How to Make Good Decisions

Feb. 15, 2011
We often make decisions before conciously evaluating a situation

One of my strongest childhood recollections is of my father rebuking my mother for being emotional and illogical. He often pointed out to her that responsible decision making demands rational thinking.

One day, while they were playing Gin Rummy, my mother was dealing. While awaiting his cards, Dad was reading the newspaper. Mom — perhaps intentionally — dealt a card that landed right on the article Dad was reading. He flew into a rage, shouting that she had deprived him of seconds of reading pleasure, which could never be restored as long as the world stood. He overturned the table and smashed the chairs, all the while shouting about Mom’s irrational and emotional behavior.

The paradox of my father’s powerful faith in rationality and his inability to control his emotions has given me pause throughout my life. A few years ago, articles began to appear in the neuroscience literature indicating a physiological basis for this paradox.

Recent discoveries of brain activation prior to conscious awareness and genetic conditions that induce impulsive violent behavior are fortifying the perspective that biological determinism is basic to the human condition. But some contemporary thinkers disagree with this viewpoint since “free will” is a necessary element for self-determination and for attributing personal responsibility for one’s actions. (LG Tancredi, Behav Sci Law. 2007)

In other words, we now have strong evidence that we actually make decisions before we have time to engage in any conscious — that is, logical— evaluation of a situation.

The resulting decisions are not necessarily bad, as I’d love to point out to my Dad if I could. In a brief description of his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell says, “It’s a book about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, your mind takes about 2 seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Those instant conclusions are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good.”

I am conflating emotional with unconscious decision making here, because we wrongly assume that the only alternative to logical thinking is emotional thinking. We can identify logical processes (although not always accurately), but we have more difficulty pinning down what we mean by nonlogical processes, which may or may not be emotional.

What does this mean to engineers? Most engineers believe in rational decision making, in evidence-based processes. After all, the sobering weight of personal accountability rests on their shoulders at all times. Yet they are not immune to the Blink phenomenon.

In his book, Making Robust Decisions, David Ullman points out that business and technical progress are “the evolution of information punctuated by decisions” and suggests a methodical approach to making decisions. His blog ( also provides several powerful tools for making sound choices. I recommend exploring them.

A good path for engineers to follow is to have an open and transparent decision-making method, shared and discussed with teammates and management. And always ask yourself: Am I trying to justify something that just “feels right”? This approach won’t assure perfect decisions, but it will make them more likely.

Joel Orr, Principal of Orr Associates International, and Chief Visionary Emeritus of Cyon Research Corp. Write him: [email protected]

Edited by Leslie Gordon, [email protected]

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.

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