Are We Good Decision Makers?

An interesting debate in the decision making field is: Are we good decision makers?

The debate occurs most contentiously between supporters of Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman and those in Gerd Gigerenzer’s camp. Supporters of Tversky and Kahneman argue that in the 1970’s the core assumption in social science was that people were excellent decision makers. Thus their work naturally focused on showing people making mistakes. People after reading Tversky and Kahneman are often left with the conclusion that human beings are rubbish decision makers.

Gigerenzer reacted against this. One of his missions has been to show that we are actually pretty good at certain decisions. He’d argue that a lot of things we get wrong are because of how the problems are presented. For instance, we are decent at understanding frequencies, e.g. 1 in 10, so why criticize us for finding percentages, e.g. 10%, confusing? I personally find Gigerenzer’s point useful. Social science seems to have done a flip and now scholars are only too willing to conclude that people are “irrational”. The problem is that irrationality is poorly defined and the lay definition dismisses us as headless chickens. If you believe people are fundamentally irrational it causes major problems not just with the marketing concept but it is hard to support democracy.

I think we can be a bit more forgiving of ourselves as decision makers. Yes we don’t meet some ideals but often these ideals are a) impossible to use, b) mutually inconsistent, and c) not socially desirable. Yes people make mistakes. Yes we do stupid things. That said we don’t always mess up. Often we do quite well solving ridiculously complex social problems.

Exactly what you think of human decision making is somewhat a personal opinion. We do have failures and we aren’t logic machines but we aren’t totally useless. “…simple heuristics [Decision Rules] can be a surprisingly effective way of making many decisions” (Gigerenzer 2008). Our decision making is often pretty decent.

Read: Gerd Gigerenzer, Rationality for Mortals, Oxford University Press, 2008.