Making Decisions

Making Decisions

By: Virginia Meurer


Decision making refers to the ability to distinguish between several options and choose which which one will provide you with the most benefit. Certain structures in the brain assist with this; for example, the cingulate cortex plays a role in selective attention. This that your mind is able to choose which items to pay attention to and which can fade away into the background. However, the main structure that serves the most to decision making is the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe's main characteristics are in higher functioning such as planning future events, personality, memory storage, language, and decision making.

Apart from the biological aspect, making decisions also is influenced by the different stages we go through as we get older. The main theories of development that pertain to making decisions are Kohlberg's Three Levels of Morality and Erikson's Psychosocial Adolescent and Adult Stages. Because we continue to develop mentally across the lifespan, there are different reasonings behind the various choices we make as we grow older.

Decision making is an important topic because choosing a major is a very significant choice in a young adult's life. There is also the question of what to do with the degree they obtain. College students would be interested in the topic of decision making because knowing where these decisions come from and what factors go into making them would be pertinent to them. Many questions need to be answered when it comes to the way college students make decision such as which factors influence their choices and what happens when they make the wrong choice.

The following video gives insight into what happens if we make the wrong decision; if we regret something. Most findings support the fact that if we do something we regret, we are inhibited from making similar decisions and avoid having to choose between two similar choices again. Yeung gives good advice about how to avoid regrets in life using a "10 year rule".

How Do People Make Decisions?

There are two main problem solving techniques that help us make decisions: convergent thinking and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking is looking for a single solution to a problem and believing that there is only right answer. An example of convergent thinking with respect to college students is choosing a college. Using information that multiple colleges have given them, high school seniors will choose one college out of many that is the right fit for them. On the other hand, divergent thinking much like brainstorming. You being with a single idea and generate a list of connected ideas and possible solutions. Similarly, this is when high schoolers start the college search. They may have one area of study in mind, so they being looking at multiple colleges with strong programs in that field.

One study deals with this topic of field of study and career decisions and looks at how service-learning opportunities impact students' understanding of how exactly to choose a potential career. The study created two groups of college students attended a class informing them career information for high school students. One group spoke with high school students about this information while the other group did not. The results showed that the first group that repeated the information they had learned to high school students had a better understanding about how to choose a career than the group that did not (Coulter-Kern and colleagues, 2013). This experiment highlighted the fact that repeating information to another audience can increase one's understanding of a certain topic more than just going though the same information once.

Convergent and divergent thinking also sets students up to excel in different abilities starting in adolescence. One study found that junior high aged children who used the divergent thinking technique scored higher in word fluency and their overall reading ability. Whereas children of the same age who used a convergent thinking technique reported having fewer problems with homework and even found that their parents were more interested in their post-secondary plans, specifically college plans (Clarke, Veldman, Thorpe, 1965). This shows that each method of problem solving can contribute to success, albeit different successes.

The following link is a quiz that helps determine how well you think through options and your overall decision making skills. The higher score you have, the more developed and comprehensive your decision making process is.
How Good Of A Decision Maker Are You?

Other Problem Solving Techniques?

Some are techniques for solving problems include using either an algorithm or a heuristic. An algorithm is a step-by-step procedure that almost always guarantees a result. The problem with this is that it is very time consuming because you must consider every possible answer before finding the correct one. A heuristic is a speedier, however more error prone, method that uses educated guesses and assumptions to find an answer. There are also two types of heuristics to categorize solutions into that include the representative and availability heuristic. The availability heuristic estimates the frequency of something by how easily the last occurrence comes to mind. The representative heuristic put items into categories and assumes that all items in that category share very similar characteristics. However, "much research emphasizes heuristic use of stereotypes, though stereotypes have long been considered as capable of influencing more thoughtful processing of social information" (Wegener, Clark, Petty, 2006). Because the representative heuristic creates stereotypes various problems such as racism and sexism can occur.

What Side Effects Occur With Frontal Lobe Damage?

Damage to the frontal lobe, where the highest level thinking occurs along with decision making, can disrupt this ability. One case study documents the recovery period of a 47 year old male with trauma-related prefrontal injuries up to at least
15 months after his injury. He still had low levels of "activity, initiative, information utilization, response flexibility, and effective decision-making strategies..." (Satish, Streufert, & Eslinger, 2008). He still experienced many day to day difficulties even well after a year into recovery, proving that frontal lobe injuries are very unique and that decision making is a task that is impaired when a frontal lobe injury is sustained.
Another study suggests that decision making abilities will never recover over time. Patients with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, compared to the control group did not improve on three different versions of the Iowa Gambling Task. The researchers received similar results in an original study involving ventromedial prefrontal injuries (Xiao & colleagues, 2013).


MRI scans of a human brain show the regions significantly associated with decision-making in blue, and the regions significantly associated with behavioral control in red. On the left is an intact brain seen from the front — the colored regions are both in the frontal lobes. The image on the right is that same brain with a portion of the frontal lobes cut away to show how the lesion map looks in the interior.

What Influences College Students' Decisions?

One likely source of influence that college students would receive would be opinions and advice from their parents regarding their undergraduate, and ultimately career, path that they choose. Additionally, the decisions of their peers provides a framework for them and gives them examples of what may happen if they make similar choices. A recent study found that students who took into account the opinions of others and understood their viewpoints were able to develop plans and analyze choices better than the group that recorded their own ideas and experiences into a chart without reference to others (Morey & Dansereau, 2010). This explains why group projects are beneficial at the collegiate level because students are able to discuss different ideas and come up with the best plan for the group as a whole.

college kids.jpg

Kohlberg's Three Levels of Morality & Moral Dilemmas

According to Kohlberg, our morality can be divided into six stages starting in early adolescence all the way through adulthood. As we age, we mature in our reasoning behind why we choose to do what we deem "right" or "moral". But what happens when we are forced to choose between a very lucrative choice and one that we know contains more moral value. This situation is called a moral dilemma. One experiment involving these moral dilemmas presented university students with the choice to sell merchandise with defective parts. Half of the group made a hypothetical choice regarding what to do with the merchandise and the other half we offered money to keep the defects secret. The researchers found that monetary gains did affect the students' decisions in whether to hide the defects or make them known to consumers. They also justified their actions using justification from lower stages than what their age would put them in (Carpendale, Krebs, 1995). This study points out that many different factors contribute to our decision making process and that distractions from the proper choice do occur.


Erikson's Psychosocial Adolescent and Adult Stages

Erickson believed that throughout our lifetime, we pass through different stages of social development in which we must find a resolution between the two conflicts. For example, college students would be caught between finding an answer to the question "Who am I?" and are in search of a defined identity. Later in their college career, they would progress to Erikson's next stage labeled "Intimacy versus Isolation" in which he believed that most young adults look for companionship, specifically romantic companionship.


How Can Students Make Better Decisions?

When we must choose between two different options and our success depends entirely on us making the correct choice, we want to make sure we choose wisely and put in enough thought regarding our decision. Joanna Schroeder points out some suggestions on how to make our decisions better:
  • Don't sacrifice loved ones for your decisions. Make sure that no one you care about will have to suffer for your decision.
  • Take responsibility for your decisions. This means that you should make decisions independently and not to let yourself be swayed too much by the thoughts of your peers. Additionally, when things do not go according to plan and you find you made the wrong choice, do not play the victim and blame others for your mistake.
  • Focus on one problem at a time. Do not back yourself into a corner and realize that you have too many choices to make all at once. Tackle each decision step by step and realize that the best choices are made in quality, not quantity.
  • It's OK to change your mind. Perhaps you put more thought into one solution than in another and you find that the best plan of action is to change your mind all together. It is fair to change your mind if you feel that you have chosen a better outcome for yourself, and also a good thing if you, because this demonstrates thoughtful and deep reflection on your choices (Joanna Schroeder, 2007).

  • Carpendale, J. M., & Krebs, D. L. (1995). Variations in Level of Moral Judgement as a Function of Type of Dilemma and Moral Choice. Journal Of Personality, 63(2), 289-313. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.ep9506231778.
  • Clark, C. M., Veldman, D. J., & Thorpe, J. S. (1965). Convergent and divergent thinking abilities of talented adolescents. Journal Of Educational Psychology, 56(3), 157-163. doi:10.1037/h0022110.
  • Morey, J. T., & Dansereau, D. F. (2010). Decision-Making Strategies for College Students. Journal Of College Counseling, 13(2), 155-168.
  • Satish, U., Streufert, S., & Eslinger, P. (2008). Simulation-based executive cognitive assessment and rehabilitation after traumatic frontal lobe injury: a case report. Disability & Rehabilitation, 30(6), 468-478.
  • Schroeder, J. (2007). How to make faster, better decisions. Public Relations Tactics, 14(5), 4.
  • Wegener, D. T., Clark, J. K., & Petty, R. E. (2006). Not All Stereotyping Is Created Equal: Differential Consequences of Thoughtful Versus Nonthoughtful Stereotyping. Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology, 90(1), 42-59. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.90.1.42.
  • Xiao, L., Wood, S. W., Denburg, N. L., Moreno, G. L., Hernandez, M., & Bechara, A. (2013). Is there a recovery of decision-making function after frontal lobe damage? A study using alternative versions of the Iowa Gambling Task. Journal Of Clinical & Experimental Neuropsychology, 35(5), 518-529. doi:10.1080/13803395.2013.789484.