What Research Tells Us About Decision Making
Recently, scientists have greatly advanced our understanding of how human decision making actually works. In addition to advances in technology—such as brain imaging, which enables us to see the brain at work as people make decisions—research abounds from fields like behavioral economics, behavioral finance, behavioral decision theory, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and social psychology.
This research has revealed that the way people actually decide is very different from our common assumptions about how we decide. Some UX professionals say that, because people are largely goal oriented and have very specific preferences, all we need to do is remove the barriers between users and what they want. But research on decision making shows that people often do not have well-formed objectives, and their preferences are actually quite malleable.
Decision outcomes are dependent upon the contexts within which people make decisions. Context includes factors like the complexity of a decision, how expert a decision-maker is, how many options there are, how the options compare or relate to one another, the ordering of options, the wording that expresses the options, and many others.
Why Decision Architecture?
In Web site design, UX professionals are largely responsible for creating the context within which users’ decision making occurs. Thus, if a design itself significantly impacts decision outcomes and decision outcomes directly affect an organization’s bottom line, our work as UX designers takes on a whole new dimension of business criticality.
Designing an effective context for decision making requires that we understand how the process of decision making actually works and what affects it. Just as we take an educated approach to making Web sites user friendly, we need to take a well-informed approach to designing for decision making.
Decision architecture is the art and science of designing Web sites for good decision making by users. Just as we have Information Architects who devise a Web site’s optimal organization of information, we need Decision Architects who know how to architect a Web site for optimal decision making.
Two Methods of Mental Processing
Decision making is a complex process. How humans process information drives decision making. People process information primarily through two mental modes, or channels, that operate in parallel. The first mode of information processing occurs primarily on the subconscious level; the second, at the conscious level. Daniel Gardner, in his book The Science of Fear, refers to these two modes as Gut and Head, respectively.
Gut processing is sophisticated, intuitive, and quick. Head processing, on the other hand, is analytical, slow, and rational. Each mode of mental processing has strengths and weaknesses, and each plays a distinct role in decision making.
Gut makes decisions quickly. But Head can monitor Gut’s decisions and overrule them when necessary. According to Gardner, “Gut decides, Head reviews: This process is how most of our thoughts and decisions are made.” Essentially, we are of two minds, each of which works semi-independently of the other.
There are two aspects of Gut processing that primarily impact decision making:
- emotion and affect—a feeling that something is good or bad
- reliance on mental shortcuts
Research consistently confirms the important role emotion plays in decision making. Researchers have done many studies with people who have incurred damage to the parts of the brain that process emotion. These studies show that decision making is impossible without the influence of emotion. Emotions are often the way in which the subconscious mind communicates with the conscious mind.
As we go through life, our subconscious brain encodes our experiences in images, metaphors, and narratives and attaches emotions to them—thereby, associating meaning with them as well. Each representation of an object or experience in a person’s mind is essentially tagged with an emotion. Each time we make a new decision, we subconsciously compare the available options to the objects or experiences we’ve previously encountered in life, along with the emotions that we’ve attached to them.
When making a decision, these emotions give meaning to the various options under consideration and play the critical role of tipping the scale favorably toward one option or another. Our ability to rely on the good or bad feelings we have about something enables an efficiency in decision making that negates any need for us to identify and analyze every single available option.
Mental shortcuts are another important aspect of Gut-level processing. They are exactly what you’d think: a means of managing the complexity of the world through the use of certain rules that generally allow us to come up with reliable snap judgments. One example of a mental shortcut is the availability rule: Gut assumes things that come easily to mind are most common in our everyday world. For instance, when researchers ask what most people in the U.S. die from, many people cite whatever cause of death they’ve heard people talking about most often in the news and media, because this is what springs most readily to mind.
The Interaction Between Head and Gut
Gut processing always precedes Head processing. Gut always beats Head to the punch. And even if Head steps in and overrules Gut, this does not negate the impact of Gut on a decision. It is our initial impressions, our initial reactions to things, that shape and color the thoughts and judgments that follow.
What makes the interaction between Gut and Head so interesting is that, sometimes, Head doesn’t bother to monitor Gut. Sometimes, Head doesn’t step in at all. When this happens, decision making occurs automatically, under the radar of our conscious attention.
So, although Gut enables an efficient way of navigating a complex world, it can also lead us astray. Gut can sometimes apply mental shortcuts that really aren’t appropriate to the situation at hand or are simply incorrect. Here’s an example of a misleading mental shortcut: People often make snap judgments about other people based on their physical appearance. Perhaps they might think attractive people are smarter or tall men make better leaders.
The challenge is that Head can’t look inside Gut to figure out how or why Gut operates the way it does. Our subconscious is much like a black box with no access doors. It’s strictly off limits to the conscious mind. All Head can do is monitor and override Gut; it can’t change or negate the influence of Gut.