Home > Uncategorized > Decisions, Decisions “Bad ones make good Stories”!!!

Decisions, Decisions “Bad ones make good Stories”!!!

I have had plenty of inspiration for Week 10’s blog from both personal circumstance and from other sources.   I read an interesting article in New Scientist which is extremely relevant to our Health and Clinical Psychology Module and I feel it is particularly associated to “Risky Behaviours”.   I may even elaborate a little on my good self as a case study.  This week’s blog will therefore consider the processes involved in “decision making”.   Decision making is something that at times unfortunately I can confess to being very poor at.  In fact some decisions I have made have led to undesirable outcomes.  Yet even with the passing of time, I continue on with my intentions regardless, heading single minded for the desirable outcome.  This is often in spite of the fact that I know, that most likely, all will not end well.   Anyway’s there is no-one more risky than my screen idol Samantha re: (Sex in the City), like her I never seem to learn that sometimes making less bad decisions may actually lead to more positive outcomes ha!

So what are the processes of decision making all about, I hear you ask?  Well in 1654 Blaise Pascal and Pierre Fermat two respected mathematicians were discussing games of chance and these discussions formed the basis for the theory of probability.  The theory of probability was developed throughout the 20th Century and eventually it led to decision theory.  Decision theory proposes that humans are “rational optimisers”.  So in simple terms this can be explained by when we are given choices we often weigh up our options and our intentions are based upon a cost versus benefit analysis.  In most situations we make our choices based upon achieving the most desirable outcome, also referred to as the reward.  However if we think carefully about many of our own individual experiences of decision making, I’m sure many of us would question this theory.  For example, are we rational at all times?  Or do we just make spontaneous and accurate estimates of probability in situations where relevant information is available. 

Decision theory tends to adhere to the assumption of the cognitive approach that views humans similarly to computers, as mere logical processors of information but if taken in isolation this is also a reductionist perspective.  So we should return to the question that is whether we are always logical in our decision making.  Well obviously there are many situations when humans demonstrate illogical and irrational decision making in life.  Examples include, when a young man with alcohol related problems decides to drive his car to work in the morning following an all-night drinking session.   Or when a married woman risks destroying her marriage and family for a few hours of guilty pleasure with another man, what drives such decision making?  Surely these examples demonstrate that we are just slightly more adapted versions of the apes with cognitive functions which at times may or may not guide us through our decision making processes.  Decision theory tends to overlook this reality, preferring rather to band aid such weaknesses in the theory.

 However recently the Ernst Stringmann Forum met in Frankfurt Germany during which the world’s most influential scientists discussed, deliberated and corroborated on whether decision theory should remain or be replaced by a more evolutionary based concept.  The meeting produced important information on the processes involved in decision making and other human behaviours.  There is no doubt that at times decision making can seem more than unusual but surprisingly they often lead to our desired outcomes and when considered in retrospect they are often viewed positively.  It is also prudent to acknowledge that most of our judgements are made spontaneously and often without much in the way of appraisal.  In fact research suggests that in an average day we can make anything between 2500 and 10,000 choices.  Such choices will range from the type of tea we purchase to the types of people with whom we choose to associate.  Furthermore these types of choices are thought to emanate from the subconscious areas of our mind.

Recent research by Ap Dijksterhuis of the Radboud University Nijmegen has revealed that our subconscious thoughts are most effective in the making difficult decisions such buying a house or a car.  Research has examined the drivers for such decisions and acknowledges the role of Heuristics.    Heuristics have been put forward as explanations for these decision making types of processes.  Heuristics are mental conventions that we apply to circumstances to facilitate efficient decision making and thus involving less cognitive processing.  Recognition Heuristics then, will apply to most scenarios involving uncertainty and these rules guide our choices toward safer alternatives.  In contrast satisficing heuristics will apply to situations when delay hinders rather than benefits and thus we are attracted towards the first option. 

  Why we sometimes make ourselves look like clowns!!

So we have learnt so far that although our decision making is mostly effective, that we are not completely rational and logical like computers.  As humans we are subject to biases, in new situations there may be limited information and so our decisions are based upon chance connections.  These chance connections are known as “Anchoring effects”, Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University and also Amos Tversky studies provide elaboration on the effects.

Kahneman and Tversky discovered that when individuals at an auction were asked to write a high number, they subsequently went onto to bid a higher than those who had written a low number.  The conclusions from the study revealed the following attitudes towards risk, that we are more cautious than logical in circumstances were there may be large gain as opposed to small loss.  Furthermore that risky options become attractive in situations where there may be small gain compared to large loss.  Most recently researchers have referred to the process of underestimating disastrous events as the Black Swan Effect. 

Other effects that influential to decision making include:

Confirmation Bias – This can be explained as when we place more value or importance on decisions that meet with our own beliefs.

Loss Aversion – This can be explained as protecting what we have rather than taking the chance of making gains.

Sunk Cost Fallacy – When considering whether to persist in a venture, we often over emphasise the investments we have already made.

Short-term bias, Temporal Discounting – we make decisions often because we have a preference for immediate smaller rewards in favour of larger ones which maybe be delayed.

Links to sites with related articles:



For further information see New Scientist 12th November Page 39 Article “Making Your mind up”.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. December 9, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    Self control is important for decision making. Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) is a mental disability, one of the symptoms being lack of self control and acting upon impulse. This means that people who have ADHD find it hard to make good, well thought through decisions. My boyfriend has ADHD and sadly through his life, he has suffered from making bad decisions.. BUT like your blog title suggests the stories he has from these decisions are a good laugh! This website is pretty interestinf on this topic: http://www.livestrong.com/article/209767-the-inability-to-make-good-decisions-with-adhd/

    • December 10, 2011 at 1:52 am

      Really good post and link Jess thanks for your contribution. The link provides lots of interesing reading on syptomatic poor judgement in individuals with ADHD. There is information on there that I wasnt really aware of until now. It got me thinking though also because my blog actually provides the science involved in decision making which is theorectical in basis, whereas your blog actually provides a biological reasoning an explanation. A very good start to the discussion, I look forward to seeing further posts.

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