The Psychology of Decision Making

 The Psychology of Decision Making
-by Waleed Bin Khalid

A man drives his son to school. An accident occurs and the man dies. The son is seriously injured and requires a surgery. The ambulance makes it to the nearest hospital and everyone waits for the surgeon. The surgeon walks in, sees the boy and says: “I cannot operate this surgery because he is my son.”

What happened? Did the boy have two fathers? Or was the boy a doppelganger of the surgeon’s son?

The answer is that the surgeon was the boy’s mother. The above scenario is a classical psychological question that investigates the inherent biases that are present in our minds and how they affect decision making. The topic is extensively discussed in Malcom Gladwell’s book “Blink: The power of thinking without thinking.”

Our brains have been meticulously programmed. They take large chunks of data and process it in negligible amount of time without us knowing behind closed doors. This often leads to something Gladwell calls snap judgments or blink decisions. That is to say we draw judgments within seconds unconsciously and in doing so we often use our passive knowledge to derive conclusions. This passive knowledge can be skewered and may lead us to biased decisions. By now you must be feeling bad about yourself, but don’t be hasty. Turns out this quality of the human brain serves a great purpose, necessary for everyday interactions with the world. It has both pros and cons and the onus falls on us to discern when the use of this technique is correct.

So let’s delve into our everyday lives. How many decisions do you have to make daily? The answer to that is countless times. You make decisions even when you are not consciously aware that you are making decisions. From an unconscious decision like picking up a certain brand of jam, to making conscious decisions at your workplace or university, decision making is a vital part of our daily routine.

If we were to put the same amount of effort into all of our decisions, then we would probably not have time to be productive. But here is where our swift brains come to our rescue. Our brains use prior data to reach to conclusions. This happens in every single decision we make and it is what a layman would call “gut feeling” or “hunch”. Basically a decision is reached in a matter of milliseconds without us actually thinking “Okay what should I choose?” What’s interesting is that we may choose to ignore this gut feeling and change our blink decision and we do this by rationalizing the decision.

Imagine a doctor treating a patient who has polyp (a small growth) on his nose. The first thing that the doctor suspects on examining the growth is malignancy (cancerous or infectious). But the doctor might decide to carry out further tests which may prove that the polyp is not cancerous but is merely an abnormal nasal growth easily removable by surgery. Here the doctor is giving precedence to his rational decision over his snap judgment. Now doctors often face the dilemma of whether they should trust their gut feeling or decide rationally. After all conducting medical tests may be unnecessarily costly. The answer to this might surprise you.

Let’s go to Cook County Hospital in Chicago. The hospital had a critical shortage of beds available to treat patients who were experiencing chest pains. Chest pains can be symptomatic of heart attack, but not every patient suffering from chest pains is actually having a heart attack. The only way to be certain is to admit a patient to the cardiac unit and run a series of expensive tests. But due to the cost and the lack of available space this was not possible. With that in mind, the hospital management turned to a decision tree developed by a U.S. Navy cardiologist Lee Goldman. Goldman spent years developing and testing a single model that would allow submarine doctors to quickly evaluate possible heart attack symptoms and determine if the submarine had to resurface and evacuate the chest pain sufferer. The algorithm simply asked a few questions and on the basis of the patients answers, gave a verdict of whether the patient was at risk of a heart attack or not. No complicated tests, no lengthy cultures or anything, just a few simple questions.

Surprisingly, it was revealed that more information allowed doctors to be more confident about their treatment but more information did NOT help them in making better diagnoses. On the other hand the Goldman Algorithm proved to be 70 percent better than the old method at recognizing patients who weren’t having a heart attack. This analysis makes it abundantly clear that more information does not necessarily lead to better decisions and rationalizing everything isn’t the best way to go about things.

So if our blink decisions are so accurate should we trust them on everything? Well, not always. In Ian Ayres’ book, “Pervasive Prejudice?: Non-Traditional Evidence of Race and Gender Discrimination”, Ian highlights a study where he sent white men, women and black men to different car dealers in Chicago. The groups were dressed in similar styles and had similar cover stories as well. However the study revealed that the price quoted for a certain brand of car to white men was the least and the price quoted to the other two groups was considerably greater. Black men were quoted prices about $1000, on average, higher than white men. Even after bargaining white men came to a cheaper price for cars compared to the other two groups even though the groups were virtually similar apart from their skin color or gender. This is an indicator of snap judgments made by the car salesmen. The salesmen were neither sexist nor racist but their snap judgments told them that white men would be more liable to buy cars and hence the bias occurred.

Bob Golomb, a car salesman with sales numbers over twice that of the average car salesperson said the following about his success:

“You cannot prejudge people in this business. Prejudging is the kiss of death. You have to give everyone your best shot. A green salesperson looks at a customer and says, ‘This person looks like he can’t afford a car,’ which is the worst thing you can do, because sometimes the most unlikely person is flush. I have a farmer I deal with, who I’ve sold all kinds of cars over the years. We seal our deal with a handshake, and he hands me a hundred-dollar bill and says, ‘Bring it out to my farm.’ We don’t even have to write the order up. Now, if you saw this man, with his coveralls and his cow dung, you’d figure he was not a worthy customer. But in fact, as we say in the trade, he’s all cashed up. Or sometimes people see a teenager and they blow him off. Well, then later that night, the teenager comes back with Mom and Dad, and they pick up a car, and it’s the other salesperson that writes them up.”

The above example indicates how often we need to subdue our rash decision making instincts and make the rational decision. But when should we use what? Well the answer is a bit nebulous. At the end of his book, Malcom Gladwell offers a simplistic solution (spoiler alert). He said that when making big decisions like buying a car or a house, we should trust our snap judgments. But when making small decisions like buying groceries we should wait and pounder. This was based on a study where people who made rational decisions in buying groceries at supermarkets were more satisfied than customers who made snap decisions. This rarely happened amongst people who bought expensive items like televisions and cars. But like many things, the study is in no way conclusive.

So do you think you’re decisions are all fair and all rational? Do you think your brain would not make decisions that were on the lines of implicit sexism and racism? Well then go to  and give their Implicit Association Test (IAT). It’s a short test that highlights the implicit biases in the depths of our gray matter. I am sure the answers will surprise you.

Good luck with your decisions and DFTBA.


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