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Information in Small Group Deliberation: A Field Experiment

Open Panel

Abstract

Deliberation is intended to lead to better, more legitimate public policy by increasing public knowledge. This claim is based on the way deliberation exposes citizens to a wide variety of new facts and perspectives. However, three existing research literatures suggests that group discussion, a common feature of deliberative institutions, promotes biased information use in decision making and in the formation of attitudes. First, the game-theoretic literature on strategic information transmission suggests that groups whose members have a strong interest in the discussion''s outcome will undervalue information provided by preference minorities. Secondly, the psychological literature on the common knowledge effect suggests that the process of group discussion leads groups to undervalue information that fewer people know before discussion begins. Finally, numerous studies suggest that the gender and status of a person may affect how seriously that person’s arguments are taken in discussion. This paper tests whether these critiques apply to political deliberation using a field experiment that took place in deliberative forums organized by a school district in New Jersey, USA. The purpose of the forums was to discuss possible ways to fill a budget gap created by a cap on property tax increases and increasing benefit costs. In this forum, area residents were placed in groups of five people and asked to prioritize ideas for closing the budget gap. I manipulate the composition of groups as well as the information that is given to different group members before discussion begins. I use this manipulation to test whether the identity of the person who knows an item of information before discussion begins effects how much influence that item has in discussion and over the decisions made by the groups. This experiment represents one of the first field experiments examining the how information is used in deliberation, and how identity and knowledge interact to produce deliberative decisions. It provides useful guidance for designers of deliberative institutions as well as insight on the roles of interests and group dynamics in determining the outcomes of deliberation.