We make many decisions passively or without apparent conscious effort. From a psychological viewpoint, we might assume that such decisions are made through some combination of: an expectation of pleasure or pain, entrenched habits, emotional states and reactions, implicit “pattern matching,” implicit and practiced decision principles, social cues, and possibly other ingredients.
Other times we choose consciously, but make a meta-decision to “go with our gut.” Interestingly, it does not seem as though the decision criteria in these cases are significantly different; rather we are simply more likely to bring various facts and values into consciousness and change the weight they are given in the choice.
Take for example a decision whether to drive on a freeway or a surface road to one’s destination. If we drive this route frequently and normally take the freeway, we might just take the freeway without ever consciously being aware of making a decision. Or, we may pick the route based on apparent traffic, and in this case we are conscious of the decision; but if there are no obvious traffic problems we take the freeway anyway based on instinct.
Non-conscious decision processes develop naturally from our biological reward systems. We come to predict those actions that will satisfy drives such as hunger, thirst, and warmth. We also have strong, though less immediate, drives such as curiosity, sexual desire, and a need for social interaction and status. Early in our lives, the more basic drives dominate and the providers who satisfy them create a strong influence on our habits of action and decision. Later, a broader social environment conditions us to certain behaviors through the dynamics of individual relationships, peer pressure, and authority figures. The habits that we develop early in life may persist even though they may no longer correspond to our actual desires as we mature.
At other times, we actually deliberate consciously. Consider the following general procedure, which is not intended as definitive, but seems a reasonable approximation:
- identify the relevant options;
- for each option, attempt to predict its consequences;
- for each option, compare the expected consequences to our desires;
- compare the assessments over all the options.
Comparing the expected consequences of an option to our desires is not as easy as comparing a grocery list to a filled shopping cart. Those consequences may take the form of a statistical distribution of outcomes, or a tree of possibilities that turn on unknown extrinsic factors. The desiderata may be multifarious and their weightings or priorities may be time- or path-dependent or combination-sensitive. Further, it is not only those criteria relating directly to the context of the choice (a goal) that must be considered: there are often background considerations that render an otherwise acceptable outcome untenable (side effects).
Comparing these assessments over the various options is a higher dimensional version of the same process. We must compare the statistical distributions or outcome pathways across options and assess how well goals are met and side effects are minimized along with the relevant probabilities. Here there are also stylistic meta-desires involved, for example, whether one seeks values as an optimizer or a constraint-satisfier, or whether we prefer to cast the die once or to leave downstream options open.
Crucially, underlying this epistemic labyrinth is a requirement to have knowledge of our desires and how their interrelationships. While we do not have control over the extrinsic factors that affect the outcomes of choices, we do control the extent to which we understand what we seek. Here arise further interesting questions (which we will not address here): do we to some extent need to discover what it is that we desire? How does that process unfold?
It is no wonder that we typically rely on habits, gut instinct, and norms whenever we can. The cost of following a conscious and rational decision process (whether that described above or some variation) is extremely high, and in any case it is often so filled with uncertainty that the incremental value of spending time and energy on detailed comparisons is low.
Given that, we should ask the question whether we even need to consciously deliberate. What is wrong with just relying on our existing habits and intuitions? The answer is that, though these sub-conscious mechanisms undoubtedly contain elements of our genuine criteria, it is likely that they would contain some influences that we have rejected, are missing some that we have embraced, and weight them incorrectly. In short, our sub-conscious mechanisms rarely match up with our conscious desires, particularly when the decision involved will have long-term effects. Even though the conscious process is complex and imprecise, it is likely to produce results that are closer to our actual desires.
To reduce the ongoing cost of conscious decisions, and to improve the consistency of our efforts to obtain what we desire, we can actively establish norms and values and attempt to entrench them as habits of behavior. In both the “subconscious” and “conscious-implicit” cases discussed earlier, the psychological basis for the decision is a combination of unanalyzed habits and responses along with habits and responses that were developed or practiced consciously.
It seems that there are two approaches – or perhaps the poles of a continuum – by which we can consciously habituate decision criteria. First, we might consciously make a decision anew in each individual case, perhaps based on more fundamental criteria. Over time an abstraction will form that enables recognition of a circumstantial pattern, whether or not we explicitly identify it, and that pattern-response mechanism is the source of the habit.
In contrast, we might instead recognize in advance that a species of circumstances does or will occur regularly, and we contemplate and calculate a decision rule in general form. Initially, when applicable circumstances come to pass, we must consciously recognize the situation and form the decision. We may even engage in some deliberation during the first few such occurrences; in this case, such deliberation is in the context of whether our initial, abstract deliberation was correct. In any case, after sufficient practice, decisions in such circumstances can occur without either conscious deliberation or even recognition.
From this analysis we observe three categories of decision processes: conscious, habitual based on consciously developed norms, and habitual based on conditioning.