Individual Decision Making Concepts

Scholars from a variety of disciplines have studied the process of decision-making for decades: psychology, political science, criminal justice, communication, etc. Each group necessarily has different interests. Among small group communication scholars, decision-making is studied as a group phenomenon as a means of understanding how to improve the process and help groups make better decisions. By contrast, psychologists are interested in the “heuristics” and “biases” that make people favor one course of action over another. Group decision-making involves both group-influenced processes, such as the seven steps noted above, as well as an assortment of personal factors based on beliefs, values, prior experience, and intellectual rigor. The following list represents a number of influential decision-making processes:

Dominant Incentive: The one thing that someone wants more than anything else (e.g., to be promoted, to maintain the status-quo, to receive more health benefits, to raise one’s status, to make more money, to protect an individual or organization, to find a suitable partner). Dominant incentives are often not obvious to others, but can be identified based on how people talk about things. Similarly, many people are not really aware of what they are ultimately interested in, not really recognizing their own dominant incentives.

Rationality and Rational Choice: Rationality refers to goal-oriented behavior. In order to have a goal in mind, a person has to have some idea of what the possible ends are. Thus, although we generally accept that humans are rational and pursue personal and group goals, in reality, many goals are not obvious until some research or experience has identified them. Additionally, although having a goal or end in mind is “rational,” how someone achieves one’s goal(s) may not be. Wanting to be promoted in an organization is “rational,” however, being willing to harm other people to get ahead is also still “rational” or goal oriented, but is clearly unethical.

For some, both activities (getting ahead and sacrificing others) are interrelated, for others mutually exclusive. Rationality does not mean ethical, only goal oriented. Rational choice is often used as a guiding assumption when studying the behavior of others—primarily because if we assumed that people were irrational there would be no value in studying them, and we do know that most people are rational from time to time. Additionally, even when people are behaving rationally, they are often swayed by non-rational variables: a pretty face, prestige, flattery, peer pressure, money, impatience, etc.

Framing: The principle that the way something is described influences how people think about something. There are many ways of framing something: situationally, based on attributes of an event or activity, by issue, based on responsibility, based on time, etc. (cf. Hallahan, 1999). Excellent examples of framing can be seen in the way that political opponents will describe the same situation in very different ways. Research on framing suggests that framing can be a very powerful took for persuasion and shaping personal and public opinion.

Groupthink: The illusion among highly cohesive group members that they are right and consequently do not need to question their ideas, each other, or possible solutions to problems. Groupthink occurs when there is insulation of a policy-making group from outsiders, when there is a lack of a group tradition of impartial leadership, and when a group lacks norms requiring methodical procedures for dealing with decision-making tasks. Because of groupthink, the following types of problems and errors occur:

  1. An incomplete survey of alternatives.
  2. An incomplete survey of objectives.
  3. A failure to examine risks of preferred choices.
  4. A failure to reappraise initially rejected alternatives.
  5. Poor information searches.
  6. A selective bias in processing information at hand.
  7. And a failure to work out contingency plans (cf. Janis, 1982).

Cognitive Miser: People who seize on the first acceptable solution that comes along and then just justify it based on their existing knowledge, rather than actually evaluating possibilities. A solution that seems to work is “good enough.” To some extent, everyone is a cognitive miser. People cannot spend every second of their life evaluating whether the things that they have come to believe are true actually are. However, in a decision-making setting, cognitive misers are problematic. Group members who are unwilling to follow the basic steps involved in good decision making like weighing alternatives, will often contribute to a poor decision making process.

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