Expert and novice decision making in dispute resolution.

Caren Frosch, Neuroscience, Psychology & Behaviour ( ) and Tony Cole, Law School ( )


This studentship will take advantage of the award to Leicester of a £1,000,000 five-year ESRC research grant to study arbitration across Europe, including important original empirical research on arbitrator decision-making. Tony Cole is P.I. on this project, which involves faculty from 5 leading universities, with 4 Postdoctoral Researchers, and the support of leading industry bodies. The PhD student will work closely with the ESRC project team, thereby allowing the PhD research to take advantage of important data before it becomes publicly available, while also contributing specialized expertise to another important Leicester research project. As a result, not only will the PhD research be informed by the findings from the ESRC project, but the student will have the opportunity to carry out valuable additional analysis of the data and input research design ideas to the ESRC project, providing the student with an opportunity to play an active role in a major research project. The proposed PhD studentship will be independent from the ESRC project, but the PhD project will greatly benefit from the intense activity on the topic; we expect there to be substantial cross-fertilisation between the two projects.

Description of the project

This PhD project will use research on the decision-making of arbitrators to examine how people mentally represent and process information in order to resolve disputes. Its coordination with the ESRC project offers a unique opportunity to examine decision making among a group of practitioners who function within a specific domain (arbitration), but vary greatly in their degree of expertise and cultural influences, providing access to large-scale empirical data PhD students can rarely generate themselves.

In recent years, business disputes have increasingly been resolved through private arbitration, which allows parties to avoid courts while still receiving a legally-enforceable decision. While arbitration raises many questions in law and sociology, it also provides an important opportunity for research in psychology. Specifically, much research on reasoning and decision making seeks to understand how people – who uniformly have very limited memory and information processing capacity – develop strategies to deal with complex problems involving vast amounts of relevant information.  These strategies consistently have “signature” characteristics – “biases” that can actually work to the detriment of effective decision-making.

There is, however, recognition within Psychology that expertise plays a particularly important role in strategy choice (noting that in many cases this ‘choice’ will be subconscious). It is important to understand how experts and novices differ in they way they process information and reach decisions, and that question will be the specific focus of this PhD project.

A number of theoretical frameworks will provide the structure for examining these processes. Fuzzy Trace Theory (Reyna 2012), for example, suggests there can be inconsistencies between choices of discrete options and judgments of finer grained quantities (e.g. money). Comparison of different information processing modes and choice procedures may reveal critical impacts on decision outcomes. In addition, drawing on the heuristics (mental shortcuts) and biases literature (e.g., see Kahneman, 2012), which has identified a multitude of ways in which our judgments are affected by context and limitations in our ability and motivation to process information, the project will examine the extent to which different arbitrators may fall prey to “biases” and will explore ways in which such “biases” could be mitigated within the domain of conflict resolution. For example, the “fast and frugal heuristics” literature (e.g., Gigerenzer et al, 2000) has pointed to the surprising efficacy of certain very simple heuristics, and the project can experimentally  explore how arguments could be presented most effectively to enable effective dispute resolution.

How the project benefits from the collaboration between the two supervisors

The lead supervisor Caren Frosch has expertise in reasoning and judgment and decision making and has previous experience of working at the intersection of Psychology and Law (examining causal reasoning and attributions of blame). Hence, Caren Frosch brings relevant psychological expertise to the project which combines well with Tony Cole’s extensive knowledge and experience of the arbitration process. Finally, Peter Ayton (City U.), a leading expert on judgement and decision making, will serve as external third supervisor on the PhD, maximising the specialist guidance the PhD researcher will receive.

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Funded PhD Places - 2018