Problems in Qualitative Evaluations of Decision-making Strategies

            Researchers have used different terms in referring to a decision-making strategy that differs from the one typically described as “rational.”  The terms are important in the sense that the words used to describe the first strategy may be neutral, such as “intuitive” (Kahneman, 2003, as cited in Reyna & Farley, 2006), “experiential” (Slovic, Finucane, Peters, & MacGregor, 2004),  or “implicit” (without conscious awareness, Hunt & Ellis, 2004).  Other terms are, by intention, negative, such as “mindless” (Sharps & Martin, 2002), without emotional control (Barham, 2008), and “risky” (Reyna & Farley, 2006).  There are serious problems in using the negative terms.  First, as noted in Slovic, Finucane, Peters, and MacGregor, all behavior is preceded by a decision and the overwhelming majority of these decisions are made without conscious awareness.  As a simple example, unless our legs receive a message from our brains, we would not walk.  Second, some, though not all, of these decisions have evolutionary roots which have remained sound.

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  For example, sensory adaptation allows us to discern and react automatically and appropriately to sounds and odors indicative of danger (e.g., the hissing of a snake, the smell of fire).  A third problem is that the negative terms are sometimes based on what seems a “mindless” assumption that decisions are good or poor if outcomes are positive or negative (Sharps & Martin, 2002, used “real-world decision scenarios that had resulted in negative outcomes” as the basis for using materials exemplifying poor decision-making, p. 274).  Excluding subject areas such as math and deductive logic, the essential point of the scientific method is that all of our conclusions, including those regarding decision-making, entail uncertainty.  As a simple example, if one dies during medically advisable surgery after being told there was a 1% probability of death attributable to anesthesia, did the person make a poor decision?

            The negative terms can also lead to conclusions that are entirely unwarranted.  When Frankl (1946/1975) said that “the best of us did not return” (p. 7) from the Nazi concentration camps he was referring to acts most of us would describe as “heroic,” automatically risking one’s own life in attempting to save the lives of strangers.  Most young adults, in fact, ultimately do not automatically decide in favor of what Milkman, Rogers, and Bazerman (2008) describe as their “wants,” but instead choose what they “should.”  Since most of us very well may end up leading “lives of quiet desperation?” (Thoreau, 1854), aren’t we first entitled to a few cracks at having fun, even, or maybe especially, when the results turn out to be not fun at all?

My Dumb but Human Decision

            Teenagers typically find it funny when other teenagers pull pranks on those in authority (as opposed to vulnerable peers), especially when few or no others respect the particular authority.  My sad tale occurred at a summer camp owned and directed by a person I will call “Macho-man.”  Fortunately, as confirmed by a camper brave enough to spy on this despised person, he was too busy cheating on his wife (who walked around with a black eye at least twice that summer) to pay attention to us, except for once every week.  At that time, he blustered endlessly about what he called “a true athlete’s life,” one filled with joys and triumphs – and endless practice.  He boasted about his own glory days as star quarterback at Hotshot University, how he never stopped working to be the best, how only wimps didn’t force themselves to excel at some sport, that there were sports, “such as golf,” especially designed so wimps could be stars.  Most of us did enjoy sports – but did not enjoy being the captive audience of this lunatic.  By “captive,” I mean he demanded absolute silence, which was especially hard on some of the younger kids.  Once he loudly told a kid who was whispering to wait for him outside, and in front of witnesses, pushed this tiny bag of bones to the ground with the force one would use in boxing with a heavy-weight champ.

            We were scheduled to go home on Sunday, and there were big plans for Saturday night.  Macho-man would bid us farewell and then we’d see a movie composed of scenes of ourselves during the summer, happily engaged in good, clean sports.  Before the movie, we were to have the “privilege” of meeting his ex-teammates from Hotshot U.

            The last day of camp, we were allowed to do as we pleased, and I was hanging out with two pals at the “rec” center, a large all-purpose room, used as an indoor gym, as well as a place to play computer games or watch DVDs.  Guess what we found as we looked through the stack of DVDs?  A porno movie as hard core as hard core could be.  As I remember, the lurid pictures and the graphic promises of pleasures on the box are not those one would describe in a college paper.  The room had a stage, for evening activities when sometimes benches were brought in so we could see whatever was going on.  As “luck” (so we thought) would have it, when we looked on the stage, there on a podium was a DVD box with the hand-printed words “Summer Days at Camp Hotshot.”  All we did was replace the DVD in the box with the treasure we had found in the DVD stack.  We didn’t even know whether we actually found the movie to be shown or whether or not someone would fail to notice our substitution, but that night, to our delight, and to the laughter filling the room, what was described as scenes from that summer at Camp Hotshot – were indeed very very HOT!

            As I was enjoying the best evening activity we ever had at camp, someone grabbed the back of my shirt and in what seemed like an instant I was outside of the building and then dragged into Macho-man’s office.  There was too little light in the room for me to see his face, but in my mind, it was red with rage.  Someone had reported seeing me on the stage earlier, along with two other kids the “snitch” didn’t know. Without a thought, I lied.  I swore I had never even been on the stage the entire summer.  I think I can still hear the sound of my head banging into the wall as I slammed into it.  That’s all it took and it wasn’t pretty.  I was crying, certain I was about to be killed, even as I “snitched” on my pals.

            Next morning, instead of taking the bus with the other campers, our parents were at the camp after being called by Macho-man.  Our parents knew each other and reacted similarly and in a way that surprised us.  First, after telling my mom about being slammed into the wall, she stormed into Macho-man’s office, furious – at him for laying his hands on her kid – I might have been a jerk, but I was her jerk.  Both of my parents admitted that if they had been in the office, they would have laughed – but, nonetheless, I was a jerk.  First, they asked why kids were so much more likely than adults to pull what might in fact be described as a “prank?”  Their answer was that adults learn the difference between taking dumb, even though small, risks, such as being the prankster, and taking real risks you may sometimes choose to take to do what you think is right.  I also didn’t need much convincing that you have to be nuts yourself to mess with a large lunatic who clearly had fits of uncontrollable rage.

            I admit I failed to even consider the possible consequences of a behavior that, at best, could provide a few laughs.  But I also think that learning about risks through experience is an inevitable part of human development, that the best decisions are not always the least risky ones, and that, as discussed above, if we made no decisions without conscious examination, we’d spend all of our time “deciding,” with none left for “doing.”


Barham, J. (2007).  The road to rational decision-making.  Retrieved August 13, 2008, from


Frankl, V. (1946/1975).  Man’s search for meaning.  New York: Pocket Books.

Hunt, R. R., & Ellis, H.C. (2004).  Fundamentals of cognitive psychology.  New York:


Milkman, K. L., Rogers, T., & Bazerman, H. H. (2008).  Harnessing our inner angels and

            demons.  Perspectives in Psychological Science, 3, 324-338.

Reyna, V. F., & Farley, F. (2006).  Risk and rationality in adolescent decision-making.

            Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 3, 1-44.

Sharps, R. J., & Martin, S. S. (2002).  “Mindless” decision making as a failure of

            contextual reasoning.  The Journal of Psychology, 136, 272-282.

Slovic, P., Finucam, M. L., Peters, G., & MacGregor, D. G. (2004).  Risk as analysis and

            risk as feelings:  Some thoughts about affect, reason, risk, and rationality.  Risk

            Analysis, 24, 311-322.

Thoreau, H. D. (1854).  Walden.  Retrieved August 13, 2008, from  www.thoreau.eserver.



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