tacitly pursue that common ground, but this creates its own bias. By seeking common ground, groups focus on information and opinions that individuals already share, which fails to incorporate uniquely valuable information that one individual may have.
For their part, individuals in the group ultimately push consensus toward the option that vibes well with them emotionally and also seems to be 'sticky', meaning that the group 'keeps coming back to that idea'2,13,14.
People think differently when they're in a group setting.
When people enter a group setting, they are constantly aware of others. They factor in who's powerful, who's high status, who's respected by the team, and who's intimidating or dominant. And they can change their preferred decision just by passively observing other people's interactions in the group, and what is being rewarded and punished4,9.
Groups can exaggerate individual biases.
People walk into a group meeting with their own preferences and biases, which they often spend the whole meeting subtly confirming (by paying attention to confirmatory points and filtering-out contradictory information). Further, group settings can polarize ideas and opinions, amplifying majority opinions and suppressing minority preferences. And the larger the group size, the more it exaggerates biases7,15.
more at risk for groupthink.
Cohesive groups are
'Groupthink' occurs when group members are so enamored with their own 'groupiness' and perceived competence that they commit critical decision-making errors. Cohesive groups who feel a strong bond with each other are also potentially the highest-performing groups, but may also be the most vulnerable to groupthink. Symptoms of groupthink include:
- A sense of invincibility that leads to dangerous levels of optimism and risk taking.
- Mutual attempts to discredit potential hurdles and justify the chosen course of action.
- Blindly assuming the group is ethical and disregarding potential ethical consequences of group decisions.
- Negative view of opposing groups (e.g., competition) such that less aggressive responses seem ineffective.
- Self-censorship of dissenting voices and contradictory opinions.
- Confusing consensus with the majority, largely due to self-censorship.
- Actively repressing contradictory information by members of the group to preserve the sanctity of the group6,10.
can be better than one. Groups with good processes can make better decisions than any individual.
Research on decision quality has shown that a group's process is the most important factor in its decision quality. An effective group is one that operates on a process that efficiently processes and shares information, picks up on subtleties that individuals alone might miss, and overcomes personal biases1,12.
Each group member knows nuggets of uniquely valuable information to relevant to the decision. Groups overwhelmingly fail to discover this unique information, and instead fixate on discussing common/shared information and opinions, perhaps because of the drive towards consensus, or because it's socially rewarding to feel 'on the same page' with others and socially isolating to have a different opinion. The undiscovered unique information is called the 'hidden profile.'
Groups that strive to draw out and pool together each person's unique 'data points' relevant to the problem — getting the fullest possible information on the table before making a decision — are, on average, eight times more likely to find a solution to a given objective problem[8,](https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868311417243 https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868311417243 "Lu, L., Yuan, Y. C., & McLeod, P. L. (2012). Twenty-five years of hidden profiles in group decision making: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16(1), 54–75. ")13.
Invite people into the group meeting sequentially via the 'stepladder technique' to maximize group decision quality.
At work, most group decision making happens in meetings. Research on group decision making recommends that — rather than including everybody in a meeting or only relevant people — you add-in relevant people in stages. This is called the stepladder technique, which has been shown to improve the decision quality in meetings.
Most stepladder meetings lead to better decisions than both typical meetings and even than the best team member can make on his/her own. And the stepladder technique can boost the effectiveness of phone meetings too.
The stepladder technique:
- Inform all relevant team members of the problem, and asked to think about solutions
- The two most relevant team members meet alone and work on the problem.
- A third member joins the group and presents his/her individual solution for discussion.
- A fourth member joins the group and presents his/her individual solution for discussion.
- The final, four-person group makes a final decision11,12.
- Bang, D., & Frith, C. D. (2017). Making better decisions in groups. Royal Society Open Science, 4(8), 170193. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.170193
- Chohra, A., Madani, K., & van der Wal, C. N. (2018). Group affect in complex decision-making: Theory and formalisms from psychology and computer science. In N. T. Nguyen, E. Pimenidis, Z. Khan, & B. Trawiński (Eds.), Computational Collective Intelligence (Vol. 11056, pp. 222–233). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-98446-9_21
- Eagleman, D. (2017). The brain: The story of you: Vintage; Reprint Edition. https://www.amazon.com/Brain-Story-You-David-Eagleman/dp/0525433449
- Falk, E., & Scholz, C. (2018). Persuasion, influence, and value: Perspectives from communication and social neuroscience. Annual Review of Psychology, 69(1), 329–356. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-122216-011821
- Hill, G. W. (1982). Group versus individual performance: Are N?+?1 heads better than one? Psychological Bulletin, 91(3), 517–539. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.91.3.517
- Janis, I. L. (2008). Groupthink. IEEE Engineering Management Review, 36(1), 36–36. https://doi.org/10.1109/EMR.2008.4490137
- Kerr, N. L., MacCoun, R. J., & Kramer, G. P. (1996). Bias in judgment: Comparing individuals and groups. Psychological Review, 103(4), 687–719. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.103.4.687
- Lu, L., Yuan, Y. C., & McLeod, P. L. (2012). Twenty-five years of hidden profiles in group decision making: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16(1), 54–75. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868311417243
- Mattan, B. D., Kubota, J. T., & Cloutier, J. (2017). How social status shapes person perception and evaluation: A social neuroscience perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(3), 468–507. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691616677828
- Rajakumar, N. (2019). Why empirical studies of the groupthink model have failed. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3081&context=cmc_theses
- Rogelberg, S. G., Barnes-Farrell, J. L., & Lowe, C. A. (1992). The stepladder technique: An alternative group structure facilitating effective group decision making. Journal of Applied Psychology, 77(5), 730–737. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.77.5.730
- Rogelberg, S. G., O’Connor, M. S., & Sederburg, M. (2002). Using the stepladder technique to facilitate the performance of audioconferencing. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(5), 994–1000. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.87.5.994
- Stasser, G., & Titus, W. (1985). Pooling of unshared information in group decision making: Biased information sampling during discussion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(6), 1467–1478. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2067
- Suzuki, S., Adachi, R., Dunne, S., Bossaerts, P., & O’Doherty, J. P. (2015). Neural Mechanisms Underlying Human Consensus Decision-Making. Neuron, 86(2), 591–602. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2015.03.019
- Tindale, S., & Winget, J. R. (2019). Group decision-making. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/kq2ft
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