A Brief History of Decision Making

By by Leigh Buchanan and Andrew O’Connell, Harvard Business Review

And while a good decision does not guarantee a good outcome, such pragmatism has paid off. A growing sophistication with managing risk, a nuanced understanding of human behavior, and advances in technology that support and mimic cognitive processes have improved decision making in many situations.

Even so, the history of decision-making strategies is not one of unalloyed progress toward perfect rationalism. In fact, over the years we have steadily been coming to terms with constraints—both contextual and psychological—on our ability to make optimal choices. Complex circumstances, limited time, and inadequate mental computational power reduce decision makers to a state of “bounded rationality,” argues Simon. While Simon suggests that people would make economically rational decisions if only they could gather enough information, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky identify factors that cause people to decide against their economic interest even when they know better. Antonio Damasio draws on work with brain-damaged patients to demonstrate that in the absence of emotion it is impossible to make any decisions at all. Erroneous framing, bounded awareness, excessive optimism: the debunking of Descartes’s rational man threatens to swamp our confidence in our choices, with only improved technology acting as a kind of empirical breakwater. Full Essay