Issue 04 of our print magazine is available to buy now

Issue 04 is out now

Two ways of improving decision making

Two ways of improving decision making

Jess Whittlestone, Postdoctoral Research Associate at Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence shares her view on high stakes decision […]

4 minute read

Photo of chess board with brown pieces

Jess Whittlestone, Postdoctoral Research Associate at Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence shares her view on high stakes decision making.

People sometimes talk about “improving decision making” as a way to improve the world. By overcoming the various ‘biases’ and ‘irrationalities’ that people are prone to, we could solve some of the world’s most important problems. I think there’s promise here, but I also think this project is too broad to be tractable. To say something a bit more concrete about what working on this problem might look like, I’ve found it helpful to distinguish between two different types of “improving decision-making.”

Improving policy-making using “behavioural insights” has gained popularity in government over the last few years. The basic idea is that we use an understanding of behavioural science to design policies that “nudge” citizens’ behaviour in better directions: e.g encouraging people to save for retirement. By improving the design of policies that affect millions of people, we make the world better by improving many people’s small decisions. I think this work is clearly valuable, and I’m glad there’s more focus on it. But an alternative way to improve decision-making, rather than focusing on many small decisions, would be to try and improve a few, high-stakes decisions.

Improving high-stakes decisions

Some of the most important decisions are made by people in powerful positions. Although improving these decisions is more challenging than small ‘nudges’, it could be more valuable in the long-run.

Governments, for example, have to make huge decisions: about how to prioritise scarce resources, how to respond to conflict from other countries, how to govern emerging and potentially threatening technologies. As the challenges we face as a society grow, the decisions of powerful institutions become all the more critical.

“…when it comes to high-stakes decisions, people find it hard to know what the best decision is at all.”

These “high-stakes decisions” are much more complex than decisions individuals make on a day-to-day basis. For day-to-day decisions, generally it’s either clear what the ‘better’ decision is – or the decision doesn’t matter that much. As decisions get more important and complex, often it’s hard to know what a ‘good’ decision is at all.

Human irrationality

Let’s distinguish between two reasons making good decisions can be hard. In some cases, we sort-of-know reflectively what the right thing to do is, we just struggle to actually do it. For example: I know I’ll feel better in the long-run if I exercise, but I feel more motivated in the moment to eat fancy ice cream. For other problems, we wouldn’t be able to say what the ‘right’ answer was even if had lots of time to think about it.

“Even intelligent people will fail to make accurate judgements, especially those involving predicting the future.”

For example, how advanced is North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, or how likely is an attack on the US? Part of the difficulty in answering these questions is the incomplete information. But our brains also struggle to combine large amounts of information at once, to weigh up the implications one should draw given the data. Even intelligent people will fail to make accurate judgements about complex problems, especially those involving predicting the future. This is largely a problem of limited cognitive ability.

Challenges for improving high-stakes decisions

Improving the ability of powerful institutions to make high-stakes decisions will require a very different approach from improving those made on a day-to-day basis. There are well-established techniques for improving decision-making in the psychology literature, but actually training decision-makers to use them will take a lot of effort.

We know a lot about how to make better decisions, but it’s difficult to put this into practice. It’s hard to change how things are done in bureaucratic institutions, and influential decision-makers have a lot of demands on their time.  If we want to improve decision-making, research needs to be combined with understanding how bureaucracies work. We need to find ways to show decision-makers these techniques will help them achieve their day-to-day goals.

None of this is easy, so not surprising that people interested in improving decision-making have focused much more on simple nudges. But I think that psychology research actually has a lot to say about how we can improve decision-making in important institutions like government. I think it would be really valuable if there was more collaboration between social scientists and people making influential decisions, and discussion about ways to improve the quality of institutional decision-making.

Two Ways of Improving Decision-Making was first published on Jess Whittlestone’s blog, to read the full post visit: