Aim of the project

To study how and under which conditions epistemic diversity in a demographically diverse group can lead to better outcomes in collective decision making.

Theoretical background

Increasing demographic and cultural diversity of society is by many seen as a potential source of conflict. Yet, diversity also can come with more ‘epistemic diversity’, a larger and more diverse pool of knowledge, skills, and perspectives. This can help to find better solutions to decision making problems faced by collectivities such as teams in organizations, local communities, or larger political entities (e.g. Ellemers & Rink 2016).  Demographic diversity also can help a group to avoid the pitfall of seeking a suboptimal consensus at the expense of insufficient attention for divergent and valuable pieces of knowledge and information present in the group. Yet, despite these possible advantages demographically diverse groups often fail to use the potential arising from their epistemic diversity. Demographic differences can make it challenging to build the mutual trust, shared norms, integrated networks and open communication necessary to exploit diversity in the process of finding optimal solutions. Studies on demographic faultlines in teams, for example, found that diversity can foster the emergence of subgroups that fundamentally disagree on a range of issues and fail to develop solutions (Lau & Murnighan, 1998).

Philosophical and computational modelling work formalizing these theories highlighted possible interventions. For example, it has been proposed that subgroup splits can be prevented when groups adopt communication structures limiting who is when communicating with whom. Likewise, research pointed to the pivotal role of actors who share attributes with multiple subgroups and can, thus, act as bridges over the subgroup divide (Flache & Mäs, 2008; Mäs et al 2013, O’Connor & Bruner 2017). This earlier work, however, focused on the prevention of subgroup splits and conditions that promote consensus. It abstracted from the quality of the solutions developed by the groups. In other words, it remains unclear whether interventions “only” help groups find consensus and avoid splits, or whether they also lead to better solutions reflecting the epistemic diversity in a group.

In this project, formal and normative modelling combined with experiments in the lab and field will be used to identify conditions under which such interventions can turn demographic diversity into an asset for a group facing complex collective decision-making problems. Inspired by research on the wisdom of crowds and information cascades, existing theoretical models and experimental paradigms will be extended to incorporate the quality of decision outcomes as well as the degree to which decision outcomes are supported by group members despite epistemic diversity.

Research design

In the first phase of the project, computational models will be elaborated and analyzed to generate testable hypotheses about effects of the structuring of communication in time as well as of the presence of bridging actors on collective support and quality of decision outcomes. It will be investigated how this is related to epistemic diversity and whether competing theories about social influence and decision making (e.g. Flache et al, 2017) entail empirically distinguishable testable propositions. Based on this theoretical work, experiments will be designed and conducted in the second phase of the project, extending previously developed paradigms (e.g. Mäs & Flache, 2013) to test corresponding hypotheses. Finally, for field experiments, it will be aimed to study collective decision making on online deliberation platforms.


Jonas Stein

Project initiators

Andreas Flache, Jan-Willem Romeijn, Michael Maes


University of Groningen, Department of Sociology


Sociology, Philosophy

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