Decision making is the cognitive process of selecting a course of action from among multiple alternatives. Common examples include shopping, deciding what to eat, and deciding who or what to vote for in an election or referendum.
Decision making is said to be a psychological construct. This means that although we can never "see" a decision, we can infer from observable behaviour that a decision has been made. Therefore we conclude that a psychological event that we call "decision making" has occurred. It is a construction that imputes commitment to action. That is, based on observable actions, we assume that people have made a commitment to effect the action.
Decision making is an important part of many professions, where specialists apply their expertise in a given area to making informed decisions. For example, medical decision making often involves making a diagnosis and selecting an appropriate treatment.
Due to the large number of considerations involved in many decisions, decision support systems have been developed to assist decision makers in considering the implications of various courses of action. They can help reduce the risk of errors.
Decision making style
According to Myers (1962), a person's decision making process depends to a significant degree on their cognitive style. Starting from the work of Carl Jung, Myers developed a set of four bi-polar dimensions. The terminal points on these dimensions are: thinking and feeling; extraversion and introversion; judgement and perception; and sensing and intuition. He claimed that a person's decision making style is based largely on how they score on these four dimensions. For example, someone that scored near the thinking, extroversion, sensing, and judgement ends of the dimensions would tend to have a logical, analytical, objective, critical, and empirical decision making style.
Cognitive and personal biases in decision making
It is generally agreed that biases can creep into our decision making processes, calling into question the correctness of a decision. Below is a list of some of the more common cognitive biases.
- Selective search for evidence - We tend to be willing to gather facts that support certain conclusions but disregard other facts that support different conclusions.
- Premature termination of search for evidence - We tend to accept the first alternative that looks like it might work.
- Conservatism and inertia - Unwillingness to change thought patterns that we have used in the past in the face of new circumstances. (See tradition.)
- Experiential limitations - Unwillingness or inability to look beyond the scope of our past experiences; rejection of the unfamiliar.
- Selective perception - We actively screen-out information that we do not think is saliant. (See prejudice.)
- Wishful thinking or optimism - We tend to want to see things in a positive light and this can distort our perception and thinking.
- Recency - We tend to place more attention on more recent information and either ignore or forget more distant information. (See semantic priming .)
- Repetition bias - A willingness to believe what we have been told most often and by the greatest number of different of sources.
- Anchoring - Decisions are unduly influenced by initial information that shapes our view of subsequent information.
- Group think - Peer pressure to conform to the opinions held by the group.
- Source credibility bias - We reject something if we have a bias against the person, organization, or group to which the person belongs: We are inclined to accept a statement by someone we like. (See prejudice.)
- Incremental decision making and escalating commitment - We look at a decision as a small step in a process and this tends to perpetuate a series of similar decisions. This can be contrasted with zero-based decision making. (See slippery slope.)
- Inconsistency - The unwillingness to apply the same decision criteria in similar situations.
- Attribution asymmetry - We tend to attribute our success to our abilities and talents, but we attribute our failures to bad luck and external factors. We attribute other's success to good luck, and their failures to their mistakes.
- Role fulfillment - We conform to the decision making expectations that others have of someone in our position.
- Underestimating uncertainty and the illusion of control - We tend to underestimate future uncertainty because we tend to believe we have more control over events than we really do.
- Faulty generalizations - In order to simplify an extremely complex world, we tend to group things and people. These simplifying generalizations can bias decision making processes.
- Ascription of causality - We tend to ascribe causation even when the evidence only suggests correlation. Just because birds fly to the equatorial regions when the trees lose their leaves, does not mean that the birds migrate because the trees lose their leaves.
For an explanation of the logical processes behind some of these biases, see logical fallacy.
Cognitive Neuroscience of Decision Making
The anterior cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex are brain regions involved in decision making processes. A recent neuroimaging study, Interactions between decision making and performance monitoring within prefrontal cortex , found distinctive patterns of neural activation in these regions depending on whether decisions were made on the basis of personal volition or following directions from someone else.
Decision Making in Groups
Politics is the process of decision making in groups.
Different sociological groups have different decision making methods. Methods which are likely to converge on a decision within a finite time interval range from dictatorship to direct democracy to consensus decision making. However, depending on how the methods are implemented in practice, any of these may lead to either no decision being made or to inconsistent decisions being made.
The ethical principles of decision making vary considerably. Some common choices of principles and the methods which seem to match them include:
- the most powerful person decides
- method: dictatorship
- everyone participates in a certain class of meta-decisions
- method: parliamentary democracy
- everyone participates in every decision
- everyone participates to the extent that s/he would be affected by a decision
- various methods, even including dictatorship, e.g. if deciding what colour to paint your room affects you alone, then according to this principle you can decide as a dictator; the principle implies that no single method is right for all cases
- this principle is one of the principles of the non-capitalist, non-coordinatorist economic model called participatory economics
Decision making in one's personal life
Some of the decision making techniques that we use in everyday life include:
- listing the advantages and disadvantages of each option
- flipping a coin, cutting a deck of playing cards, and other random or coincidence methods
- accepting the first option that seems like it might achieve the desired result
- tarot cards, astrology, augurs, revelation, or other forms of divination
- acquiesce to a person in authority or an "expert"
Decision making in Business
Several decision making models for business include:
- Decision trees, Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT), critical path analysis, and critical chain analysis
- Pareto Analysis
- Paired Comparison Analysis
- Grid Analysis
- Force field analysis
- Six Thinking Hats
- Cost-benefit analysis
- buyer decision processes
- scenario analysis
- complex systems
- optimization and constrained optimization
- linear programming
- model (economics)
- min-max criterion
- Monte Carlo method
- Myers, I. (1962) Introduction to Type: A description of the theory and applications of the Myers-Briggs type indicator, Consulting Psychologists Press, Palo Alto Ca., 1962.
- In the USA: Society for Medical Decision Making
- In the USA: Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making