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Procedural Approaches
to Conflict Resolution

Designing Analytical Support for
Interactive Group Decision Making

Motivation of the Research Project

Decision making is recognized today as one of the most important key qualifications and a necessary complement to basically every specialized education. Lack of competence in decision making can lead to premature decisions, delayed decisions, wrong decisions, or no decisions at all. Cases of decision insufficiency can be found at all levels of society. Policy making is often inhibited by its own historically developed institutional decision procedures. Incompetence in decision making frequently leads to business failures or prevents new enterprises from emerging. Misguided or missing decisions result in uncoordinated and inefficient organizational performance, which often becomes even worse under a new organizational structure.

In a highly specialized, interactive society, many decisions are made by groups (e.g., spouses, families, teams, executive boards, political parties, governments, etc.). Decision making is then further complicated by the clash of individual objectives, differing assessments of alternatives, or conflicting attitudes towards risk. With diverging interests the group decision must be negotiated.

Negotiation is a form of human interaction, where two or more individuals have the opportunity to collaborate for mutual benefit. The positive aspect of negotiation is that individuals can enjoy benefits that are not feasible for each of them alone. The negative aspect, however, comes right beside, because any joint gain must be distributed among the parties involved. Hence, negotiation is always related to distribution - either of benefits or of costs. This distributive dimension is present in every bargaining situation, and it implies that parties must deal with conflict in one way or another.

Negotiation over conflicting interests and demands involves two separate, but interacting, dimensions: one dimension is given by the problem, which includes the content and the structure of the negotiation. The other dimension comes with the players and determines how the game is approached. The structure is what remains when the players of the game are exchanged. The behavior of the players and their method of interaction within the structure detemines the outcome.

In order to provide an analytical framework for designing group decision-making processes, one must focus on the game (the problem), while at the same time acknowledging that it is being played by real players (the negotiators), who must make decisions. The primary aim of group decision making should not be the elimination of conflicts via a harmonization of individuals' views, but rather the management of conflicts that arise from parties' given preferences. Parties' interests are to be taken as they come - the resulting conflict (i.e. the structure) can then be viewed unemotionally as a natural consequence. This (negotiation) analytic perspective of conflict resolution enables parties to accept diverging interests and thus to respect differing views. Group decision making is not regarded as a game with winners and losers, but rather as an interactive problem-solving process. What is required then is a procedural approach to conflict resolution, where the objective is to theoretically develop practicable methods for problem-solving in groups.

Structure of the Research Project

The objective of the ZiF research group 2001/02 is the theoretical development and experimental assessment of practicable and perhaps institutionalizable procedures for group decision support and conflict resolution. The research group will simultaneously focus on three main issues.
  • A theoretical foundation for procedural design: The formal theoretical approach will be directed towards the development of procedures for interactive decision making and joint problem solving in groups. The conceived theoretical foundation is intended to combine normative models of game theory, descriptive analyses of cognitive and social psychology, and formal concepts of argumentation theory.
  • The implementation of procedural support: The focus of the second main research issue is the practicability of the theoretical approach for real-life conflict situations. Supported by experimental research in the laboratory and motivated by the actual practice of dispute resolution outside, the aim is to transform the theoretical foundation to a workable basis.
  • The development of analytical process support: Research activities concerning this third issue will concentrate on the development and deployment of new computational and visual aids to enhance the practicability of procedural support. Of particular interest are group decision support systems and virtual platforms for group interaction in a decentralized decision environment.
A characteristic feature of the ZiF research group is the interdisciplinary approach to all three issues. The most distinguishing aspect, however, is the combination of these three research fields within a single project. The project thus emphasizes the practical relevance of formal theoretical research in the social sciences.


ZiF 2001/ 2002