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Decision-making in groups under uncertainty

Research team

  • Juliane Marold (TU Berlin, Department of Psychology)
  • Ruth Lassalle (née Wagner, TU Berlin, Department of Psychology)
  • Dietrich Manzey (TU Berlin, Chair Work, Engineering & Organizational Psychology)


Decision-makers in high hazard environments have to deal with dynamic situations characterized by a series of events within an interactively complex and tightly-coupled system (Perrow, 1984, 1999). Usually, not all of the necessary information is available on time when decisions have to be made. Consequently, decision-makers are confronted with uncertain situations. A study by Lipshitz and Strauss (1997) identified three conceptualizations of uncertainty that individual decision-makers encounter in naturalistic settings: inadequate understanding, undifferentiated alternatives, and lack of information. To these, they apply five strategies of coping (RAWFS heuristic): reducing (gathering more information), assumption-based reasoning (filling in gaps), weighing pros and cons of competing alternatives, forestalling (anticipate undesirable consequences) and suppressing (rationalization).

Whereas Lipshitz & Strauss (1997) focus on individual decision-making processes under uncertainty, one may assume that people who are part of a group decision-making process have to deal with additional kinds of uncertainty and may apply different kinds of coping strategies. For instance, many decisions where other people are involved require social information (e.g., interpretations or intended actions of others). In a similar way as many decisions are made with insufficient factual information, the same is true for social information. Group members are forced to make assumptions, estimates or predictions about the others. Many different types of biases (as deviations from existing normative decision-making models) may affect group decision-making (Jones & Roelofsma, 2000) emanating from a variety of sources (individual cognitive limitations, social context, organizational policy): the false consensus effect (the tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with them), groupthink, group polarization (tendency of people to make decisions that are more extreme when they are in a group as opposed to a decision made alone or independently). Past research has shown that these constraints may result in failed group decisions.

Many factors contribute to a well rounded informative group meeting. There is a lack of field research on this topic in the context of high-hazard environments on the management level regarding their daily decision-making processes and especially the transfer of knowledge from existing experimental work to managers and participants of decision-making groups in practice is insufficient.


In line with the Naturalistic Decision-Making work, the project was based on experimental study of observed phenomena in the field. Observations were carried out in the health care sector. The general aim of the project was to gain insights into how decision-making groups on the management level in high hazard organizations conceptualize and internalize uncertainties and how they handle them in order to guarantee effective decision-making in their everyday work activities. The research should lead to an extension of current classification schemes of uncertainty (Lipshitz & Strauss, 1997) for group decision-making situations, an overview of strategies used by decision-makers in the field with the general goal to inform practitioners about what to do to improve the effectiveness of group decision-making processes and increase overall system safety.

publications and communications

Two research reports describing the results of this work has been published in our collection of documents les Cahiers de la sécurité industrielle: