Isn’t What It Used To Be

 Or is it?

I have been advising about the decision making process since my first publication in 1962. This was my theory “by the book” and very rational. It was the accepted theory of the time. In the 55 years since then, clearly the interest in and attention to decision making has increased. And the opinions and knowledge has also increased and changed — several times. Has the way people make decisions changed?

How has deciding how to decide changed? For example, in 1989 I published my “Positive Uncertainty” article. It was in the same journal as in 1962 (Journal of Counseling Psychology). It was my confession that “I changed my mind” about my original decision making theory. But I wasn’t the only one.

Two Nobel Prize winners, Herbert Simon, 1978 and David Kahneman, 2002 changed popular theory and made it clear that human decision making is not, and probably cannot be, totally rational. Rational decision making is consciously analytic; nonrational decision making is intuitive and judgmental; irrational decision making responds to the emotions or deviates from action chosen rationally. Several recent popular books have tried to explain how to make “somewhat rational decisions”: Thinking Fast and Slow, David Kahneman: Decisive, Chip Heath and Dan Heath; Mindset, Carol Dweck; Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz; among others. This is a history of varied decision advice.

Plus, our increasing knowledge of the unconscious mind and the identification of over 70 cognitive biases has influenced what we “know” about human decision making and made us less sure of how to define or prescribe the way people do or should decide.                                                               One’s unconscious mind is full of decision influencers acquired during a lifetime of personal experiences. And cognitive biases, acquired the same way, are usually out of one’s awareness. This means most of us don’t have a clue about how we make our decisions.

Other changes have influenced how people decide. The arrival of Information Glut: the reception of more information than is necessary to make a decision or that can be understood and digested in the time available. And social media, websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking. There is no validity or reliability filter for all of this “knowledge”. Since it could be said that “decision making is using what you know and believe to get what you want”, what you know, believe and want could be influenced by Information Glut and social media. How is one expected to make a rational or somewhat rational decision?

My point in reviewing this is to wonder out loud: “What difference does all of this advice make? Do people today decide differently (better?) than they did in 1962?  Maybe decision making advice is overemphasizing the methods and principles of science.

Science can assist us in becoming more skilled choosers,                                                             but at its core, choice remains an art.  Sheena Iyengar

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  1. Eugene Unger says:




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