Lesson 2: Ethics and Decision Making
The idea that decision-making and ethics go hand-in-hand is a notion that goes back thousands of years and is related to Protagoras’ idea that communicators need to be able to argue both sides of an issue. Protagoras knew that genuine understanding came by understanding the nuances of opinion and the complexities of issues. If all someone knows is his/her own biased or partisan position, then genuine understanding will never occur, and faulty decision-making will often result. But decision-making is a complicated process involving interactions with other stakeholders and stake seekers, key publics, the media, activists, and others. Additionally, decision-making is influenced by a number of internal variables such as how we personally view a situation, our past experiences, the knowledge that we as individuals possess about a topic, etc.
The second part of this lesson deals with how to use our personal ethics and insights to make better decisions and to obtain more success at achieving our individual and organizational goals when interacting with others. Two dominions of knowledge are important to understand, first, the process of working in groups and how ethics inform group situations, and second, how individual decision making traits influence the decisions that we make. The first issue will be to understand the group process.Next Page: The Fundamentals of Group Decision Making
The Fundamentals of Group Decision Making
Few truly important decisions are made solely by individuals. As a professional, you will often be tasked with finding a solution or planning a communicative response in a small group setting, drawing upon the strengths of each group members to make better decisions. For decades we have understood that the best decisions are made by groups that are well-informed and evaluate many possible solutions. Thus, the principles of the small group decision-making model emerged. There are seven steps involved in the decision-making model:
Although the small group problem-solving model on its face seems fairly straightforward, anyone who has ever worked in a group knows that group dynamics and individual personalities and preferences play an important role in every group decision-making situation. So how do ethics come into play?
Ethical decisions need to be made at almost every step of the decision making process. When identifying the nature of a decision, for example, how a decision is defined focuses decision-makers’ attention. A decision about how to deal with an organizational crisis, for example, such as a manager or leader who has behaved badly (engaged in harassment, mislead shareholders, spied on employees—all actual situations), will be resolved differently depending upon how the situation is defined. An absolutist might see the decision as revolving around how to punish the errant manager, while a situationalist might see the decision as revolving around how best to deal with the media and the organization’s reputation.
Every issue can be described in a number of ways, depending upon how someone defines the problem. Consider step two, “gathering relevant information.” An important ethical consideration is to determine what counts as “relevant” data. For example, one thing many organizations have done recently is to use social media and other online sources as a means of vetting potential employees; indeed, some highly competitive universities actually look at the social media pages of potential students as a means of determining suitability for admission. Ethical considerations permeate this issue. Is every source of personal information suitable for examination? Manager’s positions on the use of social media sources varies widely, and each individual’s ethical orientation necessarily influences how s/he sees the world. A communitarian might argue that admitting a student who does not share the same values as the other members of the community would be harmful to the group, and thus justify examining ideological information present in a potential students social media. Conversely, someone else night argue that everyone deserves a fair shake (reciprocity) and should not be penalized for holding different views.
The outcome of smaller decisions, such as those described above, is not trivial. Big decisions are informed by a series of smaller, and often ethically charged decisions. No decision or policy is entirely value free or neutral. Thus, group decision-making involves many levels of individual and stakeholder considerations. By understanding the ethical frameworks that guide how other people make their own decisions, you will have more success at achieving your own goals. A brief discussion of some of the variables that influence how people make decisions should help explain the complexities of the process.
Individual Decision Making Concepts
Scholars from a variety of disciplines have studied the process of decision-making for decades: psychology, political science, criminal justice, communication, etc. Each group necessarily has different interests. Among small group communication scholars, decision-making is studied as a group phenomenon as a means of understanding how to improve the process and help groups make better decisions. By contrast, psychologists are interested in the “heuristics” and “biases” that make people favor one course of action over another. Group decision-making involves both group-influenced processes, such as the seven steps noted above, as well as an assortment of personal factors based on beliefs, values, prior experience, and intellectual rigor. The following list represents a number of influential decision-making processes:
Dominant Incentive: The one thing that someone wants more than anything else (e.g., to be promoted, to maintain the status-quo, to receive more health benefits, to raise one’s status, to make more money, to protect an individual or organization, to find a suitable partner). Dominant incentives are often not obvious to others, but can be identified based on how people talk about things. Similarly, many people are not really aware of what they are ultimately interested in, not really recognizing their own dominant incentives.
Rationality and Rational Choice: Rationality refers to goal-oriented behavior. In order to have a goal in mind, a person has to have some idea of what the possible ends are. Thus, although we generally accept that humans are rational and pursue personal and group goals, in reality, many goals are not obvious until some research or experience has identified them. Additionally, although having a goal or end in mind is “rational,” how someone achieves one’s goal(s) may not be. Wanting to be promoted in an organization is “rational,” however, being willing to harm other people to get ahead is also still “rational” or goal oriented, but is clearly unethical.
For some, both activities (getting ahead and sacrificing others) are interrelated, for others mutually exclusive. Rationality does not mean ethical, only goal oriented. Rational choice is often used as a guiding assumption when studying the behavior of others—primarily because if we assumed that people were irrational there would be no value in studying them, and we do know that most people are rational from time to time. Additionally, even when people are behaving rationally, they are often swayed by non-rational variables: a pretty face, prestige, flattery, peer pressure, money, impatience, etc.
Framing: The principle that the way something is described influences how people think about something. There are many ways of framing something: situationally, based on attributes of an event or activity, by issue, based on responsibility, based on time, etc. (cf. Hallahan, 1999). Excellent examples of framing can be seen in the way that political opponents will describe the same situation in very different ways. Research on framing suggests that framing can be a very powerful took for persuasion and shaping personal and public opinion.
Groupthink: The illusion among highly cohesive group members that they are right and consequently do not need to question their ideas, each other, or possible solutions to problems. Groupthink occurs when there is insulation of a policy-making group from outsiders, when there is a lack of a group tradition of impartial leadership, and when a group lacks norms requiring methodical procedures for dealing with decision-making tasks. Because of groupthink, the following types of problems and errors occur:
- An incomplete survey of alternatives.
- An incomplete survey of objectives.
- A failure to examine risks of preferred choices.
- A failure to reappraise initially rejected alternatives.
- Poor information searches.
- A selective bias in processing information at hand.
- And a failure to work out contingency plans (cf. Janis, 1982).
Cognitive Miser: People who seize on the first acceptable solution that comes along and then just justify it based on their existing knowledge, rather than actually evaluating possibilities. A solution that seems to work is “good enough.” To some extent, everyone is a cognitive miser. People cannot spend every second of their life evaluating whether the things that they have come to believe are true actually are. However, in a decision-making setting, cognitive misers are problematic. Group members who are unwilling to follow the basic steps involved in good decision making like weighing alternatives, will often contribute to a poor decision making process.
More Individual Decision Making Concepts
Heuristics and Biases: Heuristics are rules of thumb that people use to make decisions. Heuristics are derived from past experience and are often just shortcuts to decision making based on a person’s past experiences. Heuristics are also informed by our individual biases. Biases, like heuristics, are based on past experience, and are grounded in a number of factors both positive and negative. Thus, someone can be biased against a racial or ethnic group, an organizational department or division, people from another part of the country (East Coast Liberals, Southerners, etc.), ideologically biased, biased in favor of consensus decision-making, etc. Or, a person can be biased in favor of people trained in a particular field, from a certain part of the world, who write well, who are skilled communicators, who have a sense of humor, who attended particular educational institutions, etc. Biases can cut both ways.
Decision-Making by Objection: When a group follows a decision-making suggestions, as long as no one speaks out. Often, the first idea that seems viable is accepted by a decision-making body because it is the easiest path. Basically, if no one complains, the first decision that is acceptable is acted upon. When no one objects to an idea, evidence is no longer weighed (Step 4), alternatives are not proposed or evaluated, and research stops as soon as an acceptable solution emerges. Often, the first viable idea that a group comes across is acceptable, but just as often is not. Decision-making by objective can generate acceptable solutions, they are not always the best or most creative solutions.
Uncertainty and Risk: Uncertainty refers to things that are unknown, and harder or impossible to judge. While Risk refers to things that are known and therefore can be predicted and acted upon. Thus, driving an automobile is a risk, we know or can calculate the general odds of having an accident; conversely, the possibility of dying of a genetic disease is an uncertainty since a person first has to know if they have a disease in order to know the risks. Additionally, not everyone who has the markers for a certain disease will contract it. Thus, just knowing you might have a particular disease is an uncertainty. However, once someone knows the odds of actually contracting a disease or their chance of developing symptoms, say, from a genetic test, or a family history, s/he can make choices based on “risk” rather than “uncertainty.” Obviously, for decision makers and communication professionals, risk is preferable to uncertainty, especially in times of crisis.
Clinical and Actuarial (Statistical) approaches (Dawes, Faust, & Meehl, 1989): Clinical approaches to decision making refer to interpretive or humanistic decisions made based on one’s perceptions or experience with others. Conversely, actuarial decisions are made based on probabilities and likelihoods based on data about a large number of cases that have been examined. Thus, a teacher who finds a student has cheated and brings him/her into the office to explain himself or herself, is exercising a clinical approach. The student makes his/her case and the teacher decides if the student’s excuses are compelling and makes a decision accordingly. Conversely, a teacher making the decision from an actuarial standpoint might simply penalize the student, knowing the data on how often students cheat, and the likelihood that the student might have done it before or might do it again. In general, research suggests that the actuarial approach is the most accurate and that people who think they have special people skills are actually fooling themselves.
Base Rate Problem: The base rate problem refers to the tendency when confronted with base rate or statistical data and individuated information, to focus on the individual information over the statistical information. In other words, personal contact trumps data. Consider the case of student admissions to a university. Some schools use only statistical information (GPAs, test scores, etc.) while other schools incorporate individuated information, such as from an interview or telephone call. The base rate problem is that once people have talked to someone or met them, that impression often takes precedence over contradictory data, and can result in a poor decision.
The Relationship of Ethics to Decision Making
Communicators have known for thousands of years that different things motivate people. Some people are moved by logic, some people are moved by emotion, and some people are moved by reputation or prestige. Thus, humans all make sense of the world in slightly different ways. When making decisions, then, people act on an assortment of heuristics, biases, preferences, dominant incentives, issue frames, personal goals, etc.
Ultimately, what underlies all of that are the beliefs and values that people hold, and their assessments of what is right and wrong, good and bad, favorable and unfavorable, in other words, ethics. As one of my professors in college used to say, “we think the way we think, because we are the way we are.” As discussed earlier in the module, human beings already have ethical predispositions, some toward dialogue and discussion, some toward solving the problem and moving on (satisficing), some toward a sense of duty to an individual, organization, or cause, etc.
Additionally, as the research on decision theory tells us, people are also motivated my intrinsic and extrinsic factors: biases, cognitive laziness, loyalty to a group or cause, etc. The quicker that an interlocutor can identify the preferences of his/her colleagues, the quicker s/he can influence the decision-making outcome.
A Case Study of Decision-Making: Fair Division
As mentioned on previous pages, scholars from a number of fields have extensively studied decision-making. For scholars in public relations there is a natural connection between decision-making and persuasion. Indeed, the goal of these lessons has been to illustrate both what goes into ethical decision making, and how to use what we know about decision making to identify the preferences and values of others to make better decisions, and achieve organizational goals. Thus, understanding decision-making and ethics goes hand-in-hand.
There are too many decision-making theories and principles to review them all in a single short module, however, one area that might shed light on the process of decision making, and an area that was not discussed above, is an area called “Fair Division” (Brams & Taylor, 1996; Brams, 2003).
The task of dividing up something fairly is a common organizational activity that has roots going back to ancient history and King Solomon’s threat to divide a baby. Organizations make decisions about division when they merge with other companies, managers make decisions about how to award bonuses or merit pay, how to assign shifts to hourly workers, etc. But the question of how to divide something fairly and equitably, and in a way that makes no one jealous of what others have received, or resentful at the outcome, is difficult. What Brams and Taylor have done is to study the process of division and try to identify some relevant heuristics.
The most common form of “fair division” is something called “divide and choose.” Simply put, two people are sharing something, say a piece of cake, and want to divide the piece exactly in the middle. One time tested approach is for one person to divide and the other person to choose. Thus, assuming both parties like cake, the cake cutter will do his/her best to divide the cake exactly in the middle, while the cake chooser will try to pick the piece that s/he believes is larger. Thus, both parties do their best to maximize their preferences, and in the end, both should be pleased about the outcome.
Brams and Taylor describe other principles that are important to understand including: “envy-freeness” (not envying the other for getting more) and “proportionality” (taking into account how something must be divided when there are multiple items to divide, and/or more than two parties involved). Proportionality is also a more difficult issue because when complicated and diverse assists are being divided, much like Solomon’s baby, they cannot simply be divided down the middle. With complex divisional issues, personal preference also comes into play. A savvy participant might, recognizing the preferences of the other party, be able to create a division of assets that while not numerically equal in terms of dollars, actually satisfies both parties involved.
Brams and Taylor describe a real-life situation in which divide and choose is actually played out:
Divide-and-choose has important applications today. For example, the 1982 Convention of the Law of the Sea, which went into effect on November 16, 1994 with 159 signatories (including the United States), specifies that whenever a developed country wants to mine a portion of the seabed, that country must propose a division of the portion into two tracts. An international mining company called the Enterprise, funded by the developed countries but representing the interests of the developing countries through the International Seabed Authority, plays the role of the other party, choosing the tract it prefers; the developed country receives the other tract. In this manner, parts of the seabed arc preserved for commercial development by the developing countries . . . (p. 10)
What this example illustrates is that the process of decision-making, or ethics, is not a simple process. As Brams and Taylor point out, in the case of policy documents and legislation,
A crucial difference between divide-and-choose in cake cutting and its application in the legislative process is that the divider does not get one piece and the chooser another. Instead, they both share the same piece—the bill that is eventually passed, or the status quo if it is not. (p. 13)
Moral of the Story
The point of this case is to help clarify the importance of understanding complicated processes like decision-making and ethics. The more knowledge and skills that a communication professional possesses the better equipped s/he will be to achieve his/her organization’s goals. Understanding how decisions are made, as well as why they fail (e.g., Groupthink, decision making by objection, etc.), or that a variety of ethical orientations exist, give informed and prepared group members an advantage over those who simply show up to the meeting.