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Cognitive Psychology: Attention · Decision making · Learning · Judgement · Memory · Motivation · Perception · Reasoning · Thinking  - Cognitive processes Cognition - Outline Index

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Decision making is the cognitive process leading to the selection of a course of action among alternatives. Every decision making process produces a final choice. It can be an action or an opinion. It begins when we need to do something but we do not know what. Therefore, decision making is a reasoning process which can be rational or irrational, and can be based on explicit assumptions or tacit assumptions.

Common examples include shopping, deciding what to eat, when to sleep, and deciding whom or what to vote for in an election or referendum.

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 affect the action.

Structured rational decision making is an important part of all science-based professions, where specialists apply their knowledge in a given area to making informed decisions. For example, medical decision making often involves making a diagnosis and selecting an appropriate treatment. Some research using naturalistic methods shows, however, that in situations with higher time pressure, higher stakes, or increased ambiguities, experts use intuitive decision making rather than structured approaches, following a recognition primed decision approach to fit a set of indicators into the expert's experience and immediately arrive at a satisfactory course of action without weighing alternatives.

Due to the large number of considerations involved in many decisions, computer-based decision support systems have been developed to assist decision makers in considering the implications of various courses of thinking. They can help reduce the risk of human errors.

Decision making style

According to behavioralist Isabel Briggs 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, called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The terminal points on these dimensions are: thinking and feeling; extroversion and introversion; judgement and perception; and sensing and intuition. She 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. It is not generally agreed, however, which normative models are to be used to evaluate what constitutes an erroneous decision. Nor is the scientific evidence for all of the biases agreed upon. So, while it is agreed that decision making can be biased, how to tell when it is, and specific cases of biases, are often challenged. The issue in general can be quite controversial among scholars in the field. Below is a list of some of the more commonly debated cognitive biases.

  • Selective search for evidence(a.k.a Confirmation Bias in psychology) (Plous, 1993) - 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.
  • Inertia - Unwillingness to change thought patterns that we have used in the past in the face of new circumstances.
  • Contrariness or rebelliousness - Unwillingness to share a view with a perceived oppressive authority.
  • Entrapment - a process in which individuals increase their commitment to a course of action in order to justify their investment in it.
  • 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 salient. (See prejudice.)
  • Choice-supportive bias occurs when we distort our memories of chosen and rejected options to make the chosen options seem relatively more attractive.
  • Recency - We tend to place more attention on more recent information and either ignore or forget more distant information. (See semantic priming.)The opposite effect in the first set of data or other information is termed Primacy effect (Plous, 1993)
  • Repetition bias - A willingness to believe what we have been told most often and by the greatest number of different of sources.
  • Anchoring and adjustment - 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 (Self Fulfilling Prophecy) - 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. We believe we have control to minimize potential problems in our decisions.
  • 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.
  • Wishful thinking or optimism - We tend to want to see things in a positive light and this can distort our perception and thinking.

For an explanation of the logical processes behind some of these biases, see logical fallacy.

Cognitive neuroscience of decision making

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) 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.

Another recent study by Kennerly, et al. (2006) found that lesions to the ACC in the macaque resulted in impaired decision making in the long run of reinforcement guided tasks suggesting that the ACC is responsible for evaluating past reinforcement information and guiding future action.

Emotion appears to aid the decision-making process:

  • Decision making often occurs in the face of uncertainty about whether one's choices will lead to benefit or harm. The somatic-marker hypothesis is a neurobiological theory of how decisions are made in the face of uncertain outcome. This theory holds that such decisions are aided by emotions, in the form of bodily states, that are elicited during the deliberation of future consequences and that mark different options for behavior as being advantageous or disadvantageous. This process involves an interplay between neural systems that elicit emotional/bodily states and neural systems that map these emotional/bodily states. [1]

Decision making in groups

Decision making in groups is sometimes examined separately as process and outcome. Process refers to the group interactions. Some relevant ideas include coalitions among participants as well as influence and persuasion. The use of politics is often judged negatively, but it is a useful way to approach problems when preferences among actors are in conflict, when dependencies exist that cannot be avoided, when there are no super-ordinate authorities, and when the technical or scientific merit of the options is ambiguous.

In addition to the different processes involved in making decisions, group decision support systems (GDSS) may have different decision rules. A decision rule is the GDSS protocol a group uses to choose among scenario planning alternatives.

  • Unanimity is commonly used by juries in criminal trials in the United States. Unanimity requires everyone to agree on a given course of action, and thus imposes a high bar for action.
  • Majority requires support from more than 50% of the members of the group. Thus, the bar for action is lower than with unanimity and a group of "losers" is implicit to this rule.
  • Range voting allows a group to select one option from a set by letting each member score one or more of the available options. The option with the highest average is chosen. This method has experimentally been shown to produce the lowest Bayesian regret among common voting methods, even when voters are strategic.
  • Consensus decision-making tries to avoid "winners" and "losers". Consensus requires that a majority approve a given course of action, but that the minority agree to go along with the course of action. In other words, if the minority opposes the course of action, consensus requires that the course of action be modified to remove objectionable features.
  • Gathering (decision making) involves all participants acknowledging each other's needs and opinions and tends towards a problem solving approach in which as many needs and opinions as possible can be satisfied. It allows for multiple outcomes and does not require agreement from some for others to act.
  • Sub-committee involves assigning responsibility for evaluation of a decision to a sub-set of a larger group, which then comes back to the larger group with recommendations for action. Using a sub-committee is more common in larger governance groups, such as a legislatur]. Sometimes a sub-committee includes those individuals most affected by a decision, although at other times it is useful for the larger group to have a sub-committee that involves more neutral participants.

Less desirable group decision rules are:

  • Plurality, where the largest block in a group decides, even if it falls short of a majority.
  • Dictatorship, where one individual determines the course of action.
see also: groupthink

Plurality and dictatorship are less desirable as decision rules because they do not require the involvement of the broader group to determine a choice. Thus, they do not engender commitment to the course of action chosen. An absence of commitment from individuals in the group can be problematic during the implementation phase of a decision.

There are no perfect decision making rules. Depending on how the rules are implemented in practice and the situation, all of these can lead to situations where either no decision is made, or to situations where decisions made are inconsistent with one another over time.


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/group decides
    • method: dictatorship or oligarchy
  • everyone participates in a certain class of meta-decisions
  • everyone participates in every decision

There are many decision making levels having a participation element. A common example is that of institutions making decisions that affect those for whom they provide. In such cases an understanding of what participation level is involved becomes crucial to understand the process and power structures dynamics.

Control-Ethics. When organisations/institutions make decisions it is important to find the balance between the parameters of control mechanisms and the ethical principles which ensure 'best' outcome for individuals and communities impacted on by the decision. Controls may be set by elements such as Legislation, historical precedents, available resources, Standards, policies, procedures and practices. Ethical elements may include equity, fairness, transparency, social justice, choice, least restrictive alternative, empowerment.

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, popularized by Benjamin Franklin
  • 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
  • prayer, tarot cards, astrology, augurs, revelation, or other forms of divination
  • acquiesce to a person in authority or an "expert"
  • Calculating the expected value or utility for each option. For example, a person is considering two jobs. At the first job option the person has a 60% chance of getting a 30% percent raise in the first year. And at the second job option the person has a 80% chance of getting a 10% raise in the first year. The decision maker would calculate the expected value of each option, calculating the probability multiplied by the increase of value. (0.60*0.30=0.18 [option a] 0.80*0.10=0.08 [option b]) The person deciding on the job would chose the option with the highest expected value, in this example option a.

An alternative may be to apply one of the processes described below, in particular in the Business and Management section.

Decision making in healthcare

In the health care field, the steps of making a decision may be remembered with the mnemonic BRAND, which includes

  • Benefits of the action
  • Risks in the action
  • Alternatives to the prospective action
  • Nothing: that is, doing nothing at all
  • Decision

Decision making models

  • "Economic men and women" is a mathematical model used for human behavior. This model is used to describe three things:
    • Decision makers are informed on all possible options for their decisions and know of all possible outcomes
    • Decision makers are infinitely sensitive to the small distinctions among their different options. They are capable of knowing all the differences between their options, regardless of how small they are.
    • Decision makers are rational in their choices. They are capable of making a choice to maximize or increase value.
  • Subjective expected theory. This is the goal of human action to seek happiness and avoid pain.
  • Subjective utility. The prospects are based on an individual’s values rather than on objective criteria.
  • Subjective probability. The prospects are based on an individual’s estimates of likelihood rather than mathematical equations.

Using the example in Decisions for One’s Personal life, a person would use the subjective expected theory to take into account comfort of the job, how the long hours can affect personal time with family and friends, as well as possible job relocation. This theory also alleges people will take into account subjective variables.

Path dependency

Main article: path dependency

It is perhaps pertinent to note that the cost of making no decision at all itself is a factor, and that the benefit of making some decision, even a random choice, can be beneficial in the longer term. Thus the reversibility of an action may be a good way to judge whether or not an action or process is beneficial. A resource can also be viewed as something expendable, or bearing a cost, rather than the implication of selecting something irrevocably.

Even life and death decisions have been priced this way, as in the insurance industry.

Decision making in business and management

In general, business and management systems should be set up to allow decision making at the lowest possible level.

Several decision making models for business include:

  • SWOT Analysis - Evaluation by the decision making individual or organization of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats with respect to desired end state or objective.
  • Analytic Hierarchy Process - procedure for multi-level goal hierarchy
  • Buyer decision processes - transaction before, during, and after a purchase
  • Complex systems - common behavioural and structural features that can be modelled
  • Corporate finance
  • Cost-benefit analysis - process of weighing the total expected costs vs. the total expected benefits
  • Control-Ethics, a decision making framework that balances the tensions of accountability and 'best' outcome.
  • Decision tree
  • Force field analysis - analyzing forces that either drive or hinder movement toward a goal
  • Grid Analysis - analysis done by comparing the weighted averages of ranked criteria to options. A way of comparing both objective and subjective data.
  • Linear programming - optimization problems in which the objective function and the constraints are all linear
  • Min-max criterion
  • Model (economics)- theoretical construct of economic processes of variables and their relationships
  • Monte Carlo method - class of computational algorithms for simulating systems
  • Morphological analysis - all possible solutions to a multi-dimensional problem complex
  • optimization
  • Paired Comparison Analysis - paired choice analysis
  • Pareto Analysis - selection of a limited of number of tasks that produce significant overall effect
  • Satisficing - In decision-making, satisficing explains the tendency to select the first option that meets a given need or select the option that seems to address most needs rather than the “optimal” solution.
  • Scenario analysis - process of analyzing possible future events
  • Six Thinking Hats - symbolic process for parallel thinking
  • Strategic planning process - applying the objectives, SWOTs, strategies, programs process
  • Ubiquitous command and control is a concept for dynamic decision making based on "agreement between an individual and the world", and "agreements between individuals"

Decision-makers and influencers

In the context of industrial goods marketing, there is much theory, and even more opinion, expressed about how the various `decision-makers' and `influencers' (those who can only influence, not decide, the final decision) interact. Decisions are frequently taken by groups, rather than individuals, and the official buyer often does not have authority to take the decision.

Miller & Heiman, for example, offered a more complex view of industrial buying decisions (particularly in the area of `complex sales' of capital equipment). They see three levels of decision making:

'economic buying influence' - the decision-maker who can authorize the necessary funds for purchase

'user buying influences' - the people in the buying company who will use the product and will specify what they want to purchase

'technical buying influence' - the `experts' (including, typically, the buying department) who can veto the purchase on technical grounds

Webster and Wind, in a similar vein, identify six roles within the `buying centre':

'users' - who will actually use the product or service

'influencers' - particularly technical personnel

'deciders' - the actual decision-makers

'approvers' - who formally authorize the decision

'buyers' - the department with formal authority

'gatekeepers' - those who have the power to stop the sellers reaching other members of the `buying centre'

Styles and methods of decision making

Positional and combinational styles

Styles and methods of decision making were elaborated by the founder of Predispositioning Theory, Aron Katsenelinboigen. In his analysis on styles and methods Katsenelinboigen referred to the game of chess, saying that “chess does disclose various methods of operation, notably the creation of predisposition—methods which may be applicable to other, more complex systems.”[1] In his book Katsenelinboigen states that apart from the methods (reactive and selective) and sub-methods (randomization, predispositioning, programming), there are two major styles – positional and combinational. Both styles are utilized in the game of chess. According to Katsenelinboigen, the two styles reflect two basic approaches to the uncertainty: deterministic (combinational style) and indeterministic (positional style). Katsenelinboigen’s definition of the two styles are the following.

The combinational style is characterized by

  • a very narrow, clearly defined, primarily material goal, and
  • a program that links the initial position with the final outcome.

In defining the combinational style in chess, Katsenelinboigen writes:

The combinational style features a clearly formulated limited objective, namely the capture of material (the main constituent element of a chess position). The objective is implemented via a well defined and in some cases in a unique sequence of moves aimed at reaching the set goal. As a rule, this sequence leaves no options for the opponent. Finding a combinational objective allows the player to focus all his energies on efficient execution, that is, the player’s analysis may be limited to the pieces directly partaking in the combination. This approach is the crux of the combination and the combinational style of play.[1]

The positional style is distinguished by

  • a positional goal and
  • a formation of semi-complete linkages between the initial step and final outcome.

“Unlike the combinational player, the positional player is occupied, first and foremost, with the elaboration of the position that will allow him to develop in the unknown future. In playing the positional style, the player must evaluate relational and material parameters as independent variables. (… ) The positional style gives the player the opportunity to develop a position until it becomes pregnant with a combination. However, the combination is not the final goal of the positional player—it helps him to achieve the desirable, keeping in mind a predisposition for the future development. The Pyrrhic victory is the best example of one’s inability to think positionally.”[2]

The positional style serves to

a) create a predisposition to the future development of the position;
b) induce the environment in a certain way;
c) absorb an unexpected outcome in one’s favor;
d) avoid the negative aspects of unexpected outcomes.

The positional style gives the player the opportunity to develop a position until it becomes pregnant with a combination. Katsenelinboigen writes:
“As the game progressed and defense became more sophisticated the combinational style of play declined. . . . The positional style of chess does not eliminate the combinational one with its attempt to see the entire program of action in advance. The positional style merely prepares the transformation to a combination when the latter becomes feasible.”[3]

Decision making software

  • ConceptDraw MINDMAP is a software for decision making available for Mac and PC
  • Mindmanager another alternative

The above tools are Mind Map drawing programs. They are not decision making programs.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Katsenelinboigen, Aron. The Concept of Indeterminism and Its Applications: Economics, Social Systems, Ethics, Artificial Intelligence, and Aesthetics Praeger: Westport, Connecticut, 1997, p.6) Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Concept of Indeterminism" defined multiple times with different content
  2. V. Ulea, The Concept of Dramatic Genre and The Comedy of A New Type. Chess, Literature, and Film. Southern Illinois University Press, 2002, p.p.17-18])
  3. Selected Topics in Indeterministic Systems Intersystems Publications: California, 1989, p. 21
  • Hardman, D. (20080 Judgement and Decision Making. Blackwell.
  • Miller,R. B. and Heiman, S. E. (1989)'Strategic Selling'. Kogan Page.
  • Plous,S. (1993) The Psychology of Judgement and Decision Making, Mcgraw-Hill.
  • Webster, F. E. and Y. Wind,(1972) 'Organizational Buying Behavior ' Prentice-Hall.

External links

Some important research journals

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