Saturday, October 24, 2009

Reason Makes us Men: an argument for rational decision making

Below is a paper I turned in for my advanced decision modeling course a couple days ago.

Reason Makes Us Men:

becoming an effective decision maker through systematic thinking


Because the only thing that makes us men, and distinguishes us from the beasts, I would prefer to believe that it exists, in its entirety, in each of us…
— Descartes
From our earthly parents we have inherited a brain and body heavily influenced by non-rational factors such as emotions, hormones, and the pressure to comply with one’s zeitgeist. These non-rational factors can lead to poor decision making by decreasing the magnitude of a decision’s expected net benefit. However, from our spiritual parents we have received the endowment of human reason, which can often affect the opposite result. In this paper I explore 1) some common cognitive biases and shortfalls of normal human decision making and 2) how overcoming these shortfalls through rational processes suggested by authors such as Saaty, Raiffa, and Bardach help one become an effective decision maker.

Some common cognitive biases and shortfalls of normal human decision making

Being that reason belongs to everyone but good judgment to only a few, man is prone to every kind of illusion.
— Schopenhauer
In 1961 a tribunal began the war crimes trial of Holocaust overlord Adolf Eichmann. Three months later, Stanley Milgram began an experiment to determine whether there was a mutuality of morality between Eichmann and his accomplices in the Holocaust. In a strikingly simple experiment, he separated research participants into “learners” and “teachers.” The teachers were instructed to inflict increasingly severe electric shocks to the learners when the learners failed to remember word pairings[1]. In stark contrast to the predictions of college students and colleagues, over half of the teachers continued to administer progressive shocks all the way to the lethal maximum voltage. This and subsequent experiments[2] demonstrated, among other results, that normal people are willing to set aside their reason when ordered to act by an authority.
Why it is so much easier for a man to drop an incendiary bomb from thousands of feet in the air than to stab a bound mother to death with a bayonet in cold blood, though the result of each choice as measured by destruction of innocent life are so conspicuously disparate? Or why this reality: “Large numbers are found to lack meaning and to be underweighted in decisions unless they convey affect (feeling). As a result, we respond strongly to individuals in need but often fail to act effectively in the face of mass tragedies from nature or human malevolence.[3]” Even a rational process is subject to distortions: “At every stage of the decision-making process, misperceptions, biases, and other tricks of the mind can distort the choices we make.[4]” In addition to the many psychological traps identified by Raiffa, Keeney, and Hammond, the naturalistic fallacy, the availability heuristic, avoiding cognitive dissonance, the fundamental attribution error, and innumeracy constitute a few more of the dozens of examples of cognitive biases and inhibitions to rational decision-making to which humans are prone. (See for a list of about 100 such biases.)

How overcoming these shortfalls through rational processes suggested by authors such as Saaty, Raiffa, and Bardach help one become an effective decision maker

So how do to we build decision models in a way that that gives due consideration to both moral and practical consequences? Mr. Slovic suggests that this is through using what he terms “System 2,” or analytic, thinking (rather than “gut feeling,” or System 1). “Long before we had invented probability theory, risk assessment, and decision analysis, there was intuition, instinct, and gut feeling, honed by experience, to tell us whether an animal was safe to approach or the water was safe to drink. As life became more complex and humans gained more control over their environment, analytic ways of thinking, known as System 2, evolved to boost the rationality of our experiential reactions.[5]” Raiffa in Smart Choices describes his “System 2” approach: “We show you what you need to consider in evaluating your options and the steps you need to take to arrive at the smart choice” (xii). Saaty and Bardach also posit system 2 approaches[6]. System 2 is considered rationally superior to system 1: “Thoughtful deliberation takes effort. Fortunately evolution has equipped us with sophisticated cognitive and perceptual mechanisms that can guide us through our daily lives efficiently, with minimal need for “deep thinking.” I have referred to these mechanisms as System 1.[7]”. Therefore, System 2 approaches hold the potential to overcome cognitive biases, System 1 impulses, and what Raiffa terms “psychological traps” (see Chapter 10, Smart Choices).
System 2 is more likely lead to smart choices. Raiffa goes as far as to say, and I would agree, that “By now it should be clear that the art of good decision making lies in systematic thinking.[8]” Consequently, overcoming the shortcomings identified above through rational structures such as those suggested by decision analysis scholars Raiffa, Saaty, and Bardach helps one become a more effective decision maker.


It's the luminous spark of reason that grants us lordship over the animals, endows us with cell phones, and offers hope, even in our darkest hours, that our species will somehow calculate the way forward to a brighter tomorrow.
Bruno Maddox
Cognitive biases, emotions, hormones, and societal and biological drives to comply can sometimes lead to poor decision making. However, these influences can be managed by adherence to rational decision making models such as those elucidated by Raiffa, Saaty, and Bardach. These processes can overcome many of the inhibitors of rational decision making and, therefore, contribute to a culture of rational, effective decision making.

[1] Blass, Thomas. (2002), "The Man Who Shocked the World,"Psychology Today, 35:(2), Mar/Apr 2002.
[2] Blass, Thomas. "The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority," Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1999, vol. 29 no. 5, pp. 955-978.
[3] Slovic, Paul. “Thinking and Deciding Rationally About Catastrophic Losses of Human Lives.” Chapter to appear in The Irrational Economist: Future Directions in Behavioral Economics and Risk Management.
[4] Raiffa. Smart Choices, pgs 210-211.
[5]Slovic, pgs. 8-9.
[6] See Bardach, Eugene. A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving. Chatham House Publishers, 2000. See also Saaty, Thomas. Fundamentals of Decision Making and Priority Theory with the Analytic Hierarchy Process. 1994 ISBN 0-9620317-6-3, RWS.
[7] Slovic, pg. 8.
[8] Raiffa. Smart Choices, pg. 215.

1 comment:

  1. A+
    Great use of quotes! Wish I would've thought of spicing my papers up that way in grad school.

    You read Blink, right? Doesn't that tout System 1 as being the better way to go?


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