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Decision making

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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.

Contents

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; extroversion 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 salient. (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 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 - 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.


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 (http://www.nature.com/cgi-taf/DynaPage.taf?file=/neuro/journal/v7/n11/abs/nn1339.html), 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

Decision making in groups is sometimes examined separately as process and outcome. Process refers to the interactions among individuals that lead to the choice of a particular course of action. An outcome is the consequence of that choice. Separating process and outcome is convenient because it helps explain that a good decision making processes does not guarantee a good outcome, and that a good outcome does not presuppose a good process. Thus, for example, managers interested in good decision making are encouraged to put good decision making processes in place. Although these good decision making processes do not guarantee good outcomes, they can tip the balance of chance in favor of good outcomes.

A critical aspect for decision making groups is the ability to converge on a choice.

Politics is one approach to making decisions in groups. This process revolves around the relative power or ability to influence of the individuals in the group. 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 different processes to make decisions, groups can also have different decision rules. A decision rule is the approach used by a group to mark the choice that is made.

  • 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 50% plus one of the members of the group. Thus, the bar for action is lower than with unanimity, but it can create a group of "losers" in the process.
  • 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.
  • 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 legislature. 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 (typically with the greatest power) determines the course of action.

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.

Principles

The ethical principles of decision making vary considerably. Some common choices of principles and the methods which seem to match them include:

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
  • 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:

See also

References

  • 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.

External links

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