Published Online:https://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2015.0987

We propose a cognitively plausible formal model of collective interpretation. The model represents how members of a collective interact to interpret their environment. Current theories of collective interpretation focus on how heedful communication among members of a collective (i.e., how much individuals pay attention to others’ interpretations) improves interpretive performance; their general assumption is that heed tends to be uniformly beneficial. By unpacking the micromechanisms that underlie such performance, our model reveals a more complex story. Heedfulness can benefit interpretive performance. It can help collectives properly interpret situations that are especially ambiguous, unknown, or novel. Conversely, heedfulness also generates conformity pressures that induce agents to give too much weight to others’ interpretations, even if erroneous, thereby potentially degrading interpretive performance. These two effects join into a nonmonotonic trajectory that represents how heed relates to interpretive performance: due to its beneficial properties, performance increases with heed until it peaks before degrading due to conformity pressures. The form of this nonmonotonic relationship is contingent on the nature of the task: ambiguous situations make collectives vulnerable to too much heed: ambiguity ignites conformism; novel situations make collectives dependent on heed: novelty requires multiple eyes to be seen. In addition to these results, our model offers a flexible platform that future work can use to explore collective interpretation in a variety of organizational and supraorganizational contexts.

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