• One of the most important insights to emerge from psychology in the last 50 years is this: we are not rational decision makers. For decades, scientists used the computer as the primary metaphor for the mind. The mind was viewed as an information processing system that took in information from the outside world, weighed the costs and benefits associated with that information against desired goals, and made decisions to suit the best interest of the individual or team. In the last 50 years, however, almost every assumption behind the computer metaphor for the rational decision maker has been overturned. Among the many insights to emerge, here are the five most relevant to our discussion:

  • 1. Knowledge is always generated in a social context.

  • Our decision making is largely based on the behaviour of the groups we belong to, not our individual rational assessments or our individual failures and shortcomings. More recently, some researchers have argued that very idea of individual intelligence may not exist at all. As a species, our evolutionary advantage is not our individual rationality, but our ability to think as a group. What allows us to build cities (other animals can’t) isn’t our individual brain power, it is our ability to think and act in complex coordinated activities with others.

  • 2. We have limited bandwidth, and therefore usually make decisions within high uncertainty contexts.

  • In both everyday life, and especially in highly volatile decision environments, we simply don’t have the bandwidth to gather all the information necessary to make a rational decision. Various factors, like limited time, limited access to information, ambiguous information, untrustworthy sources, and divergent interpretations and opinions, mean that even common decision processes like buying a house, choosing the best medical procedure, or deciding whether to have children must be made based on intuitive, “irrational” basis. In the context of highly volatile domains where there are high stakes, changing sources of risk, urgent time pressures, or unfolding chaotic complications, operators are forced to rely even more heavily on instinctual patterns and intuitive decision making.

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  • 3. Decision making is mostly unconscious.

  • One of the requirements of “rational” decision making is the ability to consciously weigh alternatives and choose the best option. But numerous studies have shown that most of our decision making is based on unconscious processes, biases, expectations, and confabulated memories. And, our decision making is highly influenced by factors we are completely unaware of: environmental cues, social cues, cultural contexts and selective attention.

  • 4. Decision making is emotional.

  • Commonly, we think of emotions as getting in the way of good decision making. Being overly influenced by emotions can often cloud a rational assessment of what’s best in a given situation. While this may be true at one level, we now know that emotions are fundamental to how we make decisions in the face of uncertainty. In fact, research has shown that people who have damage to certain emotional processing centers in the brain become incapacitated when faced with even the simplest choices. Furthermore, the way memories get embedded and turn into behavioral patterns are determined largely by the emotional context within which they were formed.

  • 5. Experts learn differently from novices.

  • As individuals gain more expertise, the nature of their knowledge is not just a matter of higher degree, there is a qualitative shift in how experts and novices approach situations. While novices do well with highly structured, rule-based learning paradigms, experts require novelty, innovation, and discovery as a basis for growth. And, as mentioned above, delivering trainings that are below an individual’s level of expertise can actually do more harm than good. 

  • All of these insights point to the need for a paradigm shift in how we think about improving training performance. And yet, for the most part, training is delivered in the same, rote-style, classroom-based method it was 40 years ago. Incorporating these insights in to any training programme is crucial if we want to optimise decision making across an organisation.