Winter 2006 • Volume 12, Issue 1
Which psychological processes involved in
decision making are most interesting to you?
Weiten I Griggs I Stalling
“When Bradley Hilltopics asked the psychology department to comment on the topic of decision making, I thought it would be interesting to ask two of our nationally-known alumni to comment. Professors Wayne Weiten ’72 MA ’73 and Richard Griggs ’70 have published extensively in psychology, written introductory texts, and received APA awards for teaching. Bradley’s Richard Stalling, former department chair, was asked to add his perspective. None of the writers saw the others’ essays before they were finished.
While attending Bradley, Weiten took psychology classes from Dr. Stalling, Dr. Claire Etaugh, and Dr. Ronald Wasden, professor emeritus; and Stalling and Wasden have authored the widely used study guide for Weiten’s text. Coincidentally, Griggs taught three of Bradley’s faculty who attended the University of Florida: Dr. Demaris Montgomery, Dr. Forrest Files, and me.”
Dr. Derek Montgomery, associate professor of psychology
Dr. Wayne Weiten ’72 MA ’73
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Decision making involves evaluating alternatives and making choices among them. One interesting facet of this process, for me, is just how pervasive it is. Both laypeople and cognitive psychologists seem to think of decisions primarily in terms of major decisions—choices that require some serious thought. This approach makes sense, but it obscures the fact that decision making is a constant, ongoing process. For example, earlier today you decided when to get up, whether to eat breakfast, and if so, what to eat. You may have made a decision about whether to work out, and if so, how to work out. You presumably made a series of decisions about what to wear. If you then drove off to work, you may have made another series of decisions about your route, and when you pulled into the parking lot, you had to decide where to park. At some point today, you decided to pick up Bradley Hilltopics, and a moment ago you apparently decided to read this article. If I don’t make this article more interesting fairly quickly, you may soon decide to stop reading it. By now, you hopefully get my point: if you are awake, decision making is almost as pervasive as breathing. Small wonder then, that psychologists have shown a keen interest in decision making.
Decades of empirical research on decision making have yielded a vast cornucopia of fascinating findings that I could choose to discuss (here we go again—another decision) in this essay. In a general sense, perhaps the most interesting finding is that people are not as systematic and rational in their decision making as they would like to think. Research has shown repeatedly that human decision strategies are riddled with errors and biases that yield surprisingly irrational and suboptimal results.
Are there some specific, recent findings that I find especially interesting? Yes. Recent studies have shown that in making decisions, comparative evaluations of alternative options tend to yield different results than separate evaluations (assessing an option on its own, in isolation). A chronic problem faced by decision makers is that they frequently make choices based on comparative evaluations, but the chosen product, activity, or event is actually experienced in isolation. This mismatch can lead to decisions that are sub-optimal. For example, a shopper may make precise head-to-head comparisons of several speaker systems at an audio store and decide to spend an extra $1,500 on the best speakers, but at home the speakers will be experienced in isolation. There are no comparisons available at home to reaffirm the slight superiority of the selected speakers. This person may have been absolutely delighted with a much less expensive set of speakers if they had been evaluated in isolation. Thus, a host of considerations can distort decision making, which is one reason why it is such a fertile area for cognitive research.
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