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Winter 2006 • Volume 12, Issue 1

Which psychological processes involved in
decision making are most interesting to you?

Weiten I Griggs I Stalling

Dr. Richard Stalling
Bradley University

Stalling imageTo begin a discussion of decision making calls for a couple of assumptions: that there is an external world of reality, and that we have access to it through some sort of sensory/cognitive apparatus. The first assumption is required to begin the conversation. The second assumption creates problems because, while we ordinarily operate as if the inner world of thought matches the outer world, a moment’s reflection and a great deal of research indicate that this is not necessarily the case. I’ll limit my comments to two categories: (1) heuristic versus systematic processing and (2) group influence.

Several models propose that in making decisions we follow either a heuristics route, involving quick, perhaps intuitive reactions or else a systematic route, by which we rationally ponder alternative arguments and outcomes. In considering whom to vote for, we might ask someone (the heuristics route), or we might engage in detailed weighing of the issues (the systematic route).

The heuristics route works well but has some built-in biases or errors described by Daniel Kahneman (Nobel in economics, 2002) and his colleague Amos Tversky. Here’s an abbreviated example from their work: A stranger describes a short, slim person who likes to read poetry. Which is more likely, that the person is a professor of classics from an Ivy League university or a truck driver? Our quick, intuitive, heuristic decision is that it’s the professor, and that is what most subjects indicate. But, as our recent psychology graduates are likely to know, there are more than three million truck drivers in the U.S.—and only a handful of people in the other category. This use of representativeness heuristics causes us to ignore probability.

In some sense, group influence could be considered a type of heuristic. Without much thought we abide by group norms. Conformity allows us to function, but there are pernicious forms of it. After Kennedy’s ill-conceived invasion of Cuba, Irving Janis proposed the notion of groupthink: groups characterized by isolation, high concurrence-seeking, and directive leadership (like Kennedy’s inner circle), tend to make bad decisions. One would think that a lesson had been learned, but Vietnam, Watergate, and the Challenger disaster are more recently cited textbooks cases. Is Iraq yet another example? Even those who initially favored the invasion point to badly flawed decisions.

The treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib was not in what most of us like to think of as the American tradition, and was clearly not in our rational self-interest. How can we account for it? The “few bad apples” theory favored by the administration has little resonance in psychological literature, but consider these two alternative models. In Philip Zimbardo’s simulated prison at Stanford, undergraduate boys randomly assigned to be guards developed norms of tormenting boys randomly assigned to be prisoners. In Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiment, subjects ordered to deliver severe electric shocks to a helpless stranger did so. The surprise (to Milgram as well as his readers) was that it wasn’t the rare, sadistic outsider who obeyed but the majority of participants. It is impossible to know if these models apply to Abu Ghraib. One suggests that the guards’ behavior arose in the normal course of group interaction; the other suggests that people are likely to engage in behaviors they find abhorrent when instructed to do so. Either way, our leaders should anticipate these well-chronicled human reactions.

I have just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Blink. He has a point: sometimes we may know more intuitively in the blink of an eye, especially about facial expressions, than after an exhaustive analysis. More often, I suspect, what we call intuition is the desire to conserve cognitive energy with the use of heuristics.


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