Decision Making Process: Complete guide to making decisions


Remember the time when you had to make a difficult decision and it ended up being the right one? Well, what was the process your brain went through in order to make that decision? In this article, we’ll find out about what is decision making process is and how it works, what parts of the brain are involved, and what happens when we change decisions.

Decision making process

Decision making process

What is the decision making process?

In psychology, the decision making process also spelled like decision-making process and decisionmaking process involves the cognitive processes that lead to a selection, belief, or action that has at least one other possibility. Essentially, to choose between one thing and another. Each decision making process leads to a final choice, of which may or may not later lead to an action. The decision making process is essentially the process of identifying and choosing something using values, beliefs, and preferences of the person making the decision.


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One of the first records of our decision making process dates back to the 17th century by a mathematician, Blaise Pascal, who theorized that we calculate the “expected value” of something by multiplying the value (how much we need or want it) by the probability that we might be able to get it. The decision making process today comes from and is highly studied in psychology and neuroscience- both systemic neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience.

The decision making process

There is a 7-step process involved in the decision making process.

  • Step 1: Identify the decision. This is the step when you realize that a decision needs to be made. For example, “Should I order some take-out Chinese food tonight?”
  • Step 2: Collect relevant information. This second step involves gathering information that is essential and important to the decision before the decision is made. This information includes: what information is needed, the sources to get the information from, and then how to get the information. This second step uses both internal and external effort. The internal effort involves finding information through a process of self-assessment. The external effort comes from finding the information from outside sources like books, other people, and the internet. For example, finding a Chinese food restaurant that meets your needs.
  • Step 3: Identify the alternatives. This third step involves the likelihood that you have found other possible choices to make the decision. This step means using creativity and finding desirable alternatives. For example, realizing you could also go to the restaurant to pick-up the food, or even order something different, such as Italian food.
  • Step 4: Weigh the evidence. Using the information gathered and the emotions that you have, this step involves imagining each alternative to the choice until the effects of the decision wear off and are no longer effective. It’s essential to think about whether or not the need in Step 1 will be met or figured out by each alternative. During the process of Step 4 and weighing the evidence and options, your brain will begin to favor those that have a higher potential for reaching your end goal. At the end of Step 4, the alternate choices will be ordered based on your own value system. For example, if by getting the Chinese food as delivery, I won’t need to leave home. However, it would be healthier to walk to the restaurant a few blocks away and get the food.
  • Step 5: Choose among the alternatives. Once all of the evidence is weighed, Step 5 kicks in and finalizes the choices. This means that your choice is made. For example, deciding to walk to the restaurant to pick up the take-out order.
  • Step 6: Taking action. By taking action in Step 6, you’re simply implementing and putting into action the choice in Step 5. For example, walking to the restaurant to pick up the food.
  • Step 7: Reviewing the decision and its consequences. This means the decision is made and it’s time to evaluate whether or not the need in Step 1 was met or not. For example, the fact that you know have Chinese food take-out for dinner tonight means that the decision was successful.
decision making process

Decision making process

Types of decision making processes

When making a decision, there are different things that happen and things to consider:

  • the level of the decision
  • the style
  • the process.

The level of the decision can be simple or complex. It’s easy to find this out by asking:

  • to who is this decision important?
  • how bad would it be if the decision made is a bad decision?
  • will the decision become more or less important in the future?
  • how urgent or important is the issue at this very moment?

The style of the decision can be changed due to participation. Whether that means involving more people, bringing in a third party, or simply making the decision on your own, it’s important to think about who will be involved in the decision. Questions to ask could be:

  • to what degree should others be involved?
  • under what conditions would participation work best?

The decision making processes can vary between rationalist and classical, to less structured and subjective methods. Humans can be rational beings, but it’s the factors which determine the decision that isn’t always rational.

What happens to the brain when we make decisions?

When we make decisions, our anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), orbitofrontal cortex, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex are all used. People who have damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or the anterior cingulate cortex can have a hard time making decisions. According to a neuroimaging study, these parts of the brain all light up in different ways when a decision is made depending on it the person is deciding voluntarily (I want to go to bed early tonight) or following directions from someone else (coffee or tea?).

When studying the decision making process, a common technique is to use the two-alternative forced choice task (2AFC). This task involves choosing between two alternative options within a certain amount of time. It was found in one study that the neurons within a rhesus monkey’s brain represent the not only the decision, but also the degree of certainty and confidence that go along with the decision.


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There is a theory in neuroscience that the decision making process network in our brain isn’t able to prioritize. Essentially, every day we are faced with a multitude of decisions with so much information that we have no energy left to deal with the important decisions. Think about how much time you spend trying to decide what to have for dinner.

Parts of the brain involved in decision making

Positive and negative decisions

That 17th-century mathematician, Blaise Pascal, was right in that our brains have a two-pronged decision making process that way the value of something and the probability of having it. In both positive decisions and negative decisions, our brain works in a similar way. For a while, it was thought that our brain’s representation of value and probability were found in the same single part of the brain. Now, thanks for research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai,  it’s been found that there are two different parts of the brain which are separate both functionally and anatomically that play a part in our decision “weighing” process with value and probability.

Depression and anxiety are set apart by changes in how people process rewards and make decisions. Sometimes, a change in decision making can be so extreme that some people are unable to lead normal lives because of it. It’s crucial that we study what parts of the brain are involved in helping us make decisions based on value and probability to be able to understand how debilitating disorders, like depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia are caused.


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The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex are the two parts of the brain that make up the prefrontal cortex. It has been known for awhile that these two parts of the brain are essential and highly connected in our decision making process. Research now shows that both parts of the prefrontal cortex send connections and messages to another part of the frontal lobe known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC). Some brain imaging studies have theorized that our choices are ultimately made in our VMPFC.

Addiction and decision making process

In the scientific fields of addiction, there are a growing number of researchers that believe that addiction is an obsessive habit of poor decision making which is caused by interactions between several different brain regions that are responsible for making decisions based on potential outcomes.

Alain Dagher, a researcher from McGill University, is hoping to change that belief to focus on addiction and cravings being an abnormality in the decision making regions of the brain. Dagher’s research shows that craving a drug, like nicotine, can light up when using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). The degree of nicotine addiction, and thus cravings, was reflected by the intensity of illumination in the fMRI. The overall results were successful in predicting the addictive behavior and smoking habits.

When the brain is trying to determine the cost and value of certain actions, thinking of the “value” of smoking that cigarette activates the decision making areas of the brain- is addicted to nicotine, for example. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is found to regulate cigarette cravings in response to smoking cues. Essentially, addiction may be the result of odd or uncommon connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the other parts of the brain in people who are more prone to addictive behavior.

Decision making process in management

According to professor Paul Nutt at Ohio State University, only about 50% of the decisions made in the workplace were the “right’ decision. Science says that an effective management practice is to vary in decision making styles, depending on the situation. A model thought up in the 1970’s from Yale professors is called the Vroom-Yetton Decision Making Model. This model summarizes different approaches to management and decisions as a manager. There is also another model, known as the Tannenbaum and Schmidt Model that considers the importance of human participation in the decision.

Decision making process

Decision making process

What happens when we change decisions?

Scientists have discovered that our ability to stop or modify a planned behavior comes from a single region within the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain that involves planning and other higher mental purposes. However, last-minute decision making is scientifically proven to be different than scientists previously thought. It involves neural coordination and communication between multiple areas of the brain.

In a study done at Johns Hopkins Medical School that used functional magnetic resonance imaging, a method that is able to monitor brain activity in real time found that changing and reversing decisions requires communication between two zones within the prefrontal cortex and the frontal eye field. The frontal eye field is an area that controls visual awareness and eye movements.This means that changing our minds, even a simple millisecond after making a decision, can be too late to alter the behavior or movement. According to the head researcher, if we change our minds within about 100 milliseconds after making a decision, it’s easy to reverse our decision. After 200 milliseconds, the decision becomes much harder to change and reverse. The study also found that the longer it takes to make a decision, the harder the decision is to be reversed.

Ways and tips to improve your decision making

Making a decision requires both prediction and judgment. Here are a few ways to improve your decision making skills all-around:

  • Be less certain. Being overconfident isn’t universal- it is dependent upon personality and culture. However, some scientists claim that the chances are good that you’re more confident about each step in the decision making process than perhaps you should be. Reevaluating your overconfidence means you can reevaluate the logic of your decision. While it’s not always possible to be right, it’s always possible to be overconfident.
  • How often does it normally happen? This idea in research, also known as the base rate, suggests that this is the best starting point for predictions. Predictions being a key element in the decision making process. Asking how often something happens is important. For example, if starting your own business, it’s important to ask, “how often do startups fail?”
  • Thinking about probability. Research shows that someone with simple, basic training in probability make better predictions and they avoid some certain cognitive biases. Being good with probability also helps one express uncertainty and be able to think numerically better.
  • Narrow down the options. If there are a lot of options, cross out the options that aren’t feasible or really wanted in order to make room for more important decisions. Narrowing is easier on our brain to process.
  • Build upon your past. We have all made bad decisions before and have, hopefully, learned from them since. It can be helpful to think about a past decision that went badly and apply what you learned from that decision to the decision needing to be made now.
  • Ask others. Other people can be helpful when making a decision because they can be more unbiased than you may be about a certain decision. Sometimes letting someone else be the voice of reason is useful.
  • Practice mindfulness. Multiple studies have proven that practicing mindfulness meditation even just 15 minutes a day helps people make smarter choices. Mindfulness counteracts deep-rooted tendencies. This is due to the fact that mindfulness helps people think in the present. One study found that people who practiced mindfulness for only a brief period of time were able to make more rational decisions by considering and weighing the information that was given in the present moment, which led them to more positive outcomes in the future.

How do you make decisions? Let us know in the comments below!

Anna is currently studying a Bachelors in Spanish, International Studies, and Intercultural Communication at the University of Saint Louis-Madrid.