Decision-Making in Kind and Wicked Environments

James K. Hazy, April 26, 2012


Deciding which expert to believe when one is decidedly more confident that others is both a common practical problem and an important conundrum in the theory of human interaction dynamics (HID). As shown in a recent study (Koriat,2012), it turns out that the best choice depends upon how well consensus opinion correlates with conditions in the environment (Hertwig, 2012). If the environment is confusing for the group such that reality is at odds with consensus, then confidence can be a misleading indicator of accuracy. However, if the environment does correlate with consensus opinion, then another person's confidence in their position is an indicator of its accuracy. 

In the April 20, 2012 issue of Science, researcher Asher Koriat builds on his prior work and describes a recent study that clarifies the role of individual confidence as an important enabler of effective social action. It turns out that expressions of confidence in a decision-pathway can be a predictor of accuracy, but this is only true if the consensus of the individuals involved is accurate in its assessment of the situation and the action. Confidence in an approach is not a predictor, however, in cases where consensus is off the mark. As the author says: " ...because subjective confidence monitors the consensuality rather than the accuracy of a decision, when most participants were in error, reliance on the more confident member yielded worse decisions than than those of the better individual" (p.360).

One inference that is of practical and theoretical significance is that where decision-making under uncertainty is concerned, it pays to be sensitive to how well the consensus that is forming is connected to or correlated with observed reality on the ground. If discourse and interaction among participants would seem to reflect and incorporate the practical realities of a given situation, the confidence of others in suggesting a path forward is well worth noting. Hertwig (2012) refers to these cases as a "kind environment".  

If on the other hand, the growing consensus seems to be drifting without being moored to reality, perhaps because the environment is changing too rapidly or it is divergent or uncertain in some way, or if the consensus is formed around ideological beliefs rather than being based upon empirical facts, then the confidence of others can lead one in exactly the wrong direction.  In these "wicked environments" (Hertwig, 2012), it is best to rely on the best thinker rather than to follow the most confident advocate.

It seems that in the complex world of human interaction dynamics, knowing one's community can be just as important as knowing oneself.


Hertwig, R. (2012). Tapping into the Wisdom of the Crowd - with Confidence. Science,(336),303-304.

Koriat, A. (2012). When asre two heads better than one?. Science, (336), 360-362.