Blog: Thursday, 4 June 2020

The effectiveness of decision-making of governments in times of crisis depends largely on their ability to integrate and make sense of information. Covid-19, for which there is currently no cure or vaccine, confronts governments with the difficult task​ of making decisions in the interest of public health and safety. Essentially, governments must react to a threat, of which the extent is unknown, and they are making decisions during immense uncertainty. History shows that biases and errors can distort our thinking process and can lead to negative outcomes. Prof. Michaéla Schippers researched decision-making during the current pandemic, and propose a technique to improve it in the form of team reflexivity.

The effectiveness of decision-making of governments in times of crisis depends largely on their ability to integrate and make sense of information. Covid-19, for which there is currently no cure or vaccine, confronts governments with the difficult task.

Governments have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic in various ways, from outright denial that it will immensely affect their country to a complete lockdown within days of the first reported case. Politicians have to make decisions in high-stress situations and tend towards using decision-making strategies that rely on habit, becoming less willing to alter their course of action once they settle on it.

Time pressure tends to result in decision-makers relying on strategies they’ve previously used, and not exploring other options fully. These errors and biases are often magnified in larger decision-making groups, and the formation of groups adds the possibility of even more team-level biases and errors which can affect decision-making processes. Biases and errors in decision-making may lead to highly flawed conclusions, and outcomes that endanger the lives of the people involved, which in this case is the entire population. Without a good decision-making process, it may be difficult to achieve positive outcomes.

Information-processing failures

There are many types of information-processing failures which can occur during decision-making. An information-processing failure can be defined as “a distortion in the exchange of, communication about, or elaboration on information due to either an omission error in information sampling or biased elaboration of the information.” (Schippers et al., 2014, p. 733). Information-processing failures have three general forms:

1. Failure to share or discuss relevant information

2. If information is shared, failure to examine the implications of shared information

3. Failure to update or alter prior conclusions

Groupthink during Covid-19

Groupthink is an information-processing failure in which group decision-making is hindered by the collective urge to create harmony, and avoid disagreement. The effects of groupthink are that contradictory opinions may go unvoiced or may be pushed aside to keep the peace and have agreement and harmony within the group. The question is to what extent this is happening in the Covid-19 crisis. Although difficult to judge in an ongoing crisis, there have been a lot of questions about government responses to the virus, with people questioning why governments have chosen to ignore certain information, or advice.

Most notably, the Chinese government and the UK government have been widely criticized for misuse of data and information in responding to this crisis, but the problem may be wider than that. A recent study (Kuhbandner, 2020) suggests that responses to the current crisis are based on a fundamental statistical misconception about the spread of the disease. Kuhbandner’s article suggests that governments were overestimating the rate of disease spread, by not considering the effect of increased testing, and how this may account for seemingly rapid increase in the number of cases. His results suggest that when controlling for increased testing, the number of reported new cases had been severely overestimated.

Others have noted that the disease has a similar spread, independent of the measures taken by governments to contain the virus (Ederer, 2020). These results, and the fact that this avenue seem to have been unexplored by most major governments, suggest a possible fundamental flaw in how information is being processed by policymakers during this time. While presenting a strong, united front in the face of panic is important, if governments aren’t considering all options, and allowing for contradictory and conflicting opinions to be brought forward, then the decision-making process is fundamentally flawed, and will be hard-pressed to come to the best possible outcome.


Media magnifying glass

Next to groupthink, a clear risk comes in the form of extensive media and public coverage of the crisis, which has had a distinct focus on the death toll as a result of the virus. Prior research  shows that framing a solution in terms of the number of deaths, leads to different decisions than when a solution is framed as number of lives saved, even if the outcome is the same. This specific information processing failure is called the framing effect, and leads to decisions involving higher risk of failure.

These results might be highly relevant to the current world situation, where decisions about responding to the virus must be made in the face of an overwhelming public focus on the reported number of deaths. Recent research suggests that time pressure even further amplifies the framing effects. That is why the death rate statistics, as mentioned in the news every day, constitutes a high-risk strategy in terms of weighing information. And while the effects of the crisis are framed in this way there is a risk that governments will focus on overly risky solutions, potentially overlooking negative side effects of the solution itself.


Considering all consequences

While a focus on minimizing lives lost is not necessarily a bad approach, the lockdown measures are also showing many negative consequences, such as mental health, physical health and safety concerns. In the UK for example, the lockdown has coincided with domestic violence deaths almost doubling compared to previous years (Grierson, The Guardian apr 15, 2020). And researchers are predicting that extreme lockdown measures may result in skyrocketing suicide rates over the coming months. On top of that, it has been estimated that in the aftermath of the crisis, 100 million people will die, due to hunger and poverty caused by disrupted supply chains, especially in underdeveloped and developing countries (Schippers, 2020).

The economic impact of this crisis is also a growing concern. Over 40 million Americans have already filed for unemployment, and initial estimates are suggesting more than 60 million EU jobs could be at risk. However, researchers have warned that containing the virus may not be enough to avoid the economic fallout, and policymakers should be aware of this eventuality. This highlights the fact that in order to make an informed decision, all these consequences need to be weighed up and considered in a decision-making process that doesn’t overly focus on a single consequence while ignoring others.


Reflexive decision-making

There is a tool that decision-makers can use in these difficult circumstances to improve the quality of decisions and minimise the effects of biases and errors: reflexivity. Reflexivity is most often studied in the context of group decision-making and is most often defined as: “the extent to which group members overtly reflect upon, and communicate about the group’s objectives, strategies (decision-making) and processes (communication), and adapt them to current or anticipated circumstances.” (West, 2000).

Reflexivity helps improve team performance. A reflexive decision-making process, where all relevant information is taken into account and weighted, will not guarantee an optimal outcome, but it does increase the chance of better-quality decisions. Thus, it is important to assess how the process leading up to the decisions can be optimised, especially within groups that are vulnerable to information-processing failures, such as those with high task complexity. The evolution of the virus and disease, as well as the long-term economic and mental health impact of this crisis are uncertain. Although some researchers have attempted to predict how events will unfold, it is still too early to understand what the long-term effects will be.

A truly reflexive decision-making process highlights the need for the consideration of a wide range of solutions without the formation of a priori judgements, which is based upon reason alone and applied with strict universality. The Covid-19 crisis is still evolving, with new information continuously being brought to light. In this developing situation, it will be key that groups remain flexible, and are able to evaluate and change their course of action if it becomes necessary. Given the uncertain nature of this situation, it’s understandable that decisions made at any given point may no longer be the best decision as the situation continues to change. As new information becomes available, and more widespread effects of the preventative measures become visible, policymakers must reflect on the actions they have taken, and when necessary, make adjustments and changes.

But this is more difficult that it seems. A common bias is escalation of commitment, where people keep investing more resources in a set course of action, even in the face of clear evidence that the course of action is not working, or that better options are available.  Governments feel the need to publicly stand by and justify their prior decisions.

Reflexive decision-making is therefore an ongoing process, where policymakers continuously reassess the situation, and make sure they keep gathering and weighing all new information. And when new information calls for a change in direction, this is a step that policymakers need to be prepared for, and willing to take. Importantly, action should be taken to debias the decision-making process, by means of reflexivity or the use of specific questions to make sure the decision-making process is as bias-free as possible.

Overall, increasing group reflexivity may offer the key to helping teams optimise their decision-making by minimizing the occurrence and effect of information-processing errors. Although the crisis is already in full swing, and biases may have already had an impact on decisions made, implementing a reflexive decision-making process could help policymakers go forward, and allow them to maximize the chances of good outcomes going forward.

prof.dr. M.C. (Michaéla) Schippers
Professor in Behaviour and Performance Management
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Michaéla Schippers

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