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Psychology’s Take on How to Make Decisions

People solve problems all day long and make hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions every day. In fact, psychology calls this mental exhaustion “decision fatigue” — simply having too many problems and making too many decisions in a given day. Some choices are life or death, some less so; but it all adds up.

Decision making is the act of choosing an option or action from a set of options based on criteria and a strategy. The study of decision making is really a complex cross-discipline science in and of itself, spanning economics, political science, computer science, management and business, and marketing.

How people make choices

Flipping a coin is one way to make a decision, but that’s not really a cognitive process, is it? It’s simply a way of letting chance choose for you — it’s not really choosing at all. But people do make choices by using processes such as intuitive decision making which refers to choices based on what is most easy, familiar, or preferred.

Decisions can also come from a more scientific approach based on empirical evidence through trial and error, experiment, estimation, experience, or consultation with an expert. Consumer Reports provides experimental evidence to tell you which blender to buy or which brand of deodorant to use.

If you are pressed for time or need to make a lot of decisions with limited resources, then your choice for choosing may be to use a heuristic, which is a mental short cut based on principles, rules, maxims, and so forth. Ethical decision making can be considered heuristic, choosing based on a code of ethics.

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman studied heuristic decision making and identified different types of this model. Here are two commonly used heuristics:

  • Representative heuristic: Making a choice based on the situation in question being similar to another situation.

  • Availability heuristic: Making a decision based on how easily or readily available information is. This is the “first thing that comes to mind” approach to choosing.


Reasoning is a thinking process that involves two basic components:

  • Premises: These are statements about some object or event that support a conclusion. Premises declare some state of affairs such as, “All fire trucks are red.” Another premise may be, “My dad drives a fire truck at work.”

  • Conclusions: The points derived from the premises. They are only valid if they can be logically or reasonably drawn from the premises. A logical conclusion for the premises stated here may be, “My dad drives a red truck at work.”

Reasoning is the act of drawing conclusions based on the truth of the premises that precede the conclusion. Reasoning can help people figure out if their conclusions are valid or if they make logical sense. When arguments make logical sense, reasoning is good. It makes logical sense that my dad drives a red fire truck at work because this follows from the premises.

There are two basic types of reasoning:

  • Inductive: In inductive reasoning, you begin with making observations (the premises) in order to collect facts to support or disconfirm (validate) some hypothetically stated outcome or situation (the conclusion).

    Consider the following:

    Monday it rained.
    Tuesday it rained.
    Therefore, I conclude that Wednesday it is going to rain.

    This is an example of inductive reasoning. Two observations or premises are used to predict a third outcome.

  • Deductive: Deductive reasoning uses premises that claim to provide conclusive proof of truth for the conclusion. A conclusion based on deductive logic is by necessity true provided that it begins with true premises. Deduction often begins with generalizations and reasons to particulars.

    Consider the following example of deductive reasoning:

    All men should be free.
    I am a man.
    Therefore, I should be free.

The conclusion follows logically from the two premises. It has to be that way based on what is stated in the premises.

How to solve problems

Newell and Simon (1972) are pretty much the godfathers of problem-solving psychology. Nearly every research study on the topic cites their study. They defined these basic steps of the problem-solving process:

  1. Recognizing that a problem exists

  2. Constructing a representation of the situation that includes the initial state of the problem and the eventual goal (a solution)

  3. Generating and evaluating possible solutions

  4. Selecting a solution to attempt

  5. Executing the solution and determining if it actually works

These steps are sometimes identified by the acronym IDEAL, which Bransford and Stein formulated in 1993:

I — Identify the problem
D — Define and represent the problem
E — Explore possible strategies
A — Action
L — Look back and evaluate the effects

The world has as many problem-solving strategies as there are problems, but most people tend to use the same ones over and over again. For instance, trial and error is a popular way to solve a problem. Young children use trial and error when trying to put shapes into their respective holes in a bucket. A child will pick up the circle block and try putting it in every cut-out until it fits, and then move on to the next block.

Here are a couple more common problem-solving techniques:

  • Means-ends analysis: This strategy involves breaking the problem down into smaller sub-problems to solve to get to the end result.

  • Working backwards: This way to solve a problem is like taking something apart and putting it back together again in order to figure out how the object (or problem) is built.

  • Brainstorming: A technique that involves coming up with as many possible solutions to the problem without editing them in any way. It doesn’t matter how implausible, unfeasible, idiotic, or ridiculous the solutions are; you just put them all out there and eliminate them after you can’t think of any more possible solutions.

  • Analogies and metaphors: These strategies involve using a parallel or similar problem that has already been solved to solve a previously unrelated problem. The Cuban Missile Crisis was like a nuclear-powered game of chicken, and whoever flinched, blinked, or chickened out first was the loser.

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