Make Good Decisions

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn how to choose among alternative strategies in order to make informed choices.


“For the past two years, I have agonized over the choice between going into academia or industry after I graduate. My advisor recommends that I make a decision as soon as possible, but I just feel stuck.”

“I am very systematic when it comes to the small choices in life, like choosing a cereal or deciding on an apartment, but not so much when it comes to the important things. I guess I just go with the flow.”

“Why are we learning about decision-making? I am in a PhD program, I know how to make decisions.”

What are Good Decisions?

As a scientist, you know how to systematically gather evidence and rule out alternative explanations when addressing a research question. However, being well educated does not necessarily mean that a person is perfectly logical, systematic, or thorough when it comes to making important life choices. Instead:

  • You may allow your emotions to dictate your decisions. In fact, one study suggested that how you make decisions may be more strongly related to your emotional response to the decision than to your educational status.1
    • Decision-making tendencies are also related to your social support, as well as constructs such as self-efficacy (see the Coping & Self-efficacy Brief) and autonomy.2
  • You may limit the amount of information that you take into consideration when making choices.
  • You may have a difficult time making decisions when tradeoffs are high5 or when you are faced with many different options6,7 which can lead to indecision or inaction.
  • The field of behavioral economics has shown that you do not usually make decisions that will be of maximum benefit to you personally.8 Instead, you often rely on heuristics and predictable but irrational decision-making rules.

What Kind of a Decision Maker are YOU?

The first step in learning to be a more effective decision maker is to assess how you make decisions under different circumstances and evaluate whether or not these decision-making styles are working for you.

Below are different types of decision-making styles.9,10

  • What type of style sounds most familiar?
  • When do you find that you use a particular style?
  • What style is most effective for you?


Do you collect facts and information, examine the pros and cons of each alternative, and choose the best accordingly?


Do you tend to listen to your heart, emotions, or gut reaction when you weigh alternatives, even if what it is telling you defies logic?


Do you tend to rely on the opinions and guidance of others when deciding on a course of action?


Do you put off decision-making until options start to decline? Do you wait until the decision is made for you in order to altogether avoid the decision-making process? In other words, do you decide by not deciding?


Do you make rash choices at the spur of the moment, based on how you are feeling at that time?


Do you tend to see mostly the cons of any potential course of action?


Do you tend to see mostly the pros of any potential course of action and pay less attention to the cons?

Some of these decision-making styles are obviously not ideal, but what is most important is that you are satisfied with the outcome of your decision-making style. (It is also important that you do not fool yourself about how you make decisions. For example, rationalizing a decision after it is already made is not an example of rational decision-making.)

If your decision-making strategies are not working for you, here are a few recommended approaches you can try. See which one works best for you. Before you begin, you will need to have a list of solution alternatives that you have generated. Visit the Brainstorming CareerWISE Brief if you have not done so already.


Which of the following decision making styles is/are obviously not ideal?

Best Answer: B. It is obviously not ideal to procrastinate so much that a decision is no longer in your control to make. It is much more effective to gather information and weight the pros and cons of each option before making a decision.

Alternative Approaches for Decision-making

Technique #1: Image theory11,12

Image-theory technique involves considering your comfort with each alternative. For this decision-making strategy, you are to ask yourself three different questions about each option on your list:

  • Is this option compatible with your values?
    • For example, lying might be an effective strategy in meeting your goals, but an option you would not choose because it goes against your values.
  • Is this option compatible with your goals?
    • This question sounds obvious, but decisions are often made without regard to the impact it will have later down the line.
  • Is this option compatible with your preferred method of approaching problems?
    • For example, confronting an authority figure might go against your preferred method of approaching problems.

If you have answered no to one or more questions about a particular option, rule this option out. If you still have options remaining, take these remaining options through one or both of the following recommended decision-making strategies.

Let’s take an example: Rosalie has decided that her relationship with her current advisor is not working. She considers switching advisors, but after going through the image theory questions above, she decides to rule this option out. This option is incompatible with her long-term goals, as working with her current advisor allows her to gain experience in the research area that she loves. Rosalie also prefers to follow through with what she considers a commitment, so the option of leaving her advisor is also incompatible with her preferred method of approaching problems.

Technique # 2: Six hats10

Image theory is one way to think rationally about important life decisions. However, this is not to say that you should ignore your gut reactions to important life choices. On the contrary, emotions are a source of information that you can use in the process of analytical decision-making. Pay attention to what your emotions are trying to tell you.

Instead of relying on one decision-making method, psychologist Edward de Bono believes that you should evaluate options by trying to take on different perspectives. He developed the “Six Hat” strategy for using different lenses to evaluate your options.

White Hat: When “wearing” this hat, focus on gathering facts and information that you can use to analyze the costs and benefits of each option.

Red Hat: What do your emotions tell you about this option? Do you get a sick or anxious feeling when you think about executing this particular strategy? Do you know in your gut that this is what you must do?

Black Hat: What are all of the potential flaws and pitfalls to trying out this possible solution. What is the worst thing that can happen?

Yellow Hat: What is the best possible outcome of executing this strategy?

Green Hat: How can you be more creative about envisioning this strategy?

Blue Hat: Are you under- or overemphasizing one way of evaluating options?

Technique #3: Decision-making using MAUT

Multiattribute Utility Theory (MAUT) is a systematic, rational decision-making strategy that uses weighted criteria to derive a score for the best option. Although people do not typically make life choices in such an analytical manner,13,14,15 those who do use this strategy have found it useful in accomplishing goals.16,17

Of course, it is important to first have defined clearly what it is that you would like to accomplish. Visit Setting SMART objectives if you have not done so already.

MAUT is composed of 5 decision-making steps:

Step 1: Create a list of criteria that you will use to evaluate each different option.

Remember to list all of the criteria that you will be using. For example, if you know that you will consider an option only if it does not involve a serious confrontation, list this qualification as a criterion.

Step 2: Organize your criteria from most important to least important.

If you have come up with an option that meets all of your criteria, you probably would not have defined the problem as a problem in the first place. You will need to decide which criteria are most important.

Step 3: Rate each option on a scale of 0 to 10 according to how well the option meets each criterion.

You will want to collect as much information as possible so that you can make an educated guess about which option matches which criteria.

Step 4: Multiply the score according to the weight you have assigned to the corresponding criterion.

One way to do this is to count the number of criteria and multiply the score by its reverse placement number.

Step 5: Add up all of the scores for each criterion and choose the option with the highest score.

Still not satisfied with this option? Perhaps you are leaving out a criterion. Think about why you are still not satisfied with this option to help you come up with the criterion. Add this to the list and redo the scores. Similarly, if two options come out to have the same score, think of another criterion to add to the list.

This will all make more sense with an example:

A close relative recently passed away. Your family expects you to fly home to India and be a part of the mourning process for at least a month. Your boss does not understand this tradition and demands that you return within a week.



Respect your family's traditions


Keep your job


Have time to mourn


Make timely progress in the lab


Avoid confrontation


Total score
Tell your advisor he is being insensitive, and take the entire month off 10 x 5 = 50 2 x 4 = 8 9 x 3 = 27 1 x 2 = 2 0 x 1 = 0 86
Politely inform your advisor that this is a very important event for your family, and leave for the full month 10 x 5 = 50 4 x 4 = 16 9 x 3 = 27 1 x 2 = 2 3 x 1 = 3 98
Follow your advisor's wishes 3 x 5 = 15 8 x 4 = 32 3 x 3 = 9 7 x 2 = 14 10 x 1 = 10 80
Leave for two weeks 6 x 5 = 30 6 x 4 = 24 6 x 3 = 18 4 x 2 = 8 3 x 1 = 3 83
Wait until the summer to visit your family 2 x 5 = 10 8 x 4 = 32 2 x 3 = 6 9 x 2 = 18 2 x 1 = 2 68
Visit for the full month, but work while you are away 9 x 5 = 45 7 x 4 = 28 4 x 3 = 12 6 x 2 = 12 6 x 1 = 6 103

In this example, the best option is to find a way to get the lab work finished while you are away. If this option does not seem like the best to you, it is probably because you have a different set of criteria and/or a reason to score the options differently. Each person’s matrix will look different.

Now What?

Hopefully reviewing these decision-making strategies has helped you to choose the most promising strategy for meeting your goal. But the problem-solving process is not done yet. The next set of CareerWISE Problem-Solving modules (Step 4) will help you to improve your ability to follow through with your decision.


  1. Galotti, K. M. (2007). Decision structuring in important real-life choices. Psychological Science, 18, 320-325. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01898.x
  2. Guay, F., Ratelle, C. F., Senécal, C., Larose, S., & Deschenes, A. (2006). Distinguishing developmental from chronic career indecision: Self-efficacy, autonomy, and social support. Journal of Career Assessment, 14, 235-251. doi:10.1177/1069072705283975
  3. Brandstätter, E., Gigerenzer, G., & Hertwig, R. (2006). The priority heuristic: Making choices without trade-offs. Psychological Review, 113, 409-432. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.113.2.409
  4. Perkins, D. N. (1985). Postprimary education has little impact on informal reasoning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 562–571. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.77.5.562
  5. Luce, M. F., Payne, J. W., & Bettman, J. R. (1999). Emotional trade-off difficulty and choice. Journal of Marketing Research, 36, 143-159. doi:10.2307/3152089
  6. Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995-1006. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.79.6.995
  7. Schwartz, J., Chapman, G., Brewer, N., Bergus, G. (2004). The effects of accountability on bias in physician decision-making: Going from bad to worse. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 11, 173-178.
  8. Mullainathan, S. & Thaler, R. H. (2001). Behavioral economics. In N.J. Smelser & P.B. Baltes (Eds.), International encyclopedia of the social & behavioral sciences (pp. 1094–1100). New York: Elsevier.
  9. Scott, S. G., & Bruce, R. A. (1995). Decision-making style: The development and assessment of a new measure. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 55, 818–831. doi:10.1177/0013164495055005017
  10. De Bono, E. (1985). Six thinking hats (1st U.S. ed.). Boston: Little, Brown.
  11. Beach, L. R. (2006). Broadening the definition of decision making. Psychological Science, 4, 215-220. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.1993.tb00264.x
  12. Beach, L.R. (Ed.). (1998). Image theory: Theoretical and empirical foundations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  13. Klein, G. (1998). Sources of power: How people make decisions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  14. Payne, J. W. (1976). Task complexity and contingent processing in decision making: An information search and protocol analysis. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16, 366–387. doi:10.1016/0030-5073(76)90022-2
  15. Payne, J. W., Bettman, J. R., & Johnson, E. J. (1993). The adaptive decision maker. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  16. Dawes, R. M. (1982). The robust beauty of improper linear models in decision-making. In D. Kahneman, P. Slovic & A. Tversky (Eds.), Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases (pp. 391-407). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  17. Keeney, R. L. (1992). On the foundations of prescriptive decision analysis. In W. Edwards (Ed.), Utility theories: Measurements and applications (pp. 57–72). Boston: Kluwer Academic.

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