The Science of Decision-Making
Big decisions can seemingly feel as if they could be put off indefinitely. After all, decisions can be overwhelming. This can be frustrating given that most of us face big decisions on a regular basis. The process of making these decisions can be mentally and physically daunting, resulting in running all possible outcomes, overthinking and analyzing every detail until you feel immobilized.
Here’s what you need to know. There is a science behind how we make decisions. However, compared to the multitude of theories and understandings of the nature of science, researchers have given sparse attention to the science of decision making. Nonetheless, understanding the science behind making decisions can be helpful when making large decisions, trying to target bad habits or even when trying to implement new behaviors.
For many conducting neuroscience research, decision-making often involves an individual conducting a logical analysis in circumstances of certainty or individuals may take the form of a cost-benefit analysis in situations of uncertainty. In situations with certitude, the probability of most persons making a clear choice is moderately high; however, when choices involve a cost-benefit analysis and hesitation, there is more unpredictability and individual dissimilarity in the outcome (1). Additionally, an individual often reflects on your experience(s) and values as well as future outcomes of the decision, as part of the foundation for making that decision (2). Thus, the type of decision-making process may lead to different outcomes and different cognitive operations for individuals.
It has also long been accepted that emotions influence decision making (3). Individuals rely on internal cues as well as external contextual information, which can positively or harmfully impact the emotional state surrounding the decision-making process (4). It has even been proposed that individuals rely on pretend reasoning and emotion are separate cognitive domains as a key element of the decision-making process (5). In fact, decision making may be guided by the emotional evaluation of an action’s consequences given that individuals must be able to provide a common metric for evaluating choices and making a decision. For some researchers, this metric is the somatic marker (Bechara et al., 2000; Damasio, 1996) in which bodily sensations imply a link to physiological experience and emotion that influences the cognitive operations of decision making. Moreover, decision-making may actually be guided by the emotional evaluation of an action’s penalties and significances, given that individuals must be able to provide a common metric for evaluating choices and making a decision (2).
The science behind decision making has it that, decision making involves multifaceted cognitive and emotional managing, as well as individual judgements of risk and reward. Furthermore, Cognitive Neuroscience can be highly informative in helping us understand the types of “decision mistakes” that as human beings we are more prone to making. For example, Daniel Kahneman’s work on the psychology of judgement and decision making and behavioral economics (6) (Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, 2002). Daniel Kahneman identified the human errors that arise from heuristics and biases (7). We help you understand this information and apply it to your particular dilemma.
Whether caused by “normal human error”, the complexity of the decision, general indecisiveness, depression, anxiety, obsessional tendencies or a temporary inappropriate experience causing retreat, the insight from a trained professional is useful. If you have difficulty making decisions confidently, working with someone who understands the process of decision making can help you examine several sides of the issues and creatively generate options for action, in the attempt to engage more thoughtful and productive decision-making.
- Gazzaniga MS, Heatherton TF. Psychological science: Mind, brain, and behavior. Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic; 2002.
- Lamar, M. (2006, June). Neuroscience and decision making. In Presentation at” Improving the Decision-Taking Process in Institutions” workshop, London School of Economics.
- Vartanian O, Mandel DR, editors. Neuroscience of decision making. Psychology Press; 2011 Apr 14.
- Adolphs R, Tranel D, Bechara A, Damasio H, Damasio AR. Neuropsychological approaches to reasoning and decision-making. In Neurobiology of decision-making 1996 (pp. 157-179). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
- Bechara A, Damasio H, Damasio AR. Emotion, decision making and the orbitofrontal cortex. Cerebral cortex. 2000 Mar 1;10(3):295-307.
- Daniel K, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011.
- Tversky A., Kahneman D. Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Science, New Series, Vol 185, Number 4157. (Sep 27, 1974), pp. 1124, 1131.