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So You Think You Make Good Decisions- Really?

Making important decisions in life often have far reaching consequences. Irrational and poor decisions come at a heavy price and often have dire consequences. People tend to make poor decisions more often than we may realise. In my experience as a psychologist and coach, people regularly make decisions oblivious and ignorant of the potential harm that their decisions can cause. One just has to think, for example, of drunken and reckless driving, aggressive behaviour towards adults and children as well as other criminal acts such as the vandalism we see on TV screens of late.

Given this state of affairs, it would be advisable for us to understand the decision making or problem solving process with a view to trying to identify what steps we need to take in order to have a reasonable chance of making a “good” decision. There are basically three ways or models of decision making, namely the rational(recommended)model, the intuitive model and the garbage can(definitely not recommended) model.

As can be seen from the diagram there are a number of steps in the rational decision making model. All of these require some inputs for their successful completion, primarily time and focus on the objectives of each step/phase.
On the other hand each phase has various pitfall(s)- eg the identification of the problem phase presupposes that we are open and unbiased in terms of the way in which we view our particular part of the world and its problems/challenges. It also assumes that we have sufficient time and other resources needed to make an effective decision.
The development and choice of alternatives requires that we have a certain flexibility to question our existing and in some instances rigid/conventional ways of doing things in order to come up with innovative new solutions. In many instances we will also need to overcome our fear of failure, which can keep us immobilised and stationary like a rabbit frozen in the lights of an oncoming car at night. Finally the implementation and evaluation stages implies that we are able/have the where withal(equipment if necessary) to measure the success or not of our respective attempts(actions) at problem resolution.

The second model is the Intuitive model and as the name implies, it relies heavily on intuition(gut feel) ,which essentially developes over time. It requires a good knowledge of ones inner emotional state and the ability to be guided by your feelings. This model can, according to Malcolm Gladwell(author of “Blink”), be very accurate if it is backed up by high levels of practise. He quotes cases of professional gamblers, medical professionals etc who are able to make accurate decisions based on the evidence gained over a very short space of time(minutes or even seconds). This however can be very risky and therefore is not advisable, particularly if the stakes are high.

The last model is the garbage can model and, as the name suggests, does not need much explanation nor is it recommended. Garbage in equals garbage out. It implies that what you put in terms of your attention and focus is what you will receive in terms of outcome or result. What never ceases to amaze is the number of people who operate in terms of this model by not thinking through the consequences of their decisions eg persons who decide to continue to engage in self harming behaviours such as using substances, nicotine, excessive alcohol despite the evidence(blood tests etc) as to what these substances are doing to their bodies.

Another interesting phenomenon associated with decision making is the so-called “Concord effect” in which the person(s) involved continue(s) to invest time and money into a seemingly bad or irrational decision despite evidence to the contrary, in the hope that one day, usually in the distant future, things will turn around. (The Concord was the supersonic airliner which flew between New York and London for many years but was never economically viable). This type of thinking is also used by gamblers who keep punting in the hope of hitting the jackpot.

In conclusion, if we understand the decision making process then we can be better armed when we make those big decisions in our lives, like resigning from our job, getting married, buying a house or car. We certainly need to avoid at all costs being pressured into making “quick” decisions over important matters particularly by unscrupulous salesmen!

Tony de Gouveia is a Clinical Psychologist and Resilience Coach at Akeso Clinic Alberton
Tel: 907 2811x220 / 082 456 5046 ; www.TonydeGouveiaPsychologist.webs.com

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