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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Dr. Hafeez Hoorani – The One from CERN

Interior of Particle Accelerator at CERN

-by Muhammad Sanan Khan

In a country which is taking its nascent steps in the world of science, Dr. Hafeez Horaani is one of the pioneers in this world for our country.

Hailing from Karachi, he is a particle physicist, with a specialization in accelerator physics, and a research scientist at the CERN. Nowadays, Mr. Hoorani works at the National Center for Physics, with research focus in elementary particle physics and high energy physics.

Dr. Hafeez Horaani is certainly among the league of the top scientists of our country for all his works and accomplishments. His efforts to make Pakistan a part of CERN are highly commendable and they are a big push forward for the country.

What is CERN? CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research bent on seeking answers related to the origin of humankind such as; what is the universe made of? How did it start? Using some of the world’s most powerful particle accelerators.

Dr. Hoorani joined CERN in 1989 and due to his efforts, in 2000, Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (led by nuclear physicist Dr. Ishfaq Ahmad) signed an agreement with CERN. This agreement opened the door for Pakistani physicists to collaborate with CERN’s particle physics project.

Our country needs more men like Dr. Hoorani so that in the race to win the world with science and technology our country can make a mark of its own. More power to you, Mr. Hoorani and to PAKISTAN. Ciao till next time.

Dr. Naveed Syed – The Inventor of the Bionic Chip

Dr. Naveed Syed with his bionic chip
Dr. Naveed Syed with his bionic chip

-by Ayesha Kaleem

The concept of human mechanization is always trending among the scientific and non-scientific communities worldwide. The science fiction genre has kept fandoms on their toes for decades producing movies like I-Robot and The Six Million Dollar Man.

The hybrid of man and robot is a fascinating idea which is in its early steps to materialization. Yes, a bionic robot can indeed become a possibility. Scientists have worked their way into fusing brain cells with a computer microchip! This opens up numerous horizons and is a big scientific breakthrough!

We can proudly say that the leading scientist behind this achievement is one of our own. Dr. Naveed Syed, working in the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute has created the neurochip. He has made a way possible for us to know the communication between a tissue and an electronic device. The professor explained the phenomena as;

“It used to be like seeing two people talking at a distance. … You didn’t know what they were saying or even what language they were speaking. But now it’s like putting a microphone beside them,”

This discovery has started a flux of drug testing research for neurodegenerative diseases and disorders. A new set of clinical trials are in progress.  The electrical signaling in brain cells can be studied in detail with this technology. The brain cells of a patient suffering from epilepsy have been studied. The brain cell activity can be studied in powerful detail now. All the results and findings can then be stored in a database for further research.

This contribution to science is indeed a magnanimous one. Dr. Naveed Syed has made a name for Pakistan and contributed not only to the field of scientific research but also a big deal to our medical and pharmaceutical industries.

The 53 year old Scientist says and I quote;

“A lot of people still think bionics is science fiction. It’s not. It’s already here.”

Dr. Bashir Syed: The Solar Physicist from Pakistan

-by Zohaa Wajid

The phrase a Pakistani working at NASA commands our attention since it is not an everyday occurrence. Indeed, Dr. Bashir Syed was not ordinary.

Hailing from Pakistan, being a dedicated student, he made his way to the US with a Fulbright scholarship, earning a Doctorate of Science in Solar Physics. It is an interesting fact that he studied at and later taught at DJ Sindh Science College where Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan happened to be his student.

After a while in the US, he had the honour of becoming a part of NASA as a solar physicist. He played a pivotal role in the United States Space Program throughout the course of the project. Later, he worked in the Space Shuttle Modification Programme to keep the shuttle technologically superior. Moreover, he was involved in NASA’s work to build space probes. Being an expert on cosmic and solar radiation, he was assigned to look over the adverse effects of space radiation on space craft. As a result, he was a key player in the evolution and building of Mars Pathfinder. Towards the end of his career in NASA, he was engaged in the United States Mercury project where he studied and researched on solar-produced plasma.

Even after leaving NASA, he did not leave it. Founding his company EnerTech Enterprises, he continued to support NASA’s Mars Project by supplying them with cosmic and solar radiation equipment.

Following his retirement, he became a part of Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission where his research in solar physics and astronomy went uninterrupted. During this time, he also trained a handful of Pakistani scientists and engineers in the field of solar technology.

His interests did not just lie in solar physics, he strongly advocated the development of wind and power plants as a solution to the world energy crises. Writing a number of articles on the issue and travelling the world to give lectures on the subject, he hoped his efforts would educate them in ways to design renewable energy projects. Since Pakistan is blessed with sunny days all year round and has areas suitable for harnessing wind energy, he believed this would rid us of obstacles in meeting the energy requirements in Pakistan while leaving the atmosphere unharmed, unlike fossil fuels. To his satisfaction, he was able to able to establish wind power and solar power plants in Pakistan.

As is clear from his life, he was extremely dedicated to his field and his work. Such a spirit is not encountered frequently. The world is grateful for all his efforts in the advancement of space technology and renewable energy.

How Science Can Solve the Multiple Eid Problem in Pakistan

After surviving a month of fasting, swallowing tables in one sitting, and making sure they are not the target of their tailor’s ill-fated blunders, every Pakistani looks forward to celebrating Eid that is peaking right around the corner waiting for the decision regarding the sighting of the moon to be announced. Each year this activity is shrouded with controversy and debate in our country, since Pakistan has been celebrating Eid on multiple days in the recent years due to the inability of the population to rule out false or mistaken testimonies of moon-sighting.ramadan-moon-sighting-1

What is the criteria for declaring the beginning of the new Islamic month? A large majority of Muslim scholars agree that viewing the moon with the naked eye should mark the start of a month for the lunar calendar. Another segment of scholars solely place their trust in calculations and astronomy, feeling there is no need to actually see the moon. It then comes down to our central authority to make this decision.

No matter what view is adopted, Science can help us out a great deal being the unbiased, generously helpful tool it is. First, let’s go over what happens when a new moon is appears in the sky. During the period when the moon is aligned exactly between the sun and the Earth, no light is reflected off the moon for us to see it. This is called the ‘conjunction’ and it marks the birth of a new moon. As the moon continues to orbit the Earth, the angle between the moon and the sun (called the elongation) increases as measured by us on Earth. Doing its business, the moon appears as a crescent in the sky as the elongation increases. However, it can only be visible to the naked eye, reflecting light from the sun, when the elongation is greater than 10.5 degrees. This may occur between 17 to 24 hours after conjunction.Ramadan-Moon-Sighting1-300x267

This is where Science lends us a hand. Experts have developed models and simulations for mapping the position and the appearance of the moon at a certain time which are accurate to a great degree. Even if we don’t solely depend on astronomic calculations to resolve the issue of multiple Eids, we can definitely use them to verify testimonies of the sighting of the moon. Since it is magically possible in this day and age to even have the simulated images of the moon beforehand, false testimonies can be ruled out by comparing them with the expected time and appearance of the moon. Moreover, since the visibility of the moon can be hindered by adverse atmospheric conditions or weather, a person may be mistaken about what they saw. With help from our scientific experts, we can rectify those mistakes.

It has often been the case that our central authority responsible for the sighting of the moon is accused of lying and such when a ‘fat’ crescent is seen the next night, even though the committee relies on Science to a large extent in making its decisions. Most people are unaware of the fact that even if the crescent appears to be a tad on the heavy side, it is very much possible that is still the first sighting of the month. (All moons are beautiful, say no to moon-shaming.) This is because if the moon was aged less than 17 hours on a day, it set without being visible to the naked eye. Hence, we would see a wider crescent the next night because another 24 hours had passed before the unaided eye could claim to see it.Artistic-Creation-The-Crescent-Moon-In-The-Sky

It appears that whatever stance or belief we choose, calculations and models from astronomy can help us make an accurate decision anyway, and thereby unite all of Pakistan into celebrating one Eid. I sincerely hope we can rule out false testimonies this year and follow one central decision. Because Science is the hero we need, and the one we deserve.

By Zohaa Wajid