Judgment Call Study Guide

Updated on Sep 20, 2011

Lesson Summary

You can use all the quantitative data you can get, but you still have to distrust it and use your own intelligence and judgment.

Alvin Toffler, American writer and futurist (1928– )

Sometimes you come across a problem for which there is no right or wrong answer. So how do you figure out what to do? In this lesson, you'll learn how to make judgments, or personal decisions, when those kinds of problems present themselves.

Many critical-thinking skills include gathering facts, and then making decisions based on those facts. Although doing so is not always easy, the process from problem to solution is clear cut: identify and understand the situation, learn everything you can about it and any possible solutions available, and then choose the best one. However, sometimes you can't find enough information to make a decision because it doesn't exist, so there is no right answer. At times like that, you have to make a judgment call.

What Is a Judgment Call?

Judgment calls are important decisions made all the time, about things like what stock to buy, when to perform a surgery, and whether a potentially game-winning basketball shot made it through the hoop before the buzzer. But these decisions do have a number of things in common. For instance:

  • the stakes are high
  • the information you need is incomplete or ambiguous
  • knowledgeable people disagree about them
  • there are often ethical dilemmas and/or conflicting values involved

How can you make a judgment call with so much uncertainty surrounding the issue? Remember that these types of decisions, however difficult, are made all the time. Each one has an outcome that is both subjective and debatable. That is, judgment calls are not made purely on facts because the facts are not completely available. They are debatable because another person, who knows as much as you do about the decision and the situation surrounding it, could come up with a strong argument as to why your decision might be wrong (or another option is right). Accepting the nature of judgment calls before you make then can help take some of the stress out of the decision-making process.

Preparing to Make a Judgment Call

If you can't gather enough information to make a decision, is there any way to prepare for making a judgment call? The answer is yes. Some facts may be unclear, so it's debatable which to include and which to exclude, but arming yourself with as much information as possible is an important step in preparing to make a judgment call.


A food pantry opens in a small town to provide free food and household items to needy people. After a few months, the number of people visiting the pantry doubles as word spreads to surrounding communities. Most of the new visitors come from a city ten miles away that has its own food pantry. The people who run the small-town pantry discover that some of the new visitors are taking the food back to the city and selling it. Should the committee ignore this and continue to provide food for anyone who comes in? Should the pantry be limited to only those who live in the town? Should the committee close the pantry and discontinue its mission?

This needs a real-life judgment call. Imagine you're on the committee. What would you do?

The first step is to gather information, identify all available options, and try to determine on what you need to base your decision. Do most people who visit the food pantry have an actual need? If the food pantry closed, where would those in need turn for assistance? How many people collect food and sell it? Where are they from? This sets up a criteria so you know what types of information to look for.

The second step is to seek out other people as both sources of information, and as feedback on your decision making process. Choose people who are not only knowledgeable but who will be able to provide you with objective commentary, including criticism. Discussion with others, whether one-on-one or in a group, can be an invaluable step in the process. You might discover better or more sources of data, find out about further options, or realize that you forgot an important aspect of the decision.

The third step is to play "what if ?" Explore each option as a solution, asking yourself (and others, if appropriate) how would this option would work as a solution? Who would benefit? Who would be hurt, annoyed, or wronged? What is the best-case scenario and what is the worst for your option? Test each possibility and weigh its possible benefits and detriments. How do they measure up to the criteria you established in step one?

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