Decision Making – Just as life is a series of problems to solve, it is also a series of decisions to make, from the simple ‘do I feel like cereal, or toast for breakfast today?’ to the more complex ‘what career is right for me?’ Decision making is the cognitive process where a person makes a single choice or course of action amongst several alternates, usually by weighing the negative and positive attributes of each possible choice. Here are some decision making techniques that people typically use:
- Pros and cons -listing the negative and positive outcomes of each option, popularised by Plato.
- Simple prioritisation – choosing the alternative with the highest probability weighted value for each alternative.
- Satisficing – using the first acceptable option found.
- Following orders.
- Flipism – leaving the decision to chance, usually by flipping a coin.
- Prayer, tarot cards or any other form of divination.
- Doing the opposite.
In the above clip of Seinfeld, George Costanza, realising that his life is the exact opposite of what he had hoped to achieve, decides to do the opposite of everything he usually does with striking results!
Explicit and Implicit Thinking – Explicit cognition, which is cognition that involves conscious manipulation of representations is only one form of thinking that has been covered so far. More often that not, people rely on cognitive shortcuts known as heuristics, which allow people to make rapid, but sometimes irrational judgements. One example is the representativeness heuristic, in which people categorise by matching the similarity of an object or incident to a prototype but ignore information about its probability of occurring. For example, a mother might use a representativeness heuristic to make snap judgements about a heavy metal concert based on a violent outbreak she read about in the paper. She won’t allow her son to go the concert because she believes he will get hurt, she has made this decision rapidly by using a heuristic, but has failed to acknowledge the probability that violence will actually occur at the concert and her son will get hurt.
Another heuristic that is commonly used is the availability heuristic, which is where people infer the frequency of an event occurring based on how easily an example can be brought to mind. That is, people essentially assume that events they can recall are typical. Growing up in a media centered society where the news is very selective about what sort of stories they cover fuels our tendency to use an availability heuristic. For example, an interesting statistic states that “falling coconuts kill 150 people worldwide each year, 15 times the number of fatalities attributable to sharks’. Despite this knowledge, people are more likely to think of sharks as being more dangerous than coconuts. If you were to take a lonely stroll through a beach under some coconut trees, no one would think twice to warn you, but if you were to go surfing alone.. chances are you, or someone else is going to be thinking about sharks.
We assume that shark attacks are more common than coconut attacks because we hear about it more, if one person gets killed, or even attacked by a shark, everyone will hear about it on the news, while if someone gets damaged or killed by a falling coconut, no one hears about it. Movies are also never made about falling coconuts, while films like Jaws and Deep Blue Sea exist to play on our fears of giant man eating sharks. This is an example of an availability heuristic, as we are more likely to think that shark attacks are more frequent than they actually are, due to how easily we can think about their occurrence.
Because of our tendency to make decisions without examining all of the information and facts available, researchers have suggested that human thought is highly susceptible to error. Underlying this view is the notion of bounded rationality, that people are rational within the bounds imposed by their environment, goals and abilities. Thus, instead of making optimal judgements, people typically make good enough judgements. Herbert Simon (1956) called this satisficing, a combination of satisfying and sufficing. When we choose a place to have dinner for example, we don’t not go through every restaurant in the phone book, weigh up the nutritional value of certain foods and glance through hundreds of menus. Instead we go through a list of restaurants that come to mind and choose the one that seems the most satisfying at the moment, often this boils down to whether we feel like McDonalds or KFC.
The classic model of rationality emphasises conscious reflection. Yet many of the judgements and inferences people make occur outside of awareness, that is they just appear in our minds without actively thinking about them, this is known as implicit cognition, or cognition outside our awareness. Most learning occurs outside awareness, for example how long to hold eye contact with a friend compared with a stranger, or how long to hug somebody or how firm to shake someone’s hand, none of these things are taught explicitly to us, but we learn all these things anyway – implicitly through direct and indirect observation. We learn these behaviours without ever really consciously thinking about them.
Implicit problem solving can also occur, when an answer ‘hits you’ days after you may have given up trying to solve it. Implicit problem solving of this sort occurs through the activity of associational networks, as information associated with unresolved problems remain active outside awareness. Information related to these unsolved problems appear to remain active for extended periods. Over time, other thoughts or environmental cues that occur throughout the day are likely to spread further activation to parts of the network. If enough activation reaches a potential solution, it will force the answer free and catapult it into consciousness. This might explain what happens when people wake up from a dream with the answer to a problem, since elements of the dream can also spread activation to networks involving the unsolved problem. So if you have a problem that you just can’t solve, just sleep on it!