UAE CONSENSUS: The closing plenary at the UN Climate Change Conference COP28 at Expo City Dubai on December 13, 2023, in Dubai, during which the historic "UAE Consensus" was announced. Image Credit: COP28

The dramatic events at COP28 in Dubai which produced the historic “UAE Consensus” on climate change is something the world will talk about long after the negotiators have gone home.

The landmark Wednesday consensus signed by 197 countries, in addition to the European Union, has — for the first time in COP history — made a bold call for global transition away from fossil fuels, thus setting the world on the right track.

It was not an easy decision. However, the fact that it was arrived at on Day 13 of the UAE-hosted 28th session of the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on December 13, 2023 shows the power of consensus.

What does “consensus” mean and why is it important?

Consensus, in essence, arises when a group collectively agrees on something — with more individuals supporting the decision than opposing it.

Think of an example of consensus-building in daily life. Picture a movie night with friends: you’re deciding on a film to watch. It becomes a challenge as each one has his or her own flick pick. Or, when there's an office celebration, you ask everyone what to order to mark the occasion: samosas or empanadas? A consensus can be made, perhaps, to grab both.

That’s just one of the key benefits. Here's another that psychologists point out: It helps create certainty.

As each member of the group endeavours to find a common ground to harmonise their decision, the decision becomes transparent and enduring, as it gets everyone “invested” in seeking a common good.

What does “building consensus” mean?

Creating consensus in a team setting means finding a proposal acceptable enough that all team members can support it.

In the realm of behavioral psychology, consensus building is defined as the process of aggregating opinions — this involves skillful listening, engaging in discussions to explore ideas and differences, and ultimately reaching an agreement that is acceptable to all parties involved.

What consensus-building entails:

  • Pooling opinions;
  • Listening effectively;
  • Discussing ideas and differences;
  • Not getting all you want; and
  • Coming to an agreement that everyone "can live with."
UAE Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and COP28 President Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber after the 'UAE Consensus' was gavelled at the UN Climate Change Conference COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 13, 2023. While not all decisions must or should be made through consensus, behavioural psychologists say that it can enhance both the quality of a decision and its acceptance by all involved.

What consensus is not:

  • A unanimous vote,
  • Majority or minority rule,
  • One-person rule, or
  • Bargaining.

Does consensus mean a lack of disagreement?

No. Psychologists point out that consensus neither means a lack of disagreements nor getting all you want.

What do studies on consensus show?

A 1954 study conducted by Leon Festinger made this conclusion: “social consensus builds certainty”. This is made possible by providing information about what is a socially correct way of thinking and feeling about an “attitude object”. This was followed by a study in 1956 by Solomon Asch (who came up with the "Asch Paradigm", and Orive in 1988.

In the Festinger-led experiment, conduced under the rubric of the social comparison theory (SCT), he hypothesised that people in general are unable to self-judge their own opinions and abilities accurately.

“Instead, we rely on comparing ourselves to other people to form an evaluation.”

Festinger argued that people depend on social reality to determine the subjective validity of their attitudes and opinions — and that they look to their reference group to establish social reality. Therefore, “an opinion or attitude is valid to the extent that it is similar to that of the reference group”.

Meanwhile, a study by the San Diego State University Sociology Department states: “Consensus theory is a theory that views consensus as a key distinguishing feature of a group of people or society. Consensus is the collective agreement of individuals. The consensus perspective emphasises that societal structure is built upon the foundation of agreed-upon norms and ethical ideals.”

The US Office of Personnel Management argues that effective teams strive for consensus, stating: “one of the conditions necessary for successful team work is team members' ability to make decisions and solve problems as a group. Building consensus is one of the most effective decision-making processes.”

A Science Direct article cites the role of consensus in behavioural psychology, thus: “a generally accepted opinion or decision among a group of people.” It is also compared to “herd mentality”, considered a powerful force across humanity. It’s like, if “everybody else” thinks one product is great, then it must be great.

Consensus and cooperation: What's the difference?

In social psychology, a consensus theory is based on the idea that society is dependent upon the mutual co-operation of its members. Psychologists argue that this consensus of values is possible due to “socialisation", the process by which individuals learn the norms and values of their given culture.

In general, an effective consensus process (consensus-building) is inclusive and engages all participants. Consensus decisions tend to lead to better quality outcomes that empower the group or community to move forward to create their future together.

It leads to a common understanding. For example, the current scientific consensus is that: Earth's climate has warmed significantly since the late 1800s. Human activities (primarily greenhouse gas emissions) are the primary cause. Continuing emissions will increase the likelihood and severity of global effects.

Why is consensus important in research?

Consensus is crucial as it safeguards the public against influential misinformation, especially those who employ bots on social media. This is where the non-scientists play a role as communicating the scientific consensus has a powerful effect on realigning public views of the issue with expert opinions. 

What’s the downside of consensus building?

One obvious downside of consensus building in terms of decision-making is time — it tends to be a longer time or even circuitous route — before a decision is arrived at.

There are many advantages to using consensus when making a decision. Team members often have a high level of support for the decision because they helped determine it.

Using consensus also means that new ideas are shared and may lead to a solution or decision that is better than what was originally being considered.

Should every decision be made via consensus?

Not all decisions must or should be made through consensus. However it can enhance both the quality of a decision and its acceptance by all involved.

Why is consensus important in leadership?

The ability to build consensus is important in leadership.

Consensus decision-making offers benefits such as being a collective decision, fostering a sense of participation among participants, and presenting a united front.

Consensus relies on everyone respecting other people's needs and opinions, and being open and honest about our own needs. This, it turn, leads to better relationships in a group.

In sum, it looks for “win-win" solutions that are acceptable to all.