Black boxes of collective decision-making

Taking decisions for the future

In this 3 part series Lasse Gerrits discusses the ins and outs of collective decision making.

It is since the dawn of man that certain decisions need to be taken together, for example about where to set up camp or about who should do the hunting. While contemporary society doesn’t require us to reconsider the position of our little settlement every few months, the need to coordinate activities in order to reach certain goals has remained. We have created advanced institutions for that, such as parliaments, corporate boards or the (oft-dreaded) working groups. However advanced these institutions appear with their voting rules, checks and balances and lukewarm coffee from plastic cups, the basics have remained the same. Naturally, it would be wonderful if we all agreed with each other all the time, but this is not reality. There are genuine conflicts about what we believe is good for us and for society. Throw in limited resources and a lacking ability to oversee consequences, and it is no surprise that collective decision-making is still very, very hard. At the very best, it will take ages to achieve something meaningful; in more than just a few instances, we will simply run aground. The world is littered with examples of collective decisions that – with hindsight – do not really seem to be very wise.

Much research has been dedicated to understanding what goes on during collective decision-making processes. The problem with researching these processes in real situations is that the causes and consequences are obscured by the many other things that are going on at the same time.

Tracing such processes can be a painstaking affair. Consequently, there are many scientific branches that try to isolate the exact mechanisms that lead to a certain outcome. Game theory, for example, models interactions on the basis of crude but effective assumptions about human behavior. Or take cognitive psychology, where the mind is put front and center, and where theoretical ideas are tested in carefully crafted experiments. These are useful advances in understanding how people arrive at joint decisions, but there is still an elephant in the room. However useful, they can also appear to be detached from reality simply because of the assumptions necessary to make these approaches work. Game theory requires the assumption that decision-makers are rational; elegant lab-based experiments in psychology tend to glance over the messiness of actual decision-making in a particular context. What is needed is, in the words of the British sociologist David Byrne, down-and-dirty empiricism. In other words: time to put your boots on and to venture out in the real world. Observe, touch and smell the complexities of getting people to agree on common goals and to work together. And yes, this includes drinking lukewarm coffee from plastic cups.

Empiricism is easier said than done. It would be easy if we could get away with just describing what we observed. Though it is very likely that scientists would protest: such an account is unstructured, biased and anecdotal. So the actual question is: can we shape our endeavor such that we combine the messiness of real collective decision-making processes with the structuring and analytical tools offered in various scientific strands? We’ve made an attempt at getting there in our newest book ‘Understanding Collective Decision-making’. Fed up with stylized but unrealistic explanations on the one hand, and somewhat more realistic but anecdotal accounts of reality on the other hand, we tried to walk the thin line between the two extremes. Of course, we didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, so we borrowed heavily from what is already done in the social sciences. Still, we hope to have achieved a better understanding of why and how people reach collective decisions. It is not perfect yet, but sometimes it is necessary to take a new step to see what happens next. For example, we found out that pragmatism only works to a limited extent, or that diversity breeds more diversity. We saw that those aiming for what seemed to be quick gains could end up being losers in the long run.

This, and much more, is explained in great detail in the book. It feels like a stepping stone onto a new and exciting research path and we hope that other readers will feel the same.

Also, we have been told that the reading experience is by no means impacted by the temperature of the coffee one may drink when reading. The things we do for science…!


Lasse Gerrits, Department of Political Science, Otto-Friedrich University Bamberg, Germany


Gerrits Understanding

Understanding Collective Decision Making by Lasse Gerrits and Peter Marks is available now.

Read chapter one free on Elgaronline.

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