Group Decision Making
Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Important societal, business, medical, legal, and personal decisions are often made by more than one person. Psychologists in the field of group decision making have attempted to describe the processes through which such decisions are made. The process by which a set of individual group members’ decisions becomes transformed into a single group decision can be described by a “social decision scheme.” Research by James H. Davis and his colleagues at the University of Illinois has shown the conditions under which groups use various decision-making rules, such as adopting the preference of the majority or that of the member who has the best answer.
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Variables in Group Tasks (Psychology and Mental Health)
The nature of the decision problem facing a group must be considered in an evaluation of the group’s decision process. Psychologist Ivan Steiner pioneered the analysis of the group’s task in his book Group Process and Productivity (1972). Steiner identified three characteristics of group tasks that should be considered in analyzing group decision making. The first is the ability to subdivide the task into subtasks that members can perform individually. For example, a group can plan a meal by making one member responsible for selecting a meat dish, another for choosing a vegetarian entrée, another for choosing desserts, and so forth. Other tasks, in which division of labor is not feasible, are said to be “unitary.” In general, the more important the decision, the more difficult it is to divide it among group members. Yet it is often precisely because a decision task is important that it is given to a group rather than an individual. Therefore, even if some aspect of the task (such as gathering information) can be done individually, final responsibility for the decision rests with a set of people.
Another variable in group tasks is the nature of the goal. In many cases, there is no “best” or “right” decision; the process is simply a matter of determining the group preference. Other decision tasks were called “optimizing” by Steiner because it was assumed that some optimal decision exists....
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Choice Shift (Psychology and Mental Health)
Important insights about decision process and quality in unitary, optimizing, and discretionary tasks have been gained by comparing the decision-making behavior of individuals acting alone to that of persons in groups. It is apparent that the way people behave in groups is different from the way they behave alone. As a consequence, decisions made in groups can differ radically from those made by the same persons acting alone. It is not uncommon for group decisions to be more extreme than an average of members’ individual decisions.
Such a “choice shift” (the difference between the decision of a group and the average decision of group members as individuals) can lead to group decisions that are better than—or not as good as—the average member’s decision. The average group member’s judgment or choice provides one standard against which group decision quality can be compared. Another is the quality of the best decision from an individual member. Steiner called any decrease in quality from the decision of the best member, acting alone, to the group decision “process loss.” Reviews of group decision research typically conclude that an average group performs above the level of its average member but below that of its best member. It is possible, however, for groups to reach better decisions than can any of their members alone.
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Normative and Informational Influences (Psychology and Mental Health)
Social psychologists recognize two types of influence that can cause group decisions to differ from those of individual group members: normative and informational. Normative influence comes merely from knowledge of the positions of others. One may come to doubt the quality of the alternative that one has selected simply by learning that everyone else believes that another alternative is superior. Confidence in a belief is difficult to maintain in the face of others who are in consensus about a contrary belief. The second type of influence, informational influence, results from logic or argument concerning the relative merits of various choice alternatives. Both types of influence usually operate in group decision making. Through normative or informational influence, individual group members can shift their positions.
Since groups usually make decisions under conditions of uncertainty, it can be difficult to evaluate the actual quality of a group decision. For this reason, the study of “group confidence” has become increasingly important. In general, groups exhibit greater confidence about the quality of their decisions than do individuals. This can be a desirable outcome if commitment to the group decision is necessary. As Irving Janis has shown in his analyses of political and managerial decision making, however, groups can be highly confident even while making disastrous decisions. Proper...
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Task Accuracy and Confidence (Psychology and Mental Health)
Experiments on group judgment by Janet A. Sniezek and her colleagues show how different group and individual decision making can be. These studies examine two aspects of group performance in judgment tasks. The first, accuracy, refers to the proximity of the consensus group judgment of some unknown value to the actual value. The other performance measure is one of confidence. Results show that consensus group judgments are typically far more accurate, and somewhat more confident, than the independent judgments of two or more comparable individuals.
Two factors appear to be related to an increase in judgment accuracy in groups. One is the tendency of some groups to develop group judgments that are quite different from the members’ individual judgments. A representative study asked students to judge various risks by estimating the annual frequency of deaths in the United States from each of several causes. A minority of group judgments were either higher or lower than all the members’ individual estimates. For example, individual members’ estimates for a given cause of death were 300, 500, and 650, but the consensus of these persons as a group was 200. This phenomenon is often associated with great gains in group judgment accuracy, but, unfortunately, such radical shifts in judgment as a result of grouping can also lead to extreme process loss. Some groups become far more inaccurate than their average members...
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Techniques (Psychology and Mental Health)
There have been many efforts to identify procedures that are better than discretionary procedures in improving the quality of group decisions for optimizing tasks. Many group techniques have been developed in an attempt to eliminate factors that are thought to contribute to process loss. The most popular techniques are designed to alter group discussion. Some inhibit normative influence by restricting the extent to which group members can reveal their preferences. Instead, group discussion is limited—at least initially—to a thorough evaluation of all options.
Other techniques for enhancing group decision making are designed to suppress the extent to which members are influenced by irrelevant factors. For example, status effects can operate in groups, causing the person with the highest status to exert a greater influence on the group decision than other members. This is undesirable if the high-status person’s judgments are no more accurate—or even less accurate—than those of other group members. Other factors that have been shown to be irrelevant include the amount of participation in group discussion and self-confidence. Perhaps the most well-known technique developed to maximize informational influence and minimize irrelevant influences is the Delphi technique. This procedure prevents any potential problems of noninformational influence by not allowing face-to-face interaction. Instead, group members are given periodic...
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Historically, scientific interest in group phenomena in general has been linked to social movements. Group research seems to thrive in the “we” decades, compared with the “me” decades. Interest specifically in group decision making, however, has tended to be stimulated by political and economic events.
Janis carefully analyzed decision making by groups in President John F. Kennedy’s administration. He diagnosed numerous problems regarding the way in which the Bay of Pigs crisis of 1961 was handled during group meetings. Collectively, the symptoms represent “groupthink,” a narrow-minded approach to decision making that is caused primarily by a strong attachment of the group to its prevailing viewpoints. Janis shows how Kennedy altered the group decision process to accommodate and stimulate diverse perspectives during meetings about the Cuban Missile Crisis one and a half years later.
For many reasons, the study of decision making by groups is likely to become increasingly important to psychologists. As a result of the collectivist nature of most cultures, the discipline of psychology will need to become less individualistic as it grows in non-Western societies and as social psychology expands to encompass more cultures. In addition, the growing interdependence of nations means that more and more global decisions will be made by groups of leaders, not by individual leaders.
Events within the...
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Ariely, Dan. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. The author, a behavioral economist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, refutes the common notion that most people make smart, rational choices in everyday situations. In a readable style, he describes what surprising elements impact group decision making.
Cannon-Bowers, Janis, and Eduardo Sales, eds. Making Decisions Under Stress: Implications for Individual and Team Training. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Society, 2000. Report of a seven-year study conducted at the Office of Naval Research on mitigating the stress of decision making.
Davis, James H. “Social Interaction as a Combinatorial Process in Group Decision.” In Group Decision Making, edited by H. Brandstatter, James H. Davis, and Gisela Stocker-Kreichgauer. London: Academic Press, 1982. Emphasizes models of group process. Good presentation of the social decision scheme approach, particularly as it has been applied in research on jury decision making.
Guzzo, Richard A., ed. Improving Group Decision Making in Organizations. New York: Academic Press, 1982. A collection of articles by group-decision researchers. Despite its title, it is not a how-to book but rather an exploration of research paradigms that have potential applications to the improvement of decision making by...
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Group Decision Making (Encyclopedia of Management)
Group decision making is a type of participatory process in which multiple individuals acting collectively, analyze problems or situations, consider and evaluate alternative courses of action, and select from among the alternatives a solution or solutions. The number of people involved in group decision-making varies greatly, but often ranges from two to seven. The individuals in a group may be demographically similar or quite diverse. Decision-making groups may be relatively informal in nature, or formally designated and charged with a specific goal. The process used to arrive at decisions may be unstructured or structured. The nature and composition of groups, their size, demographic makeup, structure, and purpose, all affect their functioning to some degree. The external contingencies faced by groups (time pressure and conflicting goals) impact the development and effectiveness of decision-making groups as well.
In organizations many decisions of consequence are made after some form of group decision-making process is undertaken. However, groups are not the only form of collective work arrangement. Group decision-making should be distinguished from the concepts of teams, teamwork, and self managed teams. Although the words teams and groups are often used interchangeably, scholars increasingly differentiate between the two. The basis for the distinction seems to be that teams act more collectively and achieve greater synergy of effort. Katzenback and Smith spell out specific differences between decision making groups and teams:
- The group has a definite leader, but the team has shared leadership roles
- Members of a group have individual accountability; the team has both individual and collective accountability.
- The group measures effectiveness indirectly, but the team measures performance directly through their collective work product.
- The group discusses, decides, and delegates, but the team discusses, decides, and does real work.
GROUP DECISION MAKING METHODS
There are many methods or procedures that can be used by groups. Each is designed to improve the decision-making process in some way. Some of the more common group decision-making methods are brainstorming, dialetical inquiry, nominal group technique, and the delphi technique.
Brainstorming involves group members verbally suggesting ideas or alternative courses of action. The "brainstorming session" is usually relatively unstructured. The situation at hand is described in as much detail as necessary so that group members have a complete understanding of the issue or problem. The group leader or facilitator then solicits ideas from all members of the group. Usually, the group leader or facilitator will record the ideas presented on a flip chart or marker board. The "generation of alternatives" stage is clearly differentiated from the "alternative evaluation" stage, as group members are not allowed to evaluate suggestions until all ideas have been presented. Once the ideas of the group members have been exhausted, the group members then begin the process of evaluating the utility of the different suggestions presented. Brainstorming is a useful means by which to generate alternatives, but does not offer much in the way of process for the evaluation of alternatives or the selection of a proposed course of action.
One of the difficulties with brainstorming is that despite the prohibition against judging ideas until all group members have had their say, some individuals are hesitant to propose ideas because they fear the judgment or ridicule of other group members. In recent years, some decision-making groups have utilized electronic brainstorming, which allows group members to propose alternatives by means of e-mail or another electronic means, such as an online posting board or discussion room. Members could conceivably offer their ideas anonymously, which should increase the likelihood that individuals will offer unique and creative ideas without fear of the harsh judgment of others.
Dialetical inquiry is a group decision-making technique that focuses on ensuring full consideration of alternatives. Essentially, it involves dividing the group into opposing sides, which debate the advantages and disadvantages of proposed solutions or decisions. A similar group decision-making method, devil's advocacy, requires that one member of the group highlight the potential problems with a proposed decision. Both of these techniques are designed to try and make sure that the group considers all possible ramifications of its decision.
NOMINAL GROUP TECHNIQUE.
The nominal group technique is a structured decision making process in which group members are required to compose a comprehensive list of their ideas or proposed alternatives in writing. The group members usually record their ideas privately. Once finished, each group member is asked, in turn, to provide one item from their list until all ideas or alternatives have been publicly recorded on a flip chart or marker board. Usually, at this stage of the process verbal exchanges are limited to requests for clarificationo evaluation or criticism of listed ideas is permitted. Once all proposals are listed publicly, the group engages in a discussion of the listed alternatives, which ends in some form of ranking or rating in order of preference. As with brainstorming, the prohibition against criticizing proposals as they are presented is designed to overcome individuals' reluctance to share their ideas. Empirical research conducted on group decision making offers some evidence that the nominal group technique succeeds in generating a greater number of decision alternatives that are of relatively high quality.
The Delphi technique is a group decision-making process that can be used by decision-making groups when the individual members are in different physical locations. The technique was developed at the Rand Corporation. The individuals in the Delphi "group" are usually selected because of the specific knowledge or expertise of the problem they possess. In the Delphi technique, each group member is asked to independently provide ideas, input, and/or alternative solutions to the decision problem in successive stages. These inputs may be provided in a variety of ways, such as e-mail, fax, or online in a discussion room or electronic bulletin board. After each stage in the process, other group members ask questions and alternatives are ranked or rated in some fashion. After an indefinite number of rounds, the group eventually arrives at a consensus decision on the best course of action.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF GROUP DECISION MAKING
The effectiveness of decision-making groups can be affected by a variety of factors. Thus, it is not possible to suggest that "group decision making is always better" or "group decision making is always worse" than individual decision-making. For example, due to the increased demographic diversity in the workforce, a considerable amount of research has focused on diversity's effect on the effectiveness of group functioning. In general, this research suggests that demographic diversity can sometimes have positive or negative effects, depending on the specific situation. Demographically diverse group may have to over-come social barriers and difficulties in the early stages of group formation and this may slow down the group. However, some research indicates that diverse groups, if effectively managed, tend to generate a wider variety and higher quality of decision alternatives than demographically homogeneous groups.
Despite the fact that there are many situational factors that affect the functioning of groups, research through the years does offer some general guidance about the relative strengths and weaknesses inherent in group decision making. The following section summarizes the major pros and cons of decision making in groups.
Group decision-making, ideally, takes advantage of the diverse strengths and expertise of its members. By tapping the unique qualities of group members, it is possible that the group can generate a greater number of alternatives that are of higher quality than the individual. If a greater number of higher quality alternatives are generated, then it is likely that the group will eventually reach a superior problem solution than the individual.
Group decision-making may also lead to a greater collective understanding of the eventual course of action chosen, since it is possible that many affected by the decision implementation actually had input into the decision. This may promote a sense of "ownership" of the decision, which is likely to contribute to a greater acceptance of the course of action selected and greater commitment on the part of the affected individuals to make the course of action successful.
There are many potential disadvantages to group decision-making. Groups are generally slower to arrive at decisions than individuals, so sometimes it is difficult to utilize them in situations where decisions must be made very quickly. One of the most often cited problems is groupthink. Irving Janis, in his 1972 book Victims of Groupthink, defined the phenomenon as the "deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment resulting from in-group pressure." Groupthink occurs when individuals in a group feel pressure to conform to what seems to be the dominant view in the group. Dissenting views of the majority opinion are suppressed and alternative courses of action are not fully explored.
Research suggests that certain characteristics of groups contribute to groupthink. In the first place, if the group does not have an agreed upon process for developing and evaluating alternatives, it is possible that an incomplete set of alternatives will be considered and that different courses of action will not be fully explored. Many of the formal decision-making processes (e.g., nominal group technique and brain-storming) are designed, in part, to reduce the potential for groupthink by ensuring that group members offer and consider a large number of decision alternatives. Secondly, if a powerful leader dominates the group, other group members may quickly conform to the dominant view. Additionally, if the group is under stress and/or time pressure, groupthink may occur. Finally, studies suggest that highly cohesive groups are more susceptible to groupthink.
Group polarization is another potential disadvantage of group decision-making. This is the tendency of the group to converge on more extreme solutions to a problem. The "risky shift" phenomenon is an example of polarization; it occurs when the group decision is a riskier one than any of the group members would have made individually. This may result because individuals in a group sometimes do not feel as much responsibility and accountability for the actions of the group as they would if they were making the decision alone.
Decision-making in groups is a fact of organizational life for many individuals. Because so many individuals spend at least some of their work time in decision-making groups, groups are the subjects of hundreds of research studies each year. Despite this, there is still much to learn about the development and functioning of groups. Research is likely to continue to focus on identifying processes that will make group decision-making more efficient and effective. It is also likely to examine how the internal characteristics of groups (demographic and cognitive diversity) and the external contingencies faced by groups affect their functioning.
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