Many people are familiar with the basic principles of the well known book The Wisdom of Crowds. The principles have been outlined here in previous posts and the book is one I highly recommend from our book club list. For anyone unfamiliar with this work, the basic argument of the book is that a group that is diverse in opinion, independent and thus not swayed by each others views, decentralized to allow the use of any specialization and local knowledge, that can have their individual opinions aggregated to an average solution, can make a better choice or estimate than any of the individuals within the group can.
An easy to understand example of this was demonstrated by finance professor Jack Treynor in his class, where he decided to put the classic contest of guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar to the test. He showed that with a jar containing 850 jelly beans, that the average of the guesses of a group adhering to the conditions above estimated that there were 871 jelly beans in the jar. Only one person in the group made a better individual guess than the estimate of the group. It is ok that a particular individual outperforms the group. What is interesting is that if you do the test ten times with a different number of jelly beans in the jar, the same person will not consistently outperform the group with the exception of the outlier genius. So across multiple chances it is a very safe bet (the odds would be significantly in your favor) that the group outperforms any single individual in the group. How do these individuals make their guesses? Have you thought about this? Do they pick a low number because they are conservative and cautious not to overestimate? Go for a big number because they are risky and overconfident? Reasonably confident in some rational calculation regarding the spatial relationship between the jar and the beans? All of these kinds of guesses are likely, and to some degree governed by an emotional make up of the person making the guess – though I believe the emotional influences behind the strategy often go unnoticed. We just think we’re making our best guess. But what forms our best guess?
So, these individual orientations are interesting and the resulting group dynamics when they come in conflict are fascinating. I recently had the pleasure to read the piece below written by Dr. Thomas Saaty, the architect and developer of the Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) for collaborative decision making. His methodology, the AHP, has become the most published form of decision analysis in the some 30 plus years since being introduced and has been applied to everything from the choosing the best place to live, to life and death decisions in palliative care. This recent writing from Dr. Saaty provides a very interesting insight on the nature of our judgments, and how our preferences are formed and contribute to those better answers from a group.
Language is a descriptive approach of the world of experience and does not bring out the intensity of how we feel about things. It lacks the precision needed to represent those intensities and synthesize them in an effort to understand the diversity of feelings we have in response to the happenings around us. An important consequence of this limitation, language alone cannot be used to combine individual judgments into a representative group judgment about what happens in the world. It becomes necessary to have experts who use their own individual judgments to tell us what they think is the real answer. What if they are not as knowledgeable as we think they should be?
At the risk of repetition, people have feelings with varying intensities and how strong these feelings are is very important to them. But language can deal with feelings with imprecise words that can only be roughly interpreted and rarely convey the implications of these feelings using deductive logic that relies on words to draw its conclusions. We need a way to capture the strengths of feelings of individuals and of groups of people and synthesize them accurately so we know better what the overall feeling is about different things they deal with which come together to shape their outlook. Once we learn to capture our feelings numerically in an accurate way, we no longer need to argue vehemently about how well we communicate our thinking and feeling. Sharing ideas is the most important approach to a valid outcome that corresponds to coping with reality to bring about what is in our best interest as individuals and groups seeking to fulfill our needs. Making comparisons is instinctive and fundamental in discovering what we think and how we feel about a complex issue. Not only humans are able to compare but living things like animals and plants also do.
Of course some people have more experience with certain matters and need to be accorded greater influence for their judgments than those who may not have the practice and understanding. Dealing with intricate and elaborate issues this way is a new approach to complex problems involving great misunderstanding and conflict. Such an approach requires that we identify and structure all the important factors bearing on a problem. To do that we need to work creatively together to brainstorm and organize the structure of the complexity we face. All proposed factors and objectives must be included. Their importance will emerge from the process of comparisons and prioritization. Implementing such an approach itself needs a structure and priorities to discover the best agreed upon way to bring about the desired changes.
It is interesting that our ability to make decisions is so influenced by our feelings, and yet we often make little or no allowance for their consideration and articulation within the framework of a decision. In fact, we often argue against the expression of emotion within our decisions, striving for the unrealistic Spock like emotionless logic and objectivity. Yet, this takes no account of how we really decide things. What Dr. Saaty highlights in his writing is how important it is for us to make the provision for comparing key factors in decisions and letting the strength of our preferences (i.e., our feeling about the factors and choices) become part of the measurement system of what we value. His method, the AHP, is a highly evolved approach for articulating the mental model of a decision and quantifying this strength of preference within the decision framework through a process comparative judgment. This all got me thinking about the nature of what we bring to the table when asked to participate in the process of making a choice or determining rank, or priorities. It seems that without accounting for this unique nature of our preferences and how they are expressed within a decision, we can’t really make good choices, and may be in fact denying our very own experience a role in the process. The complexity of the process that formulates our reaction to stimulus that ultimately dictates our choices is complex and difficult to grasp, as it is hard to observe ourselves and how our patterns of perception are shaped. I was doodling a little model of how this might occur that came out looking something like this (click to enlarge)…
I started reading and researching a bit more about these ideas to try to find similar concepts, and was intrigued by the work of psychologist Jean Piaget on Cognitive Development. He provides a description of how we move through stages to explore and interpret our environment and create meaning. This is an interesting field of study and relates closely to how we make decisions and the potential nature of biases. We’ll explore this more in the next post.
In the meantime, important points to consider when making decisions, especially in groups (preferably collaboratively versus adversarially)
- The aggregate averaged guess of the group is usually better than the guess any one member in the group
- Don’t deny feelings a role in the process, they are the inextricably linked and embedded in the essence of experience
- Use a process to enable the measurement of the feelings to express how they interact with the descriptive language framing a decision