Role-Playing Good Predictor in Conflict Situations

Edition: March 2002 - Vol 10 Number 03
Article#: 1188
Author: Repertoire

If you think role-playing is out-of-date, take a look at this article (excerpted below) by J. Scott Armstrong, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business and author of the recent book Principles of Forecasting. In the article, titled ''Forecasting in Conflicts: How to Predict What Your Opponent Will Do,'' Armstrong talks about his research into role-playing as a tool for leaders in both business and government who face crucial decisions in situations ranging from military clashes to marketing challenges. Now, no one would ever characterize the encounter between sales rep and customer as a ''conflict.'' Still, the lessons are worth paying attention to.

How should the war on terrorism proceed? How will other countries respond? Since September 11, I have watched as military and political experts have described what we should do and what the consequences will be. Although these forecasts sound impressive and come with convincing arguments to support their conclusions, they are often wrong. This is not surprising; research tells us that experts are not good at forecasting decisions in conflict situations. The reason is that conflicts are complex and often involve several rounds of action and reaction. Fortunately, there is an effective alternative: role-playing. For conflict situations, research shows that role-playing yields the most accurate predictions.

Kesten Green, a colleague at Victoria University in New Zealand, and I have been studying how to make accurate predictions in conflict situations. We presented 290 participants with descriptions of six actual conflicts and asked them to select the most likely decisions. The conflicts involved labor-management, commercial and civil disputes. In five of these conflicts, we were able to role-play the interactions. When unaided, the participants did no better than mere chance; they were correct on 27% of the decisions. We then asked 21 game theorists from around the world to make predictions, reasoning that their greater understanding of conflicts and knowledge of game theory would produce better forecasts. Surprisingly, they were correct on only 28% of their decisions.

When we instructed 352 students to role-play, forecast accuracy improved in all five situations. On average, there were 61% correct predictions vs. the 27% when similar participants made unaided predictions. I have been involved in forecasting since 1960 and have never before encountered a forecasting method that produces such large improvements over other procedures…

Interestingly, neither instructing decision makers to think like their opponent nor giving them information about the roles of the parties improves accuracy. Role-playing must simulate the complex interactions.

Militaries have used role-playing since at least 1929. David Halberstam described its use in the Vietnam War in The Best and the Brightest. Unfortunately, top government officials did not believe the conclusion from the role-playing that moderate bombing was the worst strategy the U.S. could follow.

Surprises in conflicts usually lead to unexpected and undesirable outcomes. Role-playing can lead to wiser decisions by providing a simple way to accurately predict how others will respond to various actions.