WORKING life often seems like an endless sequence of tiresome meetings. Catch-ups, kick-offs and reviews litter the calendars of most professionals. Effectiveness around the conference table can determine success in almost every career. Chief executives spend a third of their time in pow-wows of one sort or another, by one estimate. Monetary policy is usually set by committee; juries deliberate behind closed doors before voting. Yet despite our reliance on meetings, most decisions made by committee are subject to serious and pervasive bias.
In 1785 the Marquis de Condorcet, a French mathematician and philosopher, noted that if every voter in a group has a better-than-even chance of choosing the preferable of two options, and if voters do not influence each other, then large groups of voters are very likely to make the right choice.* The bigger and more diverse the group the better: more people bring more information to the table which, if properly harnessed, leads to improved decisions. But ever bigger meetings imply more time spent in them: few workers would welcome that. And even with more people in the room, all manner of behavioural flaws stand in the way.
One problem that obstructs sensible decision-making is the "halo effect"--"owning the room" in the parlance of Silicon Valley. If one aspect of an idea or argument seems appealing, people tend to judge its other features more favourably too. Polished slides, for example, will make a presentation seem more compelling. Good-looking speakers win audiences over more easily.
A second problem is called "anchoring". In a classic study Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman secretly fixed a roulette wheel to land on either 10 or 65. The researchers span the wheel before their subjects, who were then asked to guess the percentage of members of the United Nations that were in Africa. Participants were influenced by irrelevant information: the average guess after a spin of 10 was 25%; for a spin of 65, it was 45%. In meetings, anchoring leads to a first-mover advantage. Discussions will focus on the first suggestions (especially if early speakers benefit from a halo effect, too). Mr Kahneman recommends that to overcome this, every participant should write a brief summary of their position and circulate it prior to the discussion.
Even this cumbersome procedure may not prevent bias if members are more worried about their reputations than about making good choices. Participants may want to avoid disagreement, lest others interpret their qualms as a personal slight. Similarly, the desire to look competent may cause people to suppress comments they fear others will think foolish.
A preference for agreement can lead to a bias towards the obvious. Suppose a panel is rating an applicant for a job before discussing her. Some of the candidate's merits--such as the extent of her experience--will be clear to all. Others, such as her personal appeal, will be more subjective. The best way for panellists to be confident of aligning their views with those of others is to concentrate on objective traits, and to discard their private insights. Panellists seeking agreement will thus put too much weight on what is public knowledge, whether or not there is any discussion.
Until now, this was just a theory. But new research has documented the phenomenon. Tom Gole of the Boston Consulting Group and Simon Quinn of Oxford University studied the votes of judges at international school debating tournaments. In these tournaments, three judges are randomly assigned to each debate (with some controls to ensure each panel has a mixture of experience, gender and so on). Judges watch the debate, then immediately vote on the winner before conferring. Crucially for the experiment, the participating teams are seeded. Using some whizzy statistical modelling, the authors find that if a judge disagrees with her fellow panellists in a given round, she is more likely to vote for the pre-tournament favourite--the higher-seeded team--in later debates. That suggests, say the authors, an unspoken desire to avoid "too much" disagreement.
Career concerns may distort incentives even if votes are secret. In a 2007 paper Gilat Levy of the London School of Economics noted that observers can work out how likely it is that committee members have voted one way or another from ballot rules. If unanimity is required for a measure to pass, and it does, then outsiders will know with certainty how every member has voted. A simple majority rule means that observers can assign at least a 50% probability to any one committee member having given their assent; if a majority of two-thirds is required, the probability that any given member has supported the proposal goes up. The incentive to vote against controversial measures rises the greater the likelihood that each member will be blamed for its passage.
That makes designing an ideal procedure hard. Yet Condorcet's basic insight rings true: committees work best when they harness and combine the unique insights of every member. To that end, chairmen might do several things. First, they should follow Mr Kahneman's advice, and have every participant note their views in advance. Second, they should pick at random who will speak first. This would not prevent anchoring, but would at least stop any one individual from repeatedly dominating. Alternatively, members could be called on in reverse order of seniority (justices in America's Supreme Court used to vote this way). Finally, they should encourage and reward disagreement, to offset the personal costs of discord. Given the time and energy invested in meetings, the returns to running them better are high. And if calling a meeting required more effort from the person convening it, workers might find their calendars a little less crowded.