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  • Writer's picturePeter Hanney

Common Information Effect

This post discusses Common Information Effect, a default bias in the way teams operate and make decisions that can lead to delay and poor decision making if not actively addressed.

I have a deep interest in promoting effective working relationships and in understanding how these are impacted by human psychology, cognitive bias and leadership skills. One area that comes up a lot for me is Common Information Effect and the negative impact it has on decision making. It is so tied into the work Through Technology does with our customers that we now cover it in staff training and I thought I would share it more widely here.

What is Common Information Effect?

When a team meets up, everyone brings their own information to the meeting. Some of this is unique information that only they know, and some of it is Common Information, which the group already knows.

If you have structured your team correctly, you will have a mix of skills and backgrounds needed to address the different challenges that the team faces. This means it is the Unique information which is of highest value. But our human behavioural biases mean that if unchecked, this value is lost amid discussion of common information, leading to delay and poor decision making.

This is called Common Information Effect. Humans by our very nature seek agreement, consensus, and positive affirmation from each other, and as the Venn Diagram shows, it is the Common Information that provides this. We are also naturally driven to “be seen to make a contribution” and “Add Value” in work we are engaged in.

Common Information[1]...

  • Is more likely to be raised in discussions

  • Will instantly be re-enforced by agreement from others in the group

  • Is more likely to be remembered after the meeting

  • Is more likely to be perceived as credible (due to wider consensus and shared experience)

  • Therefore, overshadows unique information in group decision making.

Why should you care?

As a leader, you need to get the best advice possible. What common information effect highlights is the risk of listening to consensus, and not making sure that individual, experienced and expert views get heard and prioritised over those bringing only common information and “making a contribution for its own sake”.

As a digital and technology professional, you will wish to ensure that recommendations based upon expertise and experience are listened to and fully considered (whether they are yours or come from others in your team).

What can you do about it?

As a Leader:

  • Understand who has real tangible expertise and experience to bring to bear on decisions versus those only contributing common information.

  • Educate your direct reports on Common Information Effect and ensure your team are aware of each other’s expertise and experience

  • Encourage your team to think about the “problem to be solved” not the “decision to be made”.

  • Encourage your team to rank-order alternatives, rather than deciding a upon single preferred option and excluding all else. This draws out unique information.

  • Limit meeting size and participation to focus conversation on those with either the expertise to contribute or the power to decide.

  • Actively listen, making sure that those with unique information have the opportunity to contribute and alerting the group to it when it arises.

As a Digital & Technology Professional:

  • Beware of making “Contribution for contributions sake” and of the risks in the Bullsh*t Continuum.

  • Make others aware of your credentials when offering unique information. E.g., “When I had this problem at Company X, we solved it like this”.

  • Help bring the right people into the discussion. If you have an expert in your team, invite them along or – if that is inappropriate – canvas their opinion in advance and present it citing their experience/expertise.

As specialists in Solution Integration, Assurance and Transformation programmes, we must ensure that the expertise in our customers, their third-party suppliers and our own teams is brought to bear to solve our customers’ problems. Understanding the Common Information Effect is therefore a key learning for our teams and something we want to share with others.


[1] This is not a new idea, see Stasser and Titus (1985); Gigone and Hastie (1993) and Larson et al (1996) for academic references and supporting studies

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