“Decisions, decisions, decisions”—a phrase that is perhaps one of the most expressive, yet relevant cornerstones of the English language. The number of decisions that human beings make across the life span is perhaps inestimable; the decision “continuum” is seemingly endless, extending from choices about education, marital partner, career, parenting, and place of residence to deciding what clothes to wear on a given day. Throughout life, trial and error allows an individual to become more informed about options and probable outcomes, enhancing one’s ability to make more adaptive choices. For the high school grad, such a process might be used to decide on what college to attend. Here, the student might evaluate various schools to determine those that best support his/her academic pursuits. In addition, the student might attempt to identify how the attributes of different schools (e.g., faculty, curricula) compare, and subsequently generate a favorability rating based upon which programs of study best meet his/her needs. Subsequently, the student engages in a weighing process that evaluates the relevance of specific institutional characteristics (e.g., student retention rates, length of program, tuition costs), and how each attribute might support his/her goals and objectives. Finally, one might generate an average that reflects an overall rating of the institution—a mental “big picture” that supports the final decision. Here, that idea that decision-making is not an event—but a process—cannot be over-emphasized.
For most people, the ability to remain objective about their decisions is often influenced by heuristics—shortcuts used to reduce the mental effort involved in decision-making. Given the rapid pace of life and the need for people to accomplish as much as possible in the shortest amount of time, it should come as no surprise that people seek economical and convenient decision-making tools. Heuristics are often based on representativeness; when traveling on vacation to a far away land, one might believe that the “natives are friendly” based on testimonies that have been reinforced by the travel agent, in the travel publications, and by friends and family who have vacationed there. Heuristics can also be driven by information that is available at a given time; the extent to which one believes that it is “common”, “frequent”, or “normal” for all middle-aged males to experience a mid-life crisis is often influenced by one’s degree of exposure to this concept. While such beliefs have little or nothing to do with how true or real the concept is, the extent to which it is ingrained in one’s psyche can have a far-reaching impact on prevailing beliefs and attitudes. Finally, a common heuristic pertains to anchoring and adjustment; when one prepares to purchase an item at a negotiable sale price, the buyer usually has a price in mind (i.e., anchor), but is perhaps willing to marginally increase the price at which they are willing to buy (i.e., adjustment). Given the various mental, emotional, and contextual factors that influence the decision making process, it can perhaps be assumed that people do not exclusively employ objectivity or subjectivity—but a combination thereof—when making decisions.
In addition to heuristics, different perceptual biases influence one’s ability to arrive at decisions. One often perceives an association between specific events—despite there being no definitive relationship. This experience, referred to as illusory correlation, is often experienced by personal trainers; while it might be assumed that an overweight trainee might have difficulty with balance, coordination, and range of motion, he/she might actually demonstrate greater agility, flexibility, and responsivity than others who are within normal weight limits. Further, people are often subject to hindsight bias given the tendency to perceive something to be far more predictable than it actually is; the idea that we “knew it all along” extends to the erroneous predictions about sporting events, weather patterns, and electoral outcomes that are based upon previous experiences. Finally, a fallacy common to gamblers is based upon the erroneous assumption that previous positive experiences (i.e., winning) will invariably lead to future positive experiences (i.e., more winning). While perhaps possible, no definitive relationship exists between previous and future events of any kind, in any area of interest, despite how much one would like to believe this to be true. How many times has a string of fortunate events erroneously reinforced the belief that such luck would only continue? Yes, it’s true: luck does run out.
While there are many assumptions that can be made about the questionable impact of heuristics and biases on decision-making, it can equally be argued that such thinking could lead to responsible and practical decisions. Perhaps the best example of the benefits of such thinking is the take-the-best heuristic, which suggests that one often identifies the most critical aspect of a situation and uses that as their guiding principle in the decision making process. Given the need to ignore some information (i.e., public opinion, hearsay) while paying attention to other information (i.e., proven facts), people can make rational decisions when they purchase an item or design a new fitness program, or perhaps enhance one’s sense of reason and discernment when selecting a college. The ability to make good decisions is perhaps a product of experiential learning—the reality of making errors, and learning from them, is a highly adaptive, survival-promoting fact of life. By acknowledging the beliefs, values, and experiences that inform decisions, one can then begin to better understand the factors that support sound decision making and, as a result, lead happier, healthier lives.