Rational Decision Making Study Guide (page 2)
The sign of an intelligent people is their ability to control emotions by the application of reason.
Marya Mannes, American author and critic (1904–1990)
What part do emotions play in the decision-making process? That's what this lesson is all about. You'll discover that if emotional responses are accepted and used properly, they can be a useful element in critical thinking. But if they're used inappropriately, emotions can make things even worse!
Many people believe that objective thinking and decision making involves only the brain. After all, objective means "not influenced by emotions." But can you, and more importantly, should you, completely ignore your feelings when you are making decisions? You may be surprised to learn that the answer is "No!"
Feelings, or emotions, have a place in critical thinking, just as logic does. But decisions should never be made based on feelings alone, and some emotions are best left out of the process. Critical thinkers acknowledge their emotions and understand how they can influence decisions, and then take control of when and where any such emotions should become part of the process.
When Emotions Take Over the Decision-Making Process
Decision-making is a systematic, conscious process that seems to leave no room for feelings. But you can probably think of many decisions you have had to make recently in which you had strong feelings that influenced your outcome. Perhaps you had to decide whether to order dessert when you were out for dinner. You ordered the cheesecake because it is a favorite, ignoring the fact that you were trying to lower your cholesterol level. Or, you left work early because you had tickets to a ball game, even though you had a big project due the next day.
It doesn't matter if you're making a major decision, like whether to buy a car, or a minor one, like whether to have fries with your burger; the decision-making process is similar. In preceding lessons, you examined the steps in the process. Let's review them:
- Recognize the problem.
- Define the problem.
- Focus observation to learn more about the problem.
- Brainstorm possible solutions.
- Choose a solution(s) and set goals.
- Troubleshoot any problems that get in the way of your goal(s).
- Try the solution and assess your results.
- Use, modify, or reject the solution. Repeat the process if necessary.
You probably noticed there wasn't any step that said, "Determine how you feel about the problem or decision, and let your emotions rule." So what role, if any, do emotions have in the process? The answer is, a balanced role: Emotions shouldn't be ignored, nor should they be used as your sole criteria. When you recognize and define a problem, also recognize and define any feelings you might have. For example, you might think, "This whole situation makes me nervous, and I don't feel like I even want to deal with it!" Or you might think, "I'm excited about this. I want to get going!" Don't act on your feelings, just acknowledge them.
Here's an example of what can happen when someone lets emotions rule. Guy wants to go to college to get a degree in design, but he doesn't want to graduate after four years with a huge debt. His goal is to find a school that offers a great education without charging too much in tuition and other fees. He applies to three schools, and they all accept him. The first has a strong design department, the best reputation of the three, and fees within his budget. The second offers him a scholarship. The third costs more than the first, but his best friend is enrolling there. Logic would conclude that the first two schools offer compelling reasons for attending. The academic strengths and strong reputation of the first are good reasons to choose it, and although the second may be a notch down in quality, it would cost him practically nothing to attend. The third school has only one thing going for it: Guy's friend goes there. Guy picks the third school, a choice of emotion over logic.
If you discover that your emotions do get in the way of solving a problem, use them as a learning tool. Study what triggered a particular emotion so you can prevent it from getting in the way of reasoning in the future.
Bias and Stereotyping
Biases are preferences or beliefs that keep someone from being impartial or fair-minded. Stereotypes are generalized opinions or prejudiced attitudes about a group of people. Having a bias or stereotyping people keeps you from having an open mind and gets in the way of making logical decisions as you solve problems. You need to recognize and control your emotions, rather than letting them control you.
Here are two examples:
- Bias: Marta is a member of the town council. This week she must vote on a proposal that will bring much-needed revenue to the town, but will significantly reduce her friend's property value. The friend supported Marta's run for office and contributed to her campaign. Marta's bias is her feeling of loyalty toward her friend. If Marta votes "no" on the proposal, she will make her decision based on friendship, not on the best interest of the town she was elected to serve.
- Stereotyping: A study was done of a certain doctor's habit of writing prescriptions for painkillers. It found that 75% of the prescriptions were written for male patients, although the doctor's practice was 50% male and 50% female. When asked about the discrepancy, the doctor remarked, "Females have a lower pain threshold. They should tolerate pain better, and stop relying on drugs." This doctor stereotyped women as being weaker and so their complaints of pain weren't as valid as men's. His stereotyping prevented him from making logical decisions and from adequately treating half of his patients.
Ask yourself, "How would I feel about this if I weren't letting my own views and beliefs affect my thinking?"
Making Decisions Under Stress
Stress can affect both physical and mental health, affecting the ability to think critically, solve problems, and make sound decisions. There is no way to control every potentially stressful situation that we may encounter; time pressures at work, lack of information, information overload, and aggressive individuals are things that we have to deal with from time to time whether we want to or not. What we can control is how we deal with stress and how we let it affect us.
When you are under too much stress, or you don't deal with the stressors that are affecting you, it will affect the way you make decisions. Some of the most common effects are:
- Inability to recognize or understand a problem. When stressed, it is difficult to access stored information quickly, if at all. Short-term memory is affected. You may incorrectly identify something as a problem when in fact it is not.
- Difficulty brainstorming and setting reasonable goals. When you do not accurately recognize the problem, and you have trouble concentrating, you may come up with a quick or irrational solution. You tend to think only about the immediate future, so planning is difficult and decisions are often made quickly.
- Inability to assess the solution. If you are having trouble taking in information, you will not be able to see if your solution works. A short-term view of everything may keep you from being concerned with the implications of your solution.
Taking part in an auction is an example of decision making under stress. Imagine that two people are interested in the same 100-year-old china plate. They've both seen the same kind of plate at other auctions and in antique shops, selling for about $50. So the two shoppers set a limit, even if only in their minds, of the price they're willing to pay for the plate. Then, the bidding begins. When several people want the same item, excitement builds and stressed bidders can be carried away by "auction fever." The winning bid could be over $100, more than double what the two bidders know the plate is worth. Reason and logic, when faced with stress, take a back seat to emotion.
How could both people have eliminated the stress and bid reasonably? They could have done just one simple thing: recognize what they could control, and exercise control over it. In this case, they could have set a price they wouldn't go over before the auction began, and stuck to it. But what about a more complicated issue, like refinancing a mortgage?
Barb filed refinancing papers three weeks ago and set a date for the closing. When she arrived at the closing, the loan officer told her that the interest rate had gone up a point, so she'd have to pay a higher rate. In this very stressful situation, Barb must make a decision. If she allows stress to take over, she'll probably do one of two things: tell the loan officer to forget it, or say nothing and continue with the closing even though the rate is higher. But if Barb recognizes what she has control over, she'll ask questions before making any move. For example, she could ask, "How does this rate compare with the one I'm already paying? What will my new payment be, as opposed to my old one? Can you waive the closing costs to help me save money?" In this situation, taking control means getting information.
A good rule to follow is this: Don't act until you understand the situation. Even if you're stressed, you can check your emotions and make good decisions.
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