Some psychological aspects of decision-making in system perspective

In the preceding pages some structural and technical points of decision- making have been discussed. The importance of the psychological factors involved cannot, however, be neglected. One of these is the creative element which more or less influences all steps of the process. Regarding creativity per se, a wise man knows that pessimists underestimate human genius and creativity, while optimists underestimate human greed and aggressiveness.

The creative process itself usually proceeds through the following stages.

  • Saturation — the familiarization with the problem and all activities and ideas associated with it.
  • Deliberation — the challenging, rearranging and illustrating of ideas from a variety of perspectives.
  • Incubation — the disengagement of conscious effort, allowing the subconscious mind to work.
  • Illumination — the sudden advent of a bright idea as a potential solution to the problem.
  • Verification — the clarification, reframing, and presentation of this idea in order to obtain other people’s viewpoints.

In order to expand the amount of alternatives available, a number of methods enhancing creative group thinking have been developed. The objective of brainstorming is to free group members from selfcriticism, criticism of others, and inhibition when generating ideas. Group members are permitted to present ideas as rapidly as they occur, without criticism. Freewheeling and wild ideas are welcomed; quantity is wanted and the greater the number of ideas, the greater the probability of a really good one. Combinations and improvement of already existing ideas are also encouraged.

An equivalent to brainstorming is brainwriting. It has the same premises as brainstorming, but the exchange of ideas is done on an entirely written basis. By this means, the over-influence of verbally dominant persons in group meetings is neutralized. Brainwriting is especially well suited in a framework of computer conferencing.

Another   popular    method    is    synectics    (from    the    Greek    ‘fitting together’). This technique postulates that creativity exists in every person and that emotional and non-rational factors are as important as the intellectual and rational. It uses an ongoing shift between a rational analysis of the existing problem and the search for nonrational analogies. The more unlikely the analogy the better; improbable analogies will increase the probability that the problem solution has not been thought of before. Often synectics permits persons of wholly different backgrounds to communicate better than by brainstorming. The method is also generally better for dealing with more complex and technical problems.

Good decision makers who apparently take exactly the right decision at exactly the right time are often asked how they do it. Their answer is remarkably often that they quite simply were lucky. Why some people seem to be more lucky than others has been the interest of the American scientist James Austin (1978). He presents four general levels of chance in the following hierarchy:

  1. Chance happens
  2. Chance favors those in motion
  3. Chance favors the prepared mind
  4. Chance favors the individualized action

The fact that blind, lucky chance happens, is something which can occur for everybody according to plain, statistical randomness. Austin states that this kind of chance is less prevalent than is normally believed. Most lucky chances belong to the higher three levels met by skilled managers or scientists.

Chance of the second level is a kind of luck which is a consequence of sheer curiosity and a will to experiment and investigate. The third level demands a special kind of personal properties and background conditions of knowledge and experience. To observe, remember and create new combinations often invites new chances in a way which is difficult for the particular individual to explain.

The fourth level is dependent on the special individual. A certain combination of interests, lifestyles, and lines of thought involve a predisposition to unique insights and innovations — what we call good luck.

Man as a decision maker has some typical shortcomings. He has a certain tendency to interpret data in favour of himself. Deep-seated models of thought are not readily changed as we do not want to confront new circumstances that were not in accordance with our expectations. Man left alone with himself looks for confirming data, avoiding that kind of information challenging notions that he already has. All this taken together therefore tells us that much is obvious — but only for ourselves.

Perhaps mankind’s shortcomings are most visible when it comes to the estimation of probabilities in a decision process. The following subjective treatment of probabilities is well-known:

  • A tendency to overestimate the occurrence of events with low probability and underestimate those with high probability.
  • A tendency to believe that an event just occurred cannot occur again for a very long time.
  • A tendency to believe that an event which has not occurred for a while is more probable to occur in the near future.
  • A tendency to overestimate the true probability of events which are positive and underestimate those which are negative.
  • A tendency to believe that events with certain similarities are equally probable even if their probabilities are very different.

It can generally also be said that individuals are more likely to pay attention to immediate consequences than they are to future, distantly occuring effects.

In the study of behavior it is well-known that individual behavior, group behaviour and organizational behavior all suffer from various pathologies that involve unwise assumptions. Individual pathologies breed into behavior of groups and group pathologies breed into the organization. Here it makes sense to cite the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who says that “Madness is rare in individuals, but common in parties, groups, and organizations”.

An individual forming part of a team of decision makers often  runs the risk of submitting to groupthink. In such cases his own apprehensions are suppressed in favour of the collective opinion which often embraces a distorted view of reality. Self-censuring emerge. As this is difficult to be aware of, it can be called a cognitive deficiency — often the root cause of a disastrous decision. Some persons prefer to call it folie a deux — the well- known psychotic disturbance which implies that related or connected people are affected by the same misconception which thereafter is systematically further developed. A victim of cognitive defects has repeatedly in history been the messenger who lost his head after presenting the bad news. Organizations have their own versions of groupthink and people contravening it are often victims of ostracism.

The most significant pathologies in a team of decision makers are clan- think, group-think and spread-think. Clan-think exists in a situation were all persons in a group believes the same thing, and that same thing is completely wrong. A good example is the belief in creationism which states that the world was created by God about 4000 years BC.

Symptoms of group-think has been categorized by Janis (1972) in the following way.

Type A: Overestimates of the group regarding power and morality

  1. An illusion of invulnerability, which creates excessive optimism and encourages taking extreme risks.
  2. An unquestioned belief in the group’s inherent morality, inclining the members to ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.

Type B: Closed-mindness

  1. Collective efforts to rationalize an order to discount warnings or other information that might lead the members to reconsider their assumptions before they recommit themselves to their past policy decisions.
  2. Stereotyped views of enemy leaders as too evil, weak or stupid to counter the risky attempts to defeat their purposes.

Type C: Pressures toward uniformity

  1. Self-censorship of deviation from apparent group consensus, thereby minimizing the importance of any self-doubt.
  2. Shared illusion of unanimity partially resulting from self-censorship and partially from the false assumption that silence means consent.
  3. Direct pressure for loyalty on members expressing arguments counter to the prevailing view.
  4. The emergence of ‘mindguards’ who protect the group from adverse information.

Spread-think is the reverse of clan-think. It refers to a situation where every member of a group assesses the relative importance of a certain problem but have quite different ideas than the other members regarding the solution.

Apart from group-think foibles in decision-making, a number of more articulated pathologies exist. Five such pathologies have been discussed by D. Domer (1980) according to the following:

  • Thematic wandering implying that the decision maker gives up one goal for another, sometimes several times one after another. Most often the reason is the lack of a general impression.
  • Encapsulation which is the opposite of thematic wandering. Here the decision maker concentrates on one goal, being apparently incapable of seeing other alternatives.
  • Refusal to make decisions originating in decision agony. This can have many psychological reasons.
  • Inconvenient delegation where the decision maker lacks the ability to correctly distribute the subtasks to his assistants.
  • Laying the blame on somebody else when the decision goes wrong.

These pathologies can be divided into two groups.  One  group includes the first two items and emanates from the inability to define suitable goals. The other group consists of the last three items and is characterized by the inability to learn from experience.

A special devastating organizational pathology in critical situations is the unwillingness of top managers to accept high-quality studies emanating from lower levels. The problem regards false autocratic behavior founded in the self-apprehension of the individual. Such top- level arrogance and non-receptivity is very difficult to come to terms with. It is often associated with the unwillingness to discuss “undiscussables”.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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