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Collaborative problem solving for community safety
Collaborative problem solving for community safety

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3.3 Social pressures affecting our decision making

Unfortunately, both the rational and psychological perspectives on decision making tend to ignore the social context in which each of us lives and works. Broadly, there are three kinds of social pressure which affect how we make decisions:

  • Coercion
  • Imitation
  • Conformity

Coercion refers to the social sanctions that can be applied if we do not act in socially legitimate ways. The law is one source of coercive pressure, but so too for example, is the knowledge that you will get promoted only if you act in ways which fit accepted ways of doing things in your organisation.

Imitation refers to the pressures to copy what others do. The world is complicated and finding the best-possible solution is often difficult. One way of dealing with this complexity is to copy others, in particular observing what ‘successful’ others do or have done: for example, a person who we respect or a person we wish to emulate. Of course, imitation can be a successful strategy, but it can often happen with little regard for the different contexts and challenges faced by different people at different times within organisations.

Finally, conformity refers to pressures linked to what we think we ‘should’ do. They concern our values and the broader social values to which we subscribe. Some organisations make explicit attempts to foster particular kinds of values, but such pressures also come from outside the organisation, such as from a particular professional or religious affiliation.

A key driver of social pressures can be the culture of an organisation. While there are many definitions of organisational culture, Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy in Corporate cultures: the rites and rituals of corporate life, proposed that culture is quite simply “the way we do things around here” (1982). An organisation’s culture can impact our decision making in so far as we may often seek to make decisions which align with what we perceive to be the way things are typically done. For example, it may be generally accepted within an organisation that individuals at a certain level should not make decisions beyond certain limits without first engaging the support of someone more senior. While formal checks and balances can be in place to ensure that this is the case, the pressures to conform with this can also be wholly unspoken.

In this section we have seen that we are not simply rational decision-making machines, but rather are influenced in our decision making by a range of psychological and social elements.

We are all driven to varying extents by the need for social legitimacy and the demands of groups of which we are members. Paying attention to these social contexts and pressures can help us understand our own approach to decision making and the limitations which we may encounter.