Home Mind & Brain The Psychology of Decision-Making: How We Make Choices

The Psychology of Decision-Making: How We Make Choices

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If we are all the sum total of our previous decisions, as is often claimed in self-help literature, it may be useful to know how we make decisions. What is behind our decision-making? What are the elements, processes, and techniques of our decision-making? How can we make better decisions?

Decision-making is a multifaceted process that involves many variables. Most of us think that our thoughts, our reasoning, are at the core of our decision-making, and they are important but not as important as our emotions and beliefs. 

When feeling happy, we are more likely to make impulsive and risky decisions. When feeling sad or angry, we are more likely to make cautious decisions.

Some people pride themselves on making purely logical, reasoning-based decisions. Do they? Can they? When you ask them why they like something that they like, the answer is clear: they don’t know. That is true for most of us: we don’t know why we like a particular type of music or art. Yes, we can generate lots of post-hoc rationalisations after factual justifications, but we just don’t understand our own preferences.

What does that mean in terms of decision-making? We make many decisions based on emotional preferences that we don’t understand and then feel the need to justify them with “logic.”

Many of our decisions are goal-based. That is, we are motivated to achieve an objective, and we decide on the methods that we think will best help us deliver. Here, too, emotional preferences play a part. There are many viable ways to achieve most objectives, and we know from research and observation that people will choose the one that they “feel” is best, not the one that is objectively best.

Almost all of our decisions are based on information. The idea of making a decision in the absence of information is beyond ridiculous. Again, the information upon which we make the decision is impacted by our emotional preferences. In this context, they are called biases.

Our biases are formed based on emotional experiences. If we have a series of bad experiences with people who share a particular spoken accent, when it comes to deciding whether to spend time with a new person with the same accent, our emotionally trained bias kicks in, and we decide to pass. 

Anchoring bias applies when we tend to give too much importance to the first piece of information we obtain when making a decision. Hearing a “hostile” accent first, can and does change our decisions.

If the person with the ‘hostile’ accent does not follow our perceived rules for first contact, our confirmation bias will kick in, and that person is kicked out of our lives.

It isn’t only our emotions that make our decisions; the emotions of our friends, relatives, and peers also play a part. How many fledgling romantic relationships have been killed, stone dead, by the anticipation that others won’t ‘like’ the person of interest? How often does that happen before the person of interest has even met the others whose rejection is presumed?

Almost everyone knows that in interviews, the decision about whether to hire a person is made within seconds of the start, and usually even before any meaningful information has been exchanged. People make “liking” decisions in the absence of logic or meaningful information.

That is not to say all decisions are made at a visceral level. Some decisions cannot be made that way.

Decision-making process is a theoretical series of steps

  • Identification of the problem or decision. It starts with recognising that a decision needs to be made. This could be prompted by a problem, a need, or an opportunity. Here, too, emotional preference determines the awareness and framing of the problem.
  • Information gathering. It involves research, data analysis, seeking advice, or personal reflection. Again, preferences determine what data is gathered, how it is perceived, and how it is weighted.
  • Generating options. Proposing and considering courses of action seems like a purely logical process; however, the methods usually match emotional preferences. 
  • Evaluating options. Each option is “assessed” based on supposedly objective criteria such as resource availability, feasibility, and potential consequences. In reality, weighing the pros and cons without emotional preferences is all but impossible.
  • Decision-making.  After consideration, a choice is made, or at least that is how it appears. Often, the decision is made before the process begins or during the process. Whenever the decision is made, this is the point at which an overt commitment to a particular course of action is self- or other-signalled.
  • Implementation. Putting the decision into action is the next phase. Here, too, emotional preferences play a part. 
  • Review and revision. Is theoretically the objective evaluation of the plan? In practice, the information seen, gathered, and reviewed is filtered emotionally. 

If we accept that most, if not all our decisions are emotionally based, or at least influenced, how can we make better decisions? Do we want to make better decisions if ‘better’ means not having our emotional preferences central to our decision-making?

We can at least make more honest decisions if we make them based on an open awareness of our biases, values, emotions, and preferences. 

By increasing our emotional self-awareness, we can spot how our emotions may be influencing our decisions. Taking a step back may be necessary to allow for more rational thinking. Here is a technique I use: the “three days in a drawer technique”. After making a key decision or creating a new article, chapter, book, or training programme, I will put it “in a drawer” for three days. Then take it out. When reading, it is as though someone other than me has written it; I can spot many of the errors that were invisible to me previously. 

Seeking different perspectives can improve our decisions. It is inevitable that when we make decisions, we do so by looking at the situation through our own narrow lens; we have no other lens to use! 

It can be useful to seek the views of others. Why? They will look at the decision, article, book, or other thinking through their narrow lens. You will be able to see your decisions differently through their eyes. The more perspectives you take, the more informed your decision will be.

However, here is a note of caution: if you take too many perspectives, you will delay your decision to the point where it may be redundant, or, you will hear so many different views that you are overwhelmed, confused, and demotivated.

There is a reason that some decisions are best made by one person, and other decisions are better made by a few people, and still other decisions are made by many people. To illustrate, how many best-selling books have been written by a committee? Too many views can make it impossible to decide.

Over the years, here is a lesson I have learned: before delegating a decision, consider how, when, and by whom that decision can best be made. 

It makes no sense to have an “innovation committee”, if you want dynamic new ideas, because the creative process is stifled by numbers. It makes no sense for a specialist in one field to make a decision that requires input from several fields. It makes no sense to make a decision now when it is needed next year (by which time the facts may have changed).

Over the centuries, we, as a species, have examined how we make decisions. That has led to the creation of many decision-making theories and models.

Here are just a few, with some (hopefully) helpful suggestions

  • Emotional decision-making model. Making decisions on an emotional basis need not always be a problem. Emotions can give us useful signals to help us make decisions quickly in complex situations. Which of us has not followed our “gut feeling” and it turned out to be right for reasons that we could not have articulated at the time? Which of us has not ignored our instincts, to our cost? Perhaps it is wise to listen to our emotions when making decisions.
  • Pattern recognition model. Once we are competent in a field, we make decisions without logic, simply by reference to recognition of patterns we have seen before. Pattern recognition decision-making seems to develop naturally with experience. The more experience we have, the less of our decision-making is conducted by reasoning and more by pattern recognition.
  • Rational decision-making model. Assumes that people make decisions with perfect information by systematically evaluating all available options, considering their preferences, and selecting the option that maximises utility or satisfaction, all conducted with complete rationality. We know this is simply not possible, although it is a worthy aspiration.
  • The bounded rationality model. We accept that we have cognitive limitations in processing information and that we don’t make fully rational decisions. Instead, we make “good enough” decisions based on our limitations. There is no such thing as perfect information for any decision. One of the characteristics of the great decision-makers that I have coached is their ability to be comfortable making decisions with the best, but limited, information they have available.
  • The pain-pleasure model. It suggests that we make decisions based on our anticipation of pain or pleasure from any proposed choice or action.
  • Expectancy theory. Often referred to as the “Motivational Calculus Model”, it suggests that our motivation and decisions consider the relationship between our effort, performance, and outcomes: we are, it claims, motivated to decide to act in certain ways when we believe our efforts will lead to the desired performance and that our performance will lead to the results we wish. 
  • Cognitive dissonance theory. We experience discomfort when our beliefs and actions are incongruent. To rid ourselves of this emotional pain and this dissonance, we make decisions that align with our existing beliefs and justify our actions. 
  • Social influence model. We make many of our decisions simply because others have done so before us, and it worked out for them. The more social proof a person has to support any proposed decision, the more they are likely to make the same decision as others. 
  • Habitual decision model. Some decisions that we make are so automated that they require no conscious thought. For instance, experienced drivers can have an in-depth conversation and drive vast distances in perfect safety, and upon arrival, they have almost no memory of the journey. Many of our decisions are made from this place of unconscious competence.
  • Sleep on it. Is a decision-making method that has been around for millennia and is reported to be very effective. When our brains have had a chance to rest, and the mental clouds have cleared overnight, we seem to be able to make better decisions. It may be that we can actually programme our minds to make decisions while we sleep. 

Several of the ultra-high achievers that I have coached have reported using this variation of the technique: describe the decision that is to be made, ask their minds to solve the problem or make the best possible decision, and then give them the answer in the morning, and then sleep on it.

What method is best for you to make decisions? Since there is no perfect method, it might be worth using the method that is best for your well-being at any given time. That might mean considering the pros and cons of one decision, going with your gut on a second, and sleeping on a third.

Whatever method or methods you use, be kind to yourself; nobody makes perfect decisions; we can only do the best we can, from where we are, with the knowledge and skills we have.

Happy decision-making!

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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