Individual Decision-Making Is a Rat’s Nest of Distortions

bad decision-making

As Daniel Kahneman describes, there are two types of thinking. The first called System 1 thinking is quick, immediate, impulsive, emotional, and reptilian. It has its foundation in our early evolutionary development and has the advantage of being responsive quickly and almost automatically. So, sexually charged messages are processed without much thought and on the basis of an immediate emotional and physiological response. System 2 thinking came later in human development and it is slow, deliberative, and reflective. This is how decisions are supposed to be made in democracies and in the context of complex data and argument.

Cass Sunstein in his work on decision-making explains how there are not enough System 2 thinkers and, moreover, there is a tendency to think decision-making is mostly subject to System 2 thinking when much of it is corrupted by the anger and emotions of System 1 thinking. This is the trap of believing that individuals mostly maximize rational preferences and are rational actors. Sunstein and his associates in a number of their publications (cf. Wiser: Getting beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter) claim that groups should be more deliberative and subject to System 2 thinking and therefore make better decisions. But they don’t.

Individuals who are making decisions are a rat’s nest of biases, distortions, and prejudices. They are overconfident, emotional, and will follow the herd. Their thinking is clouded by interpersonal relations including status hierarchies they wish to respect; they repress information that might upset someone; they seek information that confirms what they believe already and they are overly influenced by other individuals who are either attractive, particularly persuasive, or maintain some psychological “hold” on the individual. People who hold on to ideological beliefs with great fortitude and refuse to budge from their belief system, who automatically incorporate every position other than their own as either a threat or something to be embraced devolve into System 1 thinkers. This describes the Congressional Republicans as well as nationalistic and religious zealots.

System 1 thinking is so typically distorted and commonplace in decision-making groups that research has shown that decisions can be improved if members don’t meet. Statistical groups are sometimes superior because they focus on the task and eliminate social influences. But statistical groups do not have the epistemic advantage of communication which, if participants can overcome their distortions and improve their argumentative skills, has the potential of producing new knowledge and creative outcomes.

Statistical non-interactive groups may offer some decision-making advantages that accrue through the cumulative effects of individual knowledge and information. But they are quite deficient when dealing with deep differences and those who are intolerant and prejudice prone. The value and effectiveness of the contact hypothesis is a well-established and even demonstrates positive results with the most intolerant and ideological. Threat and anxiety reduction are one of the theoretical benefits of contact and these apply also to the highly intolerant.


About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on October 2, 2015, in Communication and Conflict Resolution and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I happened upon this interesting blog a week or so ago and have been following your posts and reading some from the past. Thank you for putting in the considerable effort to make your ideas available here. You certainly write about things that interest me. And you reference others whose articles and books I have also read. In the interest of sharing viewpoints, I’d like to offer some thoughts on today’s post about decision-making.

    I have some problems with Khaneman’s fast and slow thinking dichotomy. Firstly, it is inappropriately named. All ‘thinking’ is slow compared to ‘impulsive’ decision-making. But humans, like all mammals and most other animals, are designed to make behavior decisions impulsively. That is, at the urging of emotional forces that we are seldom aware of.

    We do have a cognitive reasoning ability that’s far more developed in human adults than other mammals, it’s true. But, I’d propose that when we humans do our reasoning thing over a decision, the process, no matter how ‘logical’ a conclusion may seem to us at the time – does not directly cause behavior choice. Instead, it allows additional emotional forces to arise that then can contribute to the final behavior choice.

    Our highly (and recently) evolved cognitive faculties are themselves a type of behavior. That is, they are called into action (impulsively) when our brain responds to emotional triggers. It has learned from experience that cognitive deliberation would likely be useful in a particular context – and so delays the final behavior choice while deliberation occurs. For example, we know from experience, that when we leave a hotel room, to do a final ‘stupid check’ – to deliberate a bit over what we may have left in the closet, under the bed covers or in the bathroom.

    The process of deliberation itself is subject to many distortions – biases – as you, Khaneman and others have noted. That’s why in many critical human behavior choices where a lot of “well-being” – of the inclusive fitness type -is at stake, humans are very likely to follow their more ‘instinctive’ urges that the results of their logical deliberations – if they have time to make them. That is, their brain may discount’ their logical conclusions, as it knows from experience that they can often be wrong in that context. That’s not just because of biases BTW. There are many problems that are too complex and beyond the ability of reasoning to solve. Those are usually the problems where much is at stake – like life and death.

    For example, soldiers are correctly taught through repetitive exercises under stressful conditions to respond to an ambush by immediately attacking the enemy. Another example is driving a car. We start, having to use our deliberative mind to use the brake to slow and the gas to go. Steering wheel top to left to turn left, etc. It is a very ineffective way to drive and so our Dad’s take us to an empty parking lot to practice. But once we’ve had enough repetitions under various conditions – we can drive along the freeway at 65mph talking to a friend on our cellphone earbud while our hands and feet keep our vehicle centered in the lane and at a safe distance from other vehicles – with almost no cognitive input at all.

    So, it’s not as simple as slow’ thinking is good and ‘fast’ thinking is bad – either for groups or individuals. It’s developing healthy impulsive instincts that produce behaviors in certain contexts that benefit us. And especially, the instinct to realize when our instincts or deliberations are more likely to be correct or not – to help us or hurt us.

  2. Fair enough and plenty of good points.

  3. To connect my comment more directly to the focus of your interesting blog, I might summarize my views on behavior thusly:

    Those who study human behavior tend to look for answers too often in the cognitive realm – rather than the non-conscious emotional zone – which is the area that I believe may have ultimate control of behavior decisions in all complex animals. I suspect that internal emotional ‘forces’ evolved in the central nervous systems of almost all animals for this purpose – to create psychological vectors for directing behavior choice. It seems unlikely to me that our species could have evolved a fundamentally different neural engine for behavior choice in the last million years or so.

    This preference for cognitive analysis is very evident, I believe, in attempts to understand the motivation for (and therefore the justification of) the actions of Israel’s Arab-Muslim enemies, for example. And also in trying to understand why Israel responds to attacks far less violently and more carefully than any other Western state would, in similar circumstances.

    Westerners continuously analyse social behavior from an assumption that other cultures produce the same behavior as we would, in their situation. Since all humans have the ability to reason, and it is a brain activity that we are easily aware of in ourselves and others and can measure and discuss, we largely judge and respond to the behavior of other cultures from a cognitive view of their actions.

    In short, I believe we implicitly hold to an inaccurate model for human behavior choice. This is the paradigm that we are the ‘thinking’ animal and therefore reasoning must be the primary arbiter of behavior choice in the human species. It likewise deprecates emotional forces in humans, often as no more than interesting side effects.

    I don’t pretend to be a scholar in this field although I find it fascinating. I look forward to blog posts in the future where you might discuss your views on these questions in more detail as I’m always eager to to learn from real professionals . Thanks

  4. A “non–conscious emotional zone” is by definition a problem since if it is non-conscious then what access do we have to it and what could we possibly know about it. There is a general automatic and reptilian response as well as more considered ones but as you correctly point out they may not be that distinct. I will, as you request, say more about these things in the future.

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