Hidden Profiles in Group Decision Making
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Decision-making, especially those that are complex and often difficult, are increasingly being assigned to teams of individuals as opposed to being dependent on the discretion of one individual. These decision centric roles such as those of policy makers, jury, detectives, senior management and even recruiting managers, are usually believed to be a better platform for teamwork, due to popular notion that different individuals could bring something new to a team, thereby increasing the probability that shortcomings could be anticipated and managed whilst better ideas could be contributed to promote superior decision quality.
However, based on results derived from several studies, most notably of which is the Hidden Profile experiment (Stasser and Titus, 2003), decisions that are being handled by teams are not always due to the collective intuitive effort of all team members, but mostly as a result of pre-discussion knowledge that team members usually bring into a group meeting. Thereby contradicting the commonly held notion that groups could help promote better decision quality.
The following essay therefore aims to analyse the effect of Hidden Profile in group decision making dynamics and ways in which groups could make better decisions by utilizing appropriate decision making techniques, such as the Alternative Focused Thinking (AFT) and the Value Focused Thinking (VFT) – Keener (1996), by analysing an extensive literature review on the topic against a Hidden Profile task that we as students carried out. The following chapters entail a literature review on Group Decision making and Hidden Profile, a description of the Hidden Profile task that we students had, and a subsequent analysis of the effect that Hidden Profile had on the eventual decision the group had.
Lightle et al (2009) states that decision-making within groups provide an effective platform to bring together “unique, relevant and often diverse information sets”, with the aim of promoting better decision quality. The higher costs associated with making decisions within groups, as opposed to individuals, could be regained only if the quality of decisions attained after deliberation processes, are of much more quality and depth than prior to group sessions (Van Swol et al, 2003). For instance, if individual choices prior to group decisions were suboptimal, and the eventual high quality of the decisions was only attainable through information sharing and constructive arguments, then the group sessions could be said to indeed be effective.
Mesmer-Magnus and DeChurch (2009) further argue that groups possess an information advantage over individuals due to their varying backgrounds, personal experiences, cultures and specializations, thereby enabling an environment wherein the presence of diverse information could help promote better alternatives.
Though these arguments do seem to strongly promote the ideology that groups deliberations often result in superior decisions, previous research conducted mainly by Stasser and Titus (1985) has shown that these teams often fail to reach optimal decisions by sharing information. Instead group decisions only aim to strengthen individual pre-group-discussion alternatives, rather than discussing new information that could help.
Stasser and Titus further argue that during these group sessions, wherein the utilization of unique data could result in better decisions, individuals within the team often spend more time discussing information already known by all group members, as opposed to new information that may be unique and helpful during the group session. Henningsen and Henningsen (2007) corroborate with this view by stating that teams usually generate better decisions when all members already know the information present, are capable of deriving the same conclusion and also when they have high interpersonal relationships.
Stanley (1981) further argues that members of decision-making groups within organizations often withhold diverging, yet crucial information that could have ensured better decision qualities. According to several theories (Baron and Greenberg, 1989; Gallupe et al, 1991), these could be due to communication barriers, pressures to conform to group standards, or individual apprehension to properly evaluate present data. Further evidence of decision-making failures within groups is also expressed by Davis et al (1976). They state that individuals usually encounter a mixture of competition and cooperative incentives; Incentives that result in tradeoffs between the group performing effectively and individuals being recognised for performing personally.
In accordance with this insight, Toma and Butera (2009) carried out several experiments on cooperative and competitive factors within groups, in which information was distributed in order to promote a hidden profile situation. Individuals had to reject their individual pre-discussion preferences in order for the most effective decision to be reached. However, It was revealed that competition within groups led team members to withhold unique information, and was more reluctant to reject their initial discussions. They thereby concluded that decisions within competitive groups were of lower quality compared to cooperative groups that had more motivational incentive to share information.
Lightle et al (2009) therefore conclude that cooperation and competition are two very important factors in hidden profile situations, and information sharing and use should be promoted as motivational factors, that could lead to better group decisions and also appease each individual.
Though several theories have argued that groups could better share information when they are properly motivated to do so, Stasser and Tissus (1985) have demonstrated that groups usually fail to solve tasks in which better decisions could be made by actively sharing unique information, otherwise known as hidden profiles, whilst further theories have found these failures to be particularly significant (Cruz et al, 1997). Hidden profile experiments in which individuals within are team can only attain optimal decisions by sharing the different bits of information that they all possess, has found that groups typically choose the inferior choice, as opposed to the optimal choice because of their inability to consider all available data, especially the unique information that could change the group's decisions (Lightle et al, 2009).
Further experiments carried out by Van Swol et al (2003) on hidden profiles found that repetition of common shared information within groups and the utmost validity assigned to previously shared information, made it somewhat impossible for individuals to share new information.
SUCCESSFUL HIDDEN PROFILES
In a bid to find better ways of improving information sharing and eliminating the failure of hidden profiles, various theorists have carried out several studies on factors that could aid in promoting better decision-making. Brodbeck et al (2002) found that groups in which each member's choice is heterogeneous in that they all prefer different alternatives, often results in better results in the hidden profile experiments, as opposed to homogeneous groups in which decision diversity within groups is more limited. Williams and O'Reilly (1998) also found that member diversity in each team, with respect to their personality, background, academic or professional training, could help in encouraging disagreement in decision making processes, hence promoting better decision quality. However, one of the most prominent methods for ensuring decision quality, is through appropriate decision making techniques, as envisaged by Keeney (1996).
DECISION MAKING TECHNIQUES
Keeney (1996) states that decision-making processes are usually centred around finding alternatives that could be utilized in solving whatever issues individuals or teams meet. He further states that the use of alternatives in decision making, otherwise known as alternative focused thinking, is a “limited way to think through decision situations”. A more effective methodology would therefore be to focus on the fundamental values that need to be met, and creating alternatives to satisfy those values, a process known as Value Focused Thinking.
Montibeller and Franco (2007) agree with this statement in their research of effective methods for evaluation of strategic objectives. They assert that utilizing value focused thinking aids decision makers to come up with easily identifiable logical strategic objectives, which in turn helps create alternatives that could better support those decisions. According to Keener (1996), rather than recognising a decision problem, then immediately identifying decision alternatives, the Value Focused Thinking paradigm aims to enable decision makers in recognising decision problems, then specifying values that are important, only after which decision alternatives are now created.
Though no specific relationship between Value Focused Thinking and Hidden Profiles were found in these journals, Keeney (1996) argues that Value Focused Thinking does help decision makers to assign fundamental values to each decision problem. These Fundamental Values enable them to gain a better picture of what the best decision ought to be. By gaining a better picture of what ought to be achieved, decision makers would be able to share more unique information and come up with optimal decisions.
The ability to assign values to decisions and see each objective based on their fundamental value and means through which they could be achieved, promotes the introduction of differing opinions within groups (Mesmer-Magnus and DeChurch, 2009). Group decision makers that have assigned fundamental values to their objectives would be better able to express different opinions, some of which might just be the optimal choice, thereby establishing the role of dissent in reducing the hidden profile effect.
THE ROLE OF DISSENT
The introduction of dissent – whether natural or artificial – has been shown to improve the quality of decisions within groups (Brodbeck et al, 2002). The role of dissent as an enabler of quality group decisions was first theorised by Stasser and Titus (1985) who stated that groups are more likely to solve hidden profiles, when members express different or opposing opinions as opposed to those that have already been expressed.
The notion of dissent as a precipitator of better group decisions have been supported by Stanley (1981), who states that groups with diverse preferences, have more chances of expressing dissent, due to less pressure to conform to prevailing team dynamics. The more diverse groups are in their preferences and background, the more likely it is that one of the team members would promote the better decision, thereby increasing the chances that the team deliberations would result in a better alternative (Ulrich, 2007).
Therefore bringing together Keener's (1996) and Stasser and Titus' (1985) theories on group decision-making, it could be concluded that encouraging Value Focused thinking within groups, helps to promote diversity of opinions, which invariably leads to dissent between team members, thereby promoting better quality decisions.
Two major tasks were carried out on the 21st of January to analyse the effect of decision-making techniques on solving the hidden profile effect within groups. For the first Task, we had to choose between Pat, Terry and Chris for Student Union President (SUP) using both Alternative Focused Thinking (AFT) and Value Focused Thinking (VFT).
Initially before each group discussion, we were all asked to decide on a SUP based on the incomplete information we were provided. Using the VFT, I decided on Chris because of what his plans meant for my personal subjective values. I always had difficulties in getting home after late night classes so I decided that I could vote for Chris as a means objective towards a fundamental value of getting home comfortably. The following represents my Fundamental Value (FV) and Means Objective (MO – Keeney, 1996) regarding my choice of SUP.
Get Home Safely and Comfortably
Chris proposes late night buses
Late night buses would get me home on time
If I get home on time, I would not have to wait outside for too long.
Not waiting outside for too long is safer and more comfortable.
Following the introduction of the hidden profile, which invariable supported Terry as the preferred choice, I stuck with my choice of Chris since it was my individual fundamental value. My decision to stick with Chris, supports Keeney's (1996) argument in that VFT helps to create better decision alternatives based on objectives that are important to each decision maker. However, the fact that my choice was different from that of the group and that I did not change it even when the Hidden Profile was introduced, also supports Stasser and Titus' (2003) argument in that group sessions only aim to strengthen pre-group decisions.
Overall for the whole group, Terry got a higher vote using AFT than VFT after group discussions, thereby contradicting Keeney's (1996) arguments on the importance of VFT in promoting optimal decisions. Pat, who was supposedly the worst candidate, received more votes after group discussions, as opposed to Terry and Chris (who were better).
A more appropriate method for analysing the effect of VFT and ADT on decision techniques within groups could be found in Task B, wherein the class had to choose a SUP from three other candidates. During pre-group discussions and based on the information provided, Alex was the best option due to his proposal on introducing emergency phones and information about scholarships for students, therefore students voted in accordance to the expected rank of each candidate.
Using the AFT or VFT, Alex received the highest rank. However, after the hidden values were introduced, the best choice (Jo) did not receive as much votes as was expected. The group's failure to vote as expected emphasizes Stasser and Titus' theories on the inability of groups reach optimal decisions during hidden profile situations. However, Jo received as much as 8 new votes, though not enough to attain SUP, but enough to discredit Stasser and Titus' other argument that states: “team often spend more time discussing information already known by all group members, as opposed to new information that may be unique and helpful during the group session”. The group actively discussed the extra information, which resulted in Jo gaining 8 more votes.
Based on the results from Task B, the VFT was the most instrumental in enabling the change of votes, since 5 more votes were registered through this technique. Using only the VFT, Jo would have gained the highest mark, compared to other contestants, by bagging the highest votes of 10. The VFT was therefore more instrumental in promoting better decision quality and reducing hidden profile effect in Task B, as opposed to AFT. Personally, I changed my votes, as Jo's arguments were in line with my values of getting home safely and comfortably, whilst having unrestricted wireless Internet service.
Therefore, based on Task B and the literature review analysed, it could be concluded that Value Focused Thinking, is indeed quite useful in enabling the expression of different opinions within groups (Keeney, 1996), which could lead to a diversity of values, expectations and requirements. This diversity could then help promote dissent, enabling each team member to express their opinions based on individual values, as opposed to general consensus.
The Hidden Profile effect would therefore cease to be much of a problem anymore, since individuals could easily realign their decisions to conform with each new information that has been provided and could therefore have the best optimal decision based on those values. Arguments of Williams O'Reilly (1998) and Brodbeck et al (2002) have therefore been confirmed based on these findings. Value Focused Thinking is essential in reducing the effect of Hidden Profiles.
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