The psychology of decisions

Because this month’s issue features articles and columns on thinking differently, green schools, and semantics, I thought it would be fun to discuss some research on how the brain works and the psychology of decisions. For any designer who has had a client choose Option C instead of the much preferred Options A or B, these findings should interest you.


Because this month’s issue features articles and columns on thinking differently, green schools, and semantics, I thought it would be fun to discuss some research on how the brain works and the psychology of decisions. For any designer who has had a client choose Option C instead of the much preferred Options A or B, these findings should interest you. Also read on to gain insight to better manage your engineering staffs.

Scientists using magnetic resonance imaging technology to observe the brain in action have found that brains are much more aroused by “instant gratification” than longer-term rewards. Apparently, this is a hangover from our pre-history as “hunter-gatherers” when we faced scarcity more often. We generally would rather eat what’s available now rather than gamble on a bigger feast later. There’s an article about this in the Oct. 15, 2004, issue of “Science.” This may point to why lowest first-cost decisions win out over lowest lifecycle-cost decisions.

Another finding, though incomplete, posits that morality is an instinct or a sixth sense. “The Moral Instinct,” by Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker, from the “New York Times Magazine,” Jan. 13, 2007, said that when sensitized (“turned on like a switch”), “it [morality] commandeers our thinking.” Acting on a moral imperative increases the emotional context of decisions, decreasing rationality. This could explain why those who feel so strongly about climate change become really intense about saving future generations (“our children and our children’s children”). This is pretty strong stuff because not only do morals provide strong guidance toward good (moral) behavior (including volunteerism), morals strongly impact our judgment of others, even to the point where it’s OK to punish someone whose behavior conflicts with our moral imperative. Hence the keying or scratching of sport utility vehicles and other acts of eco-sabotage. Pinker’s work also helps describe why some people have a sense of “mission” at the workplace while to others, “it’s just a job.”

Another area of research (and theory) is from the field of educational psychology called “multiple intelligences.” Led by Howard Gardner, this body of work posits that there are eight different intelligences (bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, naturalistic, intrapersonal, spatial, and musical) to account for a broader range of human potential than an IQ test. The theory of multiple intelligences explains why different people learn better from different methods of instruction. For example, there are visually, auditory, and kinesthetically dominated learners, and it explains why engineers generally are better with calculations than communications. A lot of instructors use Gardner to tailor their teachings to a student’s preferences (so take note, mentors). Such learning preferences can influence career choices, too. And, because people have only one brain, decisions made on the job also are influenced by Gardner’s intelligences, which explains form over function, first cost over future performance, etc. For more on Gardner, visit .

So, how do you think?

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