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Are We Good Decision Makers?

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

The Debate: Are We Good Decision Makers?

This 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. Why then criticize us for finding percentages, e.g. 10%, confusing? Best just change the way you present numbers. Fish are great swimmers but not if you put them in mud.

I personally find Gigerenzer’s point useful. Social science seems to have done a flip. Now scholars are only too willing to conclude that people are “irrational”. The problem is that irrationality is poorly defined. The lay definition dismisses us as headless chickens. If you believe people are fundamentally irrational it causes major problems. These problems are not just with the marketing concept. How can you serve customers who don’t know what they want? Furthermore, if you believe people are poor decision-makers it is hard to support democracy.

How You See The Quality Of A Decision Depends Upon Your Comparison

Be A Bit More Forgiving Of Errors

I think we can be a bit more forgiving of ourselves as decision-makers. Yes, we don’t meet some ideals. Yet, often these ideals are often literally impossible to use. They can often be mutually inconsistent. Finally, many proposed decision-making rules are not socially desirable. Yes, people make mistakes. And 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. We certainly aren’t logic machines. That said, 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.

For more on decision-making see here, here, and here.

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

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