Paths to Decisions

[Admin note: I’m back from the overseas trip, and will be taking this series in a new direction.]

There is one item that I have not addressed in full, and that’s the part about decision-making – how decisions are made and the cognitive biases that often arise. For now, the works by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and Gary Klein ought to be the guiding lights. They focus on the psychological bases of decision-making. In the works of Kahneman and Tversky, numerous cognitive biases are identified – a lot of which had to do with the framing of information and the context in which that information is presented in.

The way we make decisions is based on how the information is presented to us – and especially so if we constantly use what Kahneman describes as System 1 – the intuitive and unconscious processes that nonetheless determines how we make our decisions. Kahneman urges us to use our System 2 more frequently – System 2, referring to the slower, conscious and much more deliberate processes that we activate, such as when we are working through a difficult, multi-step mathematics problem. Checklists might be another effective way of structuring our thinking that reduces cognitive biases. Gary Klein might have a different view, but the end result is often the same – good decisions are often made through good representation of the information.

Then there is the tradition of decision-making that comes from looking at politics. I’ve been trying to go through Irving Janis’s Groupthink – where the processes that lead to the political fiasco in the US were identified. As things turn out, sometimes, the processes behind groupthink and bad decisions are the result of having prioritised social bonds and harmony within the in-group more than anything else. There appear to be, in actuality, a few simple guidelines to achieve rigour in decision-making.

1. Be open to different views, especially if they are dissenting views;

2. Have time to think and activate System 2 as far as possible and not just rely on “gut instincts”;

3. Represent the problem meaningfully – this is admittedly a difficult tone, as there can be very many ways to do it. Yet, we want to avoid problems like the Florida Balloting format in the presidential elections in 1999/2000, which confused people. In this respect, we do know of worse and better ways of presenting choices.

There is another way to think about actions. Since actions are about the construction of new systems, there are other deliberate ways to design entire systems. Futures constitutes one way to think about decisions in time. There are other processes that help with designing processes and systems. There is design thinking. Design thinking can be thought of as a process to create systems that create positive experiences for people. Often the result is a different context in which actions are applied into, and these actions can, but not always result in different sets of decisions. One of the steps in design thinking is almost about choices – rapid prototyping. In this step as I understand it, the ideas drawn from ethnography and prior research contribute to the construction of prototypes of products or processes. These things are tested and evaluated to see how they might fare in the rough and tumble of reality.

On the larger scale of things, culture is a set of rules designed for a set of contexts. That’s not to say that cultures are deliberately designed with definite intentions towards managing particular problems in specific environments. Having a tacit understanding of cultures bring down the costs of communications and transactions between people belonging to the same tribe or clan. Besides cronyism is nothing but that – where people of the same culture collude together not deliberately because they are of the same clan or tribe or region, but simply because they are people who could be trusted. This is certainly not a defence of these things, but for the contemporary era, some of these culture traits could become maladaptive – instead of creating benefits, they end up giving disadvantages.


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