2009 Review of Judgment and Decision Making Research

IMG_0571This post is based on a review paper “Mindful Judgment and Decision Making,” Elke U.Weber and Eric J. Johnson, Annual Review of Psychology, 2009, 60:53–85, on the state of judgment and decision making research. It is a 2009 paper so I don’t know how I missed it for so long. This should have been my first post. Since the paper is about six years old, it is dated, but it gives a better picture of the state of the art in 2009. If there is a recent comprehensive review, I would love to know about it. I am going to divide the discussion into three posts. This one looks at more general ideas, while the other two will provide some organization and details. As with all review articles Weber and Johnson use it as an opportunity to show off some of their work, and including “mindful” in the title is making their point that psychology with its processes is beginning to step past the earlier economic descriptions of judgment and decision making.

According to Weber and Johnson, the recognition that preferences are typically constructed rather than stored and retrieved may be psychology’s most successful export to behavioral economics and the policy community and illustrates the utility of psychological process explanations. It is now known how, and increasingly why, characteristics of choice options and task guide attention, and how internal memory or external information search and option comparison affect choice in path-dependent ways. This not only explains apparent inconsistencies in choice, but also provides insights and road maps for decision aiding and interventions, including the design of decision environments that nudge people to construct their preferences in ways they will not regret after the fact. Judgments and choices typically engage multiple psychological processes, from attention-guided encoding and evaluation, to retrieval of task-relevant information from memory or external sources, prediction, response, and after decision evaluation of consequences and resulting updating. Different tasks involve these processes to different degrees. For example, Weber and Johnson suggest that attention accounts for a larger proportion of response variance in decisions from description, where the decision maker is explicitly provided with all relevant information in numeric or graphic form. In contrast, memory and learning will be more important in decisions from experience, where information about outcomes and their likelihood is acquired by trial and error sampling of choice options over time. Similarly, affective processes are more important in dynamic decisions under uncertainty, whereas analytic evaluations play a larger role in static risky decisions.

Process models help because they consider more variables and constraints. By hypothesizing a series of psychological processes that precede a judgment or choice, they make predictions about intermediate states of the decision maker, between the start and end of the decision (“What external information is sought out? What facts are recalled from memory?”). Process models also make predictions about the temporal order of these states (“What will a decision maker think about first, second, etc.?”). Process data are the data used to test hypotheses about these intervening processes and intermediate states. They include functional imaging and other measures of localized brain activation, response times, verbal protocols, eye movement tracking, and other information-acquisition tools.

It is also important to connect JDM research more firmly to theories and data about human
motivation and emotion provided by other areas of psychology.  A broader set of goals/criteria is assumed to underlie decision makers’ implicit strategy selection, no longer restricted to effort and accuracy, but also including self-concept and self-regulation, social goals, and internal and external needs for justification. Content- and context-primed attention to subsets of goals  and context- and path dependent encoding, evaluation, and memory retrieval processes have been shown to help us to come up with a satisfactory choice option in a short amount of time and without too much postdecisional regret. Predecisional distortions in the form of information-search or argument-generation processes that bias the balance of evidence in adaptive ways help us do so.  Weber and Johnson suggest that even though Prospect Theory and hyperbolic discount models do not claim to be anything other than “as-if ” models, people often take them as literal, interpreting both loss aversion and hyperbolic discounting as emotion-mediated effects. Weber and Johnson believe that although affective processes play a role in both cases, cognitive (perceptual, attention, and memory) processes account for a large proportion of the variance in behavior.

Weber and Johnson assert that a realization is emerging that broad-scale characterizations of human judgment or choice as flawed or rational are not particularly useful. They suggest that defining heuristics within an effort-reduction framework that is based in cognitive information processes reduces conceptual redundancy and allows domain-general principles to emerge.

This current (2009) psychological theory of JDM shows the importance of understanding how decision makers attend to provided information, seek out additional information both by internal (memory) and external search, how information gets evaluated and integrated by both cognitive and affective processes, and how all of these stages are influenced by the decision environment (task, content, context) and the decision maker’s internal state (beliefs, values, goals, prior experience). Weber and Johnson believe that the successes of a constructivist JDM research agenda that uses what is known  about the mind of the decision maker to predict or modify consequential judgments and decisions hold future promises that clearly outweigh the drawbacks of its complexity.

1. Psychological process explanations have helped integrate JDM phenomena and provide
prescriptions for how to improve decision quality.
2. The emotions revolution has put affective processes on an equal footing with cognitive
3. Selective attention and information recruitment and retrieval processes explain the effects
of task, context, or prior history.
4. Internal or external evidence generation in constructed preference is path dependent.
5. Dynamic risk taking differs from static risk taking, and decisions from experience differ
from decisions from description.


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