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.

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, recent research has shown they can help reduce the risk of human errors.

Decision making style.

 According to behaviouralist, 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:

  1. thinking and feeling
  2. extroversion and introversion
  3. judgement and perception.
  4. 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. 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 (aka 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, organisation, 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 fulfilment (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 minimise potential problems in our decisions.
  • Faulty generalisations – In order to simplify an extremely complex world, we tend to group things and people. These simplifying generalisations 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.

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