Cognitive Tools for Group Decision Making: The Repertory Grid Approach Revisited

Cognitive Tools for Group Decision Making: The Repertory Grid Approach Revisited

Marco Castellani (University of Brescia, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-091-4.ch010
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This chapter combines the use of cognitive mapping and the repertory grid technique in a socio-organizational perspective and in a problem-solving oriented approach, so as to avoid some recurrent trappings of decision making such as biased goal-oriented behaviour and misleading perceptions of the task environment. The approach requires that a group of people facing a forthcoming choice are randomly split up into three sub-groups of nearly the same number. Subjects in the first sub-group are interviewed about their representation of the problem setting and on potential strategies. In this preliminary step the interviewer, after building up the resulting individual cognitive maps, extracts and codes the main recurrent concepts (“states of the world”). These concepts are used for an evaluation of the task environment by the second sub-group, whose subjects use the repertory grid technique. Individuals are shown how to express their viewpoint in terms of “constructs”, which are theoretical abstractions for exploring concepts or real events. The repertory grids elicited provide the building blocks for the final phase of the approach, assigned to the third sub-group. This group is required to generate feasible alternatives for targets derived from grid evidence by exploiting the “province of meaning” through a very simple diagrammatic scheme. The entire approach, which represents a narrow method where each step is linked to the following one, is discussed by making references to the results of a pilot experiment.
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The use of different tools for group decision making is widespread in the literature (Gray, 1987; Shakun, 1988). Decision support systems, for example, have been playing an increasingly important role both for routine choices and strategic planning activities inside organizations at all levels (Desanctis & Gallupe, 1987). Despite this, the real effectiveness of tools for the aid of group decision making remains a topic of debate especially for problem setting and problem solving issues (Unnikrishnan Nair, 2001). A crucial question under discussion, and one which is probably still unsolved, is the relationship between the exploitation of such tools and the cognitive style of individuals (O’Keefee, 1989). This chapter takes sides inside this debate, not specifically focusing on decision support systems but on more general tools for aiding individuals and group decisions: cognitive mapping (Warren, 1995) and, in particular, the repertory grid (hereafter, RG) technique (Kelly, 1955; Winter, 1985). The main viewpoint is that such tools can help individuals particularly if used in a manner that tries to avoid possible trappings of human decision making. A treatment like this requires the segmentation of the decision-making process and supports the methodological choice of dividing participants in three sub-groups, each one responsible for a stage of the procedure.

A first possible source of bias is behaving in a goal-oriented way during problem setting, a recurrent barrier to the clearer understanding of the situation in its entirety (Walton, 1990). Many studies have emphasised how individuals can be affected by the need to find feasible solutions for the problematic situation they are facing and can be unfocused by so called “motivated reasoning” (Jain & Maheswaran, 2000), or through the perception of goals as always achievable (Kruglanski, 1990). The sharing of such perceptions can lead to major phenomena of uniform thought and static mental models, which represent critical barriers for decision makers (Hodgkinson et al., 1999).

To this end, in order to keep away from possible sources of slackness in the organization life (Christensen & Fjermestad, 1997), the preliminary step of the approach presented here is dedicated to a simple adaptation of cognitive mapping and is addressed to a first sub-group of individuals (see Figure 1). This variation implies a concealment strategy in which cognitive maps, built up through semi-structured interviews, are fragmented in order to highlight just the starting concepts of individuals’ vision of the world (“cognitive operational synthesis 1” in the box of Figure 1), and to bypass selective attention that humans sometimes pay just on goals they consider “reachable”, even unintentionally.

Figure 1.

A wide-ranging flow-chart of the proposed technique


Another source of a possible misleading perspective that the chapter seeks to analyze concerns an opposite type of obstacle, i.e. the attitude that decision makers often demonstrate of being influenced by their initial perception of the task environment, and unduly too path dependent (Ross et al., 1975). This is the main reason why a second sub-group of subjects is called to make evaluations on elements which are provided by the cognitive maps developed by the sub-group in the preliminary step (see Figure 1). A dedicated use of RG technique is thought to be useful for this aim, since it allows subjects to clarify the nature of the relationship linking given elements and constructs. In this procedure RG is not considered in its common usage, in terms of exploration of the subjects’ psychological inner world or interpersonal space, but simply as a tool that can help people to make clear the significant meaning assigned to a specific task environment.

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