Remember the 2004 book “The Paradox of Choice — Why More Is Less” by Barry Schwartz which told us that our collective anxiety was caused by having to choose between twenty-one different flavours of Oreo? Fifteen years later, as we’re nearing the end of 2019 (and I’ve just realized 2004 was fifteen years ago), our collective anxiety about choices and decisions haven’t entirely disappeared. We’re bombarded daily with even more consumer products and services to choose from, and decisions permeate every part of our lives. The road to hell isn’t paved with good intentions, it’s paved with endless decisions you must make, including whether you want your body buried or cremated. It doesn’t matter if your entire take on life is c’est la vie — or what we used to call YOLO back in the day — that precise identity and perspective on life was a choice. You’ll still have to decide which reckless behaviour (alternatively: free-spirited) you want to embody and your exit plan when you eventually get into a bind. Decision making has accompanied humankind along each step of the way — from the first spark to creating intelligent systems that can profile us. Someone decided to roll along a circular rock to invent the wheel, groups decided to settle in a territory, and a country decided on a new head of state by voting. As all of humanity grappled with making decisions, big and small, research and businesses have not remained idle. There is no shortage of academic research and articles which dictate the boundary and rules of a “good decision”; plenty of apps claim to help us reach “good decisions” and structure our lives together. We are at a peak organization aesthetic that began with the first trickle of minimalism into the mainstream, to today where we’ve all tried to Marie Kondo-fy our living space and life, and bullet journal our way through this mess of a world only to abandon it because who really has the time to plan and design their weekly spreads? Yet, despite deciding to reset your life and personality with each “new year, new me”, there’s only so much that can be improved if you as a person, alone, decide to be a better version of yourself: you 2.0.
There’s a simple answer to why our personal individual decisions and choices will always have a limited impact: we don’t live all by ourselves, even if trending columns try to tell us that we’ve become more alienated as a society dependent on our smartphones. Some decisions inevitably require us to participate in the process and can have disproportionate consequences. Put simply, the choices made by you or anyone else can affect other people, directly or indirectly. Even if you’re sceptical of the butterfly effect, the choices you make are part of an already narrowed set of options from the choices made by other people.
Group decisions are a central feature of our lives — whether that group represents your place of work, education, residence or politics. If group decisions were indeed such a crucial part of our lives, you’d think we’d get better at making group-level decisions. And yet, research appears to have concentrated on individual-level decisions, namely, how do individuals make decisions? Cognitive sciences and behavioural economics have given us interesting insights into how the human body makes decisions (hint: it’s not really the conscious ‘thinking’ part of you but a physical instinct that has decided you want a can of Dr Pepper before you even realize it). This is notable in the works of Daniel Kahneman, author of “Thinking Fast and Slow” and the Good Judgement Project which is outlined in the book “Superforecasting” authored by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner. Research has however been unable to definitely unpack how groups function to make decisions and how better decisions can be reached. While different forms of group decision making have been identified — the Delphi, voting, and consensus, to name a few — no particular strand of research on group decisions is an authority. It has instead left us with more questions than answers. Are group decisions better than individual decisions? Is there a certain threshold for the ‘optimum size of a group’ after which all group decisions become ineffective? Are individuals pressured into specific types of decisions when in a group? Are these pressures cultural differences or are they independent of social norms? Are decisions more polarized when made in a group as opposed to when made by an individual?
Generally, most of the conversation on group decision making is centred around a comparison against individual-level decisions. Essentially, are we as a society and group better or worse at making decisions than a single person or a small autocracy? However, evaluating group decisions is confronted with another obvious challenge: what makes a group decision ‘good’ and ‘bad’? Is participation the overriding value? What if we all participated to reach a decision that disenfranchised another group? Do we need to pick utilitarianism over other moral frameworks? As interesting and necessary as the questions are, it’s also important to remember that group decisions and dialogue have historically, and even today, continue to be exclusionary. Groups that were disenfranchised in the past still face very real obstacles to having their voices heard when making group decisions that directly affect them.
The question then is what makes some group decisions better or worse than individual ones?
Groupthink and extreme polarizing decisions are examples of group decision making that brings out the worst in individuals. On the other hand, wisdom of crowds and diversity of ideas make a case for group decisions being better than individual-level decisions. The idea behind wisdom of crowds is that groups reach better decisions by pooling together information and ideas. However, wisdom of crowds is achievable only when there is a sufficiently diverse pool of ideas. Otherwise, there isn’t a large difference between the mean decision reached by ‘wisdom of crowds’ and a decision resulting from groupthink. Groupthink and extreme polarization are by-products of the group becoming a larger entity than the personal, when social relations pressure individuals into certain choices and decisions they might have weighed against on a personal level. For instance, agreeing with someone hierarchically above you at your workplace in hopes of being promoted to manager before you retire someday, or being unable to freely express yourself outside a group identity like your family. As these pressures prevent individuals from honestly and openly being able to express themselves we find ourselves at an impasse: unable to debate and evaluate certain opinions until they have become glaringly public and defensive, and a tendency toward a lukewarm compromise on absolutely everything. Decision making has also historically been exclusionary — voices of disenfranchised groups still remain excluded from major decisions, and needs of specific groups that are likely to be most directly affected by the decision continue to be ignored. Take it down a notch and this weakness in group decision making processes is visible in our everyday lives, ranging from setting rules for the shared fridge at work to recycling guidelines in your apartment complex.
So, how do we make better decisions as a group? The largest identifiable problems with group decision making are incomplete information (both the lack of objective information and unwillingness to listen), social hierarchies and loud voices dominating the conversation, subconscious and most often conscious biases, and peer pressure. The challenges to better group decisions arise from the absence of a space where everyone is guaranteed equal opportunity to participate and evaluate ideas, i.e., to function as whole individuals within a group dynamic, preventing social pressures from holding personal opinions and ideas hostage. Beyond a dysfunctional marketplace of ideas, group decisions appear sorely challenged by another obvious drawback: unmoderated and never-ending discussions that reward people with the loudest voices, highest stamina and bluntly put, pig-headedness. Look no further than our parliament and congress proceedings for this drawback, but they also exist in the hours-long meetings at work that leave a distaste in your mouth.
What if it were possible to create a space that tackled the largest identifiable problems with group decisions and allowed moderated discussions? Would we as a society, a group be able to make better decisions?