March 4, 2019 Leave your thoughts

Book Review: “The origins of collective decision-making”

By Andy Blunden – Haymarket Books (2017)

Ophelia Deroy

Consider a typical board meeting: All senior executives speak in turn, explaining their own strategic insights, while the CEO scribbles on his tablet. After two hours, the CEO stops and concludes “OK, so this is what we are going to do”. Does his plan count as a collective decision? And if so, how collective is it?

Empirically and theoretically, the definition of ‘collective decisions’ is unclear. Other terms, like joint or group decisions, are no clearer. Take the board meeting example: technically, the process brought many opinions together and engaged all members. But the role of the CEO makes us hesitate: the decision seems not “as” collective as if, for example, everyone had voted and majority had prevailed.

Somehow, we seem to have an Orwellian stance toward collective decisions, accepting that “all decisions made by more than one person are collective, but some are more collective than others” [1]. So, what is missing from the uncomfortable case of the board meeting ? What makes it ‘less’ collective than a decision that would have been discussed and approved only once explicit consensus was reached?

Andy Blunden’s The Origins of collective decision-making does a great job of addressing some of our ambivalence as to what count as a collective decision. History (hence, the origins) may not enough here, but it does bring some useful help. Here i will actually skip the historical material about medieval courts, guilds and unions, to focus on the distinctions brought to light in the book.

First, the book reminds us to distinguish between decisions made (1) by a group of individuals versus (2) on behalf of a group. Friends who decide where to go for dinner rarely decide for their absent friends. Let’s call this a direct collective decision. The case is different in politics and business: the group who decides is different from the group for whom the decision is made. Executive boards decide for company employees; members of parliament decide for the nation. These would be indirect collective decisions. Note that the bulk of empirical research on collective decisions addresses direct cases. We should be careful when generalizing from the direct to the indirect collective decisions. Lab studies of unstructured, small groups may not hold the key to politics or board meetings.

History has additional useful warnings: although consensus is much liked by experimentalists, it is by no means the canonical original form of collective decisions. This warning is important not only because consensus flatters the experimenters’ sense of egalitarianism, but also (perhaps more importantly) because many in social psychology have embraced the simplistic assumption that once consensus is reached, every individual privately agrees with others. The more likely but uncomfortable reality may be that they accepted an imperfect yet pragmatic compromise.

Majority vote is, we read, much more ancient, and common. Even older, and more common, however, are decisions taken through collective consultation: a motion is introduced, and then some people express their opinions, while others can remain silent. Once sufficient time has passed, or if no one objects, one person (remember the CEO?) voices a collective decision. Not everyone has directly contributed – compare to the consensus or the majority models – yet the decision is still a collective one. The board meeting example is a good example.

The book still leaves us with no good account of what the behavioural or psychological differences are between the three types of collective decisions: consultation, majority and consensus. So here, there is much work to do.

The book focuses on the indirect collective decisions which, as we saw, are more prevalent in business and politics. In indirect decisions, procedural concerns may be high: whether a committee decision is taken through consensus or majority matters. However, perhaps friends choosing a restaurant worry less about following a single procedure. Therefore, it could also be that the direct decision-making processes lend themselves less well to the consultation, majority, and consensus taxonomy.

Nonetheless, after reading the book, we can better respond to the Orwellian stance: “all decisions made by more than one person are collective, but, until the difference is proven, none are clearly more collective than others”.

[1] Reference is to Orwell’s Animal Farm : “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”

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