Types of Decision-Making Environments

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Introduction to Decision Making, Part 1
Robert Harris
Version Date: June 9, 2012
Previous versions: December 2, 2009, October 17, 2008; July 2, 1998 We all make decisions of varying importance every day, so the idea that decision making can be a rather sophisticated art may at first seem strange. However, studies have shown that most people are much poorer at decision making than they think. An understanding of what decision making involves, together with a few effective techniques, will help you make better decisions.

What is Decision Making?

Some Definitions

A good place to start is with some standard definitions of decision making. 1. Decision making is the study of identifying and choosing alternatives based on the values and preferences of the decision maker.

Making a decision implies that there are alternative choices to be considered, and in such a case we want not only to identify as many of these alternatives as possible but to choose the one that (1) has the highest probability of success or effectiveness and (2) best fits with our goals, desires, lifestyle, values, and so on. The two important ideas here are that first, there must be some genuine alternatives to choose from among. Note that "Do it" or "Don't do it" does not qualify as a set of alternatives. Only "Do this" or "Do something else" really qualfies. Second, every decision must be made in the light of some standard of judgment. This standard usually gets expressed in the form of criteria, which reflect the values and preferences of the decision maker. These values and preferences are often influenced by corporate rules or culture, law, best practices, and so forth. 2. Decision making is the process of sufficiently reducing uncertainty and doubt about alternatives to allow a reasonable choice to be made from among them. This definition stresses the information-gathering function of decision making. It should be noted here that uncertainty is reduced rather than eliminated. Very few decisions are made with absolute certainty because complete knowledge about all the alternatives is seldom possible. Thus, every decision involves a certain amount of risk. If there is no uncertainty, you do not have a decision; you have an algorithm--a set of steps or a recipe that is followed to bring about a fixed result.

Kinds of Decisions

There are several basic kinds of decisions.
1. Decisions whether. This is the yes/no, either/or decision that must be made before we proceed with the selection of an alternative. Should I buy a new TV? Should I travel this summer? Decisions whether are made by weighing reasons pro and con. A simple worksheet with two columns (one for Pro--reasons for, and one with Con--reasons against) can be useful for this kind of decision.

It is important to be aware of having made a decision whether, since too often we assume that decision making begins with the identification of alternatives, assuming that the decision to choose one has already been made.

2. Decisions which. These decisions involve a choice of one or more alternatives from among a set of possibilities, the choice being based on how well each alternative measures up to a set of predefined criteria.

3. Contingent decisions. These are decisions that have been made but put on hold until some condition is met.

For example, I have decided to buy that car if I can get it for the right price; I have decided to write that article if I can work the necessary time for it into my schedule. OR even, We'll take the route through the valley if we can control the ridge and if we detect no enemy activity to the north.

Most people carry around a set of already made, contingent decisions, just waiting for the right conditions or opportunity to arise. Time, energy, price, availability, opportunity, encouragement--all these factors can figure into the necessary conditions that need to be met before we can act on our decision. Some contingent...
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