How to make bad decisions: Assume everyone is equally competent
People are incredibly bad at taking differences in competence into account when making group decisions. — Bahador Bahrami
Over the past few decades, researchers have uncovered a long and growing list of cognitive biases that get in the way of good group decision making. The shared-ness bias trips up groups frequently, for example: groups will give higher weight to shared information (information known to many in the group) when in fact information known to few may be more relevant. And the preference bias is another group toe-stub, where people are inclined toward initial preferences. It turns out that people get stuck on what initially occurs to them and are hard to unstick. (For more on these biases, and how to counter them, see Dissensus, not consensus, is the shorter but steeper path.)
Recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has turned up yet another bias that impairs group decision-making abilities: the “equality bias” (Mahmoodi, et al, Equality bias impairs collective decision making). People tend to act as if their partners in group decision-making are equally competent, even when they are shown to have wide differences in competency.
The researchers paired 98 men from Denmark, China, and Iran, and had them complete a visual recognition test, repeated 256 times for each pair. The participants were asked to look at a computer screen for two consecutive periods, with a faint target appearing in one of the two. The two men were screened but were aware that the test involved a partner. Each man indicated in which period the target appeared, and their confidence level. When the two disagreed, one of the two was selected to act as an arbitrator, and to make the final decision.
The result? The more competent member of the pair — whose first judgment was usually correct — tended to give greater credence to the other’s judgment than he or she should have. And they did so even when they were shown the disparity in competence.
There are many factors at work in group decision-making. People naturally put a high value on group cohesion, which is one of the factors leading to groupthink, and one of the many reasons that active dissent is so important. The equality bias seems related to that.
One of the report’s authors, Bahador Bahrami, said, “People are incredibly bad at taking differences in competence into account when making group decisions. Even when we showed them exactly how competent they each were, they still gave each other more or less equal say. Incredibly, this still continued when people were rewarded with real money for making correct decisions.”
There are many factors at work in group decision-making. People naturally put a high value on group cohesion, which is one of the factors leading to groupthink, and one of the many reasons that active dissent is so important. The equality bias seems related to that. But it may also be the fact that people avoid discounting the competence of others so that all feel included. Also, more competent individuals may not want to take on the responsibility of the group’s decision, even when it is clear the group would benefit.
A technique widely employed in the military is to ask the opinions of all attending a council of war, but to have those opinions ordered by rank of the individuals involved, from most junior to most senior. In theory, this allows the more junior participants the opportunity to speak without being constrained by the opinions of the more senior. But, relative to the equality bias, those opinions coming at the end are coming from those with the most experience and are weighted as such.
Like all cognitive biases, just knowing about the equality bias does not counter it: to do so you have to actually change the context in which the bias operates.
In today’s increasingly egalitarian work culture, there may not be an equivalent for military rank, although most companies do retain a hierarchy, even if it is flatter than those of the last century. More importantly, for any given decision, the most senior in the room might not be the one with the highest competence for the decision at hand. Therefore, here’s a way to counter this bias. Before making a group decision, pick an arbiter who will have the final say if the group does not come to a consensus. By all means try to pick the person most competent to make that decision, for example, by an anonymous vote by the entire group.
Like all cognitive biases, just knowing about the equality bias does not counter it: to do so you have to actually change the context in which the bias operates. In this case, countering the equality bias requires that we start by acknowledging we are not equally competent in all things, and then change how group decisions are reached.