What Would a Rational Decision Look Like?

Three doors
People often have to use incomplete information and intuition to make even the most important of decisions. A fully rational decision requires a careful, systematic process. [Image: CC0 Public Domain, https://goo.gl/m25gce]

Imagine that during your senior year in college, you apply to a number of doctoral programs, law schools, or business schools (or another set of programs in whatever field most interests you). The good news is that you receive many acceptance letters. So, how should you decide where to go? Bazerman and Moore (2013) outline the following six steps that you should take to make a rational decision: (1) define the problem (i.e., selecting the right graduate program), (2) identify the criteria necessary to judge the multiple options (location, prestige, faculty, etc.), (3) weight the criteria (rank them in terms of importance to you), (4) generate alternatives (the schools that admitted you), (5) rate each alternative on each criterion (rate each school on each criteria that you identified, and (6) compute the optimal decision. Acting rationally would require that you follow these six steps in a fully rational manner.

I strongly advise people to think through important decisions such as this in a manner similar to this process. Unfortunately, we often don’t. Many of us rely on our intuitions far more than we should. And when we do try to think systematically, the way we enter data into such formal decision-making processes is often biased.

Fortunately, psychologists have learned a great deal about the biases that affect our thinking. This knowledge about the systematic and predictable mistakes that even the best and the brightest make can help you identify flaws in your thought processes and reach better decisions.


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What Would a Rational Decision Look Like? Copyright © by Philip Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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