Group Decision-Making: Benefits and Perils

Khalid HusainNovember 28, 2016The PsycheFeatures
Group Decision-Making: Benefits and Perils

Every day we encounter new information.

Since we live in an age of fast-paced communication, the rate at which we encounter new information is always increasing. From global events and policies to new social situations, we must find ways to digest the information presented in order to reach optimal decisions.

We sometimes delegate important decisions to people around us: parents, teachers, leaders, and elected officials. Many times, in order to grasp our world and understand what to do with information, we must talk to others. But group decisions are not always straightforward or easy to achieve. Sometimes as groups, we make poor decisions, especially if we are unaware of how groups can influence us as individuals.

Over time, there has been an increase in collective decision-making. Even elected officials and powerful leaders rely on others, like policy advisers and experts, to help them make decisions. Thus, the responsibility for decisions is shared by many. This can most clearly be seen in structural changes in leadership throughout history, moving from theocracy and monocracy to socialist, republic, and parliamentary governments. The first of these representative governments was in 6th century B.C.E. Athens, where citizens were afforded the right to vote, as well as the right to attend Assembly. Ecclesia was the principal assembly of Athens, and it was open to all adult male citizens with two years of military service. Unlike today’s Congress, people did not have to be elected to attend, and members attended at will. Members also elected officials of the democracy, such as magistrates and court officers.

Just as in Athens, today the most common type of decision-making we use is consensus. Loosely speaking, consensus strives to give people input and to allow all participants to support a decision, even if they don’t fully agree on it. This kind of decision-making seems to have been practiced by indigenous communities such as Native American tribes, and in religious communities such as Quakers and Mennonites.

The idea of discussion and subsequent agreement between group members is also built into many models of government, including those in the United States and Europe, as well as in democratic nations in Asia and Africa. But within these structures, we don’t expect everyone to agree, since it can take a long time for everyone to contribute input and come to an agreement. Many countries elect a council of some sort, varying in size from United States Congress to the Chago Island Council (the world’s smallest democracy), that cast votes and use majority rule to dictate policy. Even for a group project in school, students vote on responsibilities and project topics!

But for all its practicality, the idea of majority rule has many flaws. For evidence, one need not look further than the past three U.S. presidential elections. The highest percent of popular vote was the 53% won by Barack Obama in 2008, and the lowest was 50.73% won by George Bush in 2004. In both cases, just fewer than half the population would oppose the president-elect’s ideas. Essentially, the ‘loser’ is subject to the ‘winner’s’ policy whims, even if the only margin is a single percent.

Votes with larger margins are no better, due to a phenomenon known as majority influence, which means that the larger group in a subset of people can influence others simply by being the majority. Sometimes people are easily influenced when they observe that the majority of people think a certain way. Consider: how many of your peers buy clothes that they think a majority of kids wear, or watch movies or buy music that “everyone” likes? What about your use of certain slang terms? This behavior stems from the desire to fit in and is not much different than what occurs on a broader scale. Some may vote for the same candidate as their family, friends, or colleagues to fit in, even if their individual beliefs do not align. This desire to conform leads to people agreeing about things they don’t actually approve of, simply because the majority approves.

Not only can groups exert pressure on people to agree, but they can also force them to be quiet when they disagree, or reach a decision far too quickly. Dissenting members may not feel comfortable stating their opinions due to a fear of rejection. In a phenomenon called “groupthink,” groups can make bad decisions because they don’t take time to fully contemplate all the possible opinions. For example, one person in a group of people might propose to attack or bully someone. Whatever the reason, several people might disagree with the bully, but won’t speak up for fear of disrupting the collective. Or, rather than not saying anything, they might even falsely agree in order to avoid conflict. The group might then bully or attack that individual. Those dissenters would then have gone along with something they considered immoral, just because of their desire to uphold harmony and conformity in the group.

However, it is also possible for a small group of people or even one person to actually change opinions, through a concept called “minority influence.” You may have heard of the term “vocal minority,” which refers to a small group of people, or even one person, who speaks up and states their opinion, even when it differs from the majority. This group is more loud, authoritative or effective in communicating their argument. Just as in the bullying example, if even one person speaks up, their voice can change the outcome for the person being attacked.

Minority influence can also change societies and cultural norms. When a minority opinion is stated consistently over time, and seems to be a good argument, it can cause the majority to change their opinions. This is different from going along with the majority without really agreeing with their position. However, it usually takes time for this kind of change to happen, requiring the small group to hold the same opinion over time in order to persuade the larger group to build a movement to create change. Prominent and positive examples of how a small group or an individual can change large-scale group behavior include the Civil Rights and Suffragette movement. A negative example could be Hitler, who made use of propaganda to preach a minority view to the populace and, subsequently, indoctrinate them with Nazism.

As individuals participating in societies where our decisions matter, we are responsible for remaining as unbiased as possible when reaching our own conclusions. We are also responsible for reaching good decisions by helping each other think through all the information we have. The best way to do this is to try to maintain our independence, even in group situations. While we may not entirely eliminate all the flaws of group decision-making, we can certainly minimize negative impacts by critically evaluating whether the arguments being presented are truly the best.

Khalid Husain is a senior in high school. He will attend SUNY Stony Brook next year. He has a deep passion for stories and writing, and an academic passion for the sciences.