Cognitive Science Insights into Decision Making

Those of you who know me understand how my company relies on cognition principles and experts to make our projects successful.  Dr. Karen McGraw, the founder of Cognitive Technologies, has said on many occasions that “Cognitive is the first word in our company name because if you don’t focus first on the way people think, work and learn, technology will not make any impact.”  I try to use this guiding principle in all of my management roles and projects.

Making decisions—selecting the best action among alternatives—is a key management responsibility. The higher in the organization a person sits, the greater the impact their decisions have. Because decision making is closely tied to company profitability, the “how” and “why” of decision making has received a great deal of study from cognitive scientists and business professionals.

Project managers often are called upon to provide expert opinions to support decision makers.

Here is a possible scenario …
Your boss’s boss calls on you to present your advice about an IT related decision under consideration, such as securing proprietary data, timing the transition to a new computer system or finding a teammate or subcontractor for a proposed project. If you do not have a personal or professional stake in the eventual decision, your task is to provide factual information and perhaps a professional recommendation.
However, when you, your project or your team will be directly impacted by the decision, you would be well served to apply some of the lessons learned by cognitive scientists on factors that influence people in making decisions.
Cognitive science research tells us that the influence of what you say will be enhanced or diminished by how you say it.

  1. Do some homework about the decision maker. Either based on your experience or the observation of others, try to determine:
    1. What types of information sources the person “values”. Some people are persuaded by academic research and published data, while others disregard “ivory tower” recommendations. Some managers may be motivated by industry standards and best practices. Other managers may prefer information sources that reflect innovation and outside-the-box thinking.
    2. Are there other managers whose opinion affects the decision maker’s preferences? (Sam really distrusts Joe and would not want to do anything that Joe recommends.)
    3. Do the manager’s past decisions reflect the desire for high risk / high reward or slow, measureable progress?
    4. Does the decision maker want quick results or long term impact?
    5. Are there issues outside of the question at hand that are important to the decision maker, such as customer needs, security, worker satisfaction or the environment? (All managers care about cost)
  2. Remember cognitive biases and their impact on processing information (see Does Your Organization Have Cognitive Biases that Influence Management Decisions?)
  3. People generally prefer the decision option that requires the least amount of cognitive effort (“Examining cognitive functions with fMRI”) reports cognitive science researchers from Carnegie Mellon. This may explain why some managers find just saying “no”, easier than actually weighing alternatives or committing to actions. The research further suggests that individuals expend less cognitive effort deciding in favor of a small “for-sure” gain over a potentially risky, but higher-value, gain. “Conversely, the cognitive effort expended in choosing a sure loss was equal to the cognitive effort expended in choosing a risky loss.”
  4. Frame the discussion by choosing descriptive words that resonate with the decision maker’s view of herself or the world. According to George Lakoff, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, people often make decisions based on the way they cognitively represent (or frame) a potential action. Lakoff calls these metaphors and they are the associations one makes to certain words. For example, because of unconscious frames, some people are more persuaded to “become fit” than to “exercise”. Some managers want to “Win the fight”, while others prefer to “protect our assets or position”.
  5. Even though cognitive scientists study differences between the decision-making influences in men and women and have research findings such as, “…women perceive greater risk across many real and hypothetical scenarios relative to men…” (Scientific American, September 20, 2011), beware of changing words or stories based on assumed differences in gender or cultural cognitive style or stereotypes. I would not do it.

An interesting thought piece by Gary Williams and Robert Miller published by Harvard Business Review in 2002 entitled “Change the way you persuade”, suggests some words and concepts may be more effective when making recommendations to managers based if you consider their decision-making style. Based on 1600 interviews with executives, the authors divided decision making styles into five categories: charismatics, thinkers, skeptics, followers and controllers. Here are a couple of their suggestions:

Decision Making Style

Persuasive Words and Concepts

Charismatic Use words like, “proven”, “easy”, “results”; use simple concepts and visual aids that focus on benefits and features. Acknowledge risks. Keep presentation short.
Thinker Have lots of data from different, but relevant, sources. Complexity is okay. Do not emphasize risks. You may be better off just giving them information and letting them reach a conclusion.
Skeptic Establish your bona fides first. Tie your recommendations to those of someone they trust. Expect disagreement and questions. Willing to take risks based on the recommendations of a trusted individual.
Follower References and testimonials can be helpful. Emphasize success others have achieved when following this recommendation. Provide instruction on technical issues. Help them feel confident that they are making the right decision.
Controller Do not emphasize risks, focus on benefits. Provide details to backup recommendations. Do not push for a quick decision.

So are do you know how you make your decisions?  Are you watching for other cognitive clues from staff and stakeholders?

2 Responses to “Cognitive Science Insights into Decision Making”

  1. Carnival of Project Management #38 Says:

    […] McGraw presents Cognitive Science Insights into Decision Making posted at Fear No Project Blog, saying, “how you make your decisions? Are you watching for […]

  2. Rachel Says:

    Thank you. I have never really thought about this before. Usually we are so deep in our project management software that we forget how to communicate face to face with other human beings. There is so much to consider before making a presentation, the problem is often that I am not given a lot of warning or time to prepare and I end up talking off the top of my head.

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