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Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Is deliberation overrated?

I'm not saying that deliberation is necessarily overrated, but I'm starting to wonder about its relative value. In recent years I've read a number of books and articles on the decision making processes of groups such as James Surowieki's The Wisdom of Crowds (2005) and Cass Sunstein's Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge (2008), and found them to be very interesting and insightful. Both of these books at least suggest the possibility that group decision making may not always be better with group deliberation.

Of course, to suggest that something is 'overrated' typically implies that it is somewhat highly rated in the first place. When I look around, I see deliberation everywhere - government decisions, academic committee decsisions, tenure decisions, where to eat lunch, jury outcomes, Supreme Court outcomes (ok, only to a degree on that one). I think it's fair to say that deliberation is cherished in this country. But is it all that it's cracked up to be? What are its attributes? How do we evaluate its worth (relative to other systems)?

For a bit of class fun last semester, I tried a class exercise that was suggested by one of my readings on this subject.

I divided the class into three groups of equal size: 1) The deliberation group, 2) The secret vote group, and 3) the list vote group. I then held up for the class to see (all had roughly equal views) a glass container of paper clips. They were able to view the container for 30 seconds. I then asked the groups to decide how many paper clips were in the container. The secret ballot group was to do just that - each person would make a guess, write it down in private and their estimates would be averaged. The list  group would use a list - the first person to decide would write their estimate on the top of the list and then the estimates would go from there (everyone could see the prior estimates)- and they were averaged. The deliberation group deliberated on the best estimate and used a consensus decision rule on the number of paper clips.

The results? The best estimate was by the secret vote group, followed by the list group, and the worst estimate (by far) was by the deliberation group. Of course, this little exercise is hardly ready for scientific peer review and was done primarily for fun and to introduce the class to varying decision methods. However, given the prevalence of deliberation in our society, might it give us pause to think about whether it's 'overrated'? I'm not sure. Certainly there are other considerations at issue (e.g. how the process makes participants feel). But I thought I'd see what Prawfs readers thought.

Posted by Jeff Yates on June 7, 2011 at 11:58 AM in Criminal Law, Deliberation and voices, Games, Judicial Process, Law and Politics, Legal Theory, Life of Law Schools, Science, Teaching Law | Permalink


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In political theory/philosophy there's now a considerable amount of literature discussing the constraints, pitfalls, and even pathologies of (democratic) deliberation. And of course if one is keeping up on the literature in cognitive and social psychology, one will be that much more skeptical about the relative or comparative value of such processes outside more traditional fora like legislative and judicial bodies. As Robert Goodin has written, "the problem with which democratic elitists began at the turn of the last century returns to haunt democratic theory in its most recent incarnations. How can we constructively engage people in the public life of a democracy without making wildly unrealistic demands on their time and attention?"

As Goodin also points out, properly crafted deliberative processes CAN produce more reflective political processes in the sense of bieng:
1. more empathetic with the plight of others;
2. more considered, and hence both better informed and more stable; and
3. more far-reaching in both time and space, taking fuller account of distant periods, distant peoples and different interests.

These are worthy goals or outcomes but in modern democratic societies we've been unable to fashion the processes and mechanisms for same for meaningful instantiation (by entire communities) or that take place in a timely manner without sacrificing the requisite breadth and depth for such deliberations.

Goodin has proffered a provocative proposal for taking seriously the value of conceiving democratic deliberation as an imaginative (at least partly) exercise that takes place within one's own mind, as primarily an internal mental process. For the details on how to awaken and facilitate this process, please see his book, Reflective Democracy (2003).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 7, 2011 1:14:39 PM

I'm not sure deliberation is really that exalted in the U.S., which appears to have one of the most anti-intellectual cultures of western nations. Americans seem to admire intuitive decisiveness, which to them denotes grit and an appreciation for "common sense." If anything, I think the shoot-from-the-hip "pragmatism" that characterizes much of American life—-and even the decision making of those who theoretically "deliberate" extensively—-arguably demonstrates that deliberation is underrated here.

Posted by: Anotheranon | Jun 7, 2011 1:17:18 PM

To echo somewhat Patrick's comments, the literature reports different uses for deliberation in different contexts. Your experiment is consistent with other findings that deliberation does not generally outperform individual assessment of simple observations that have no emotional or intellectual freight for the observer. Deliberation with others of differing views is helpful in assessing facts to which we ascribe some importance, and therefore facts which any one individual would be likely to filter to conform with pre-existing beliefs and preferences. (Deliberation with others of similar views may have the opposite effect, as Sunstein et al. and otehrs have reported). Unless you are asking students to first predict, and then deliberate (which would at least be likely to produce some anchoring effect), I don't think you're capturing this, more important, form of deliberation.

Posted by: BDG | Jun 7, 2011 1:56:56 PM

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