Posts Tagged irrationality

Can you be positive about uncertainty?

Tunnel in the fog

What's around the corner? Can you cope with not knowing for certain?

As an antidote to some of the recent posts which have examined ways of overcoming irrationality in decision making, it is time to highlight a celebration of the intuitive and the acceptance of ambiguity.

The concept of Positive Uncertainty has had a strong influence on some of the modern theories of career choice — especially those which emphasise chance and complexity, such as planned happenstance or the chaos theory of careers. The idea was introduced in 1989 by H.B. Gelatt (who appears to call himself H.B. — possibly to induce uncertainty in those he meets) and it was a complete turnaround from an earlier article he wrote advocating a totally rational approach to decision making.

Gelatt, H.B. (1989) Positive uncertainty: A new decision-making framework for counseling. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 36(2), 252-6.

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What’s your bias?

Imagine that a small hamlet of 600 people has been struck down by a potentially fatal disease. A health expert comes to you and offers two possible treatment programmes:

  • If you follow Programme A 200 people will be saved
  • If you follow Programme B there is a one-third probability that all 600 will be saved, but a two-thirds probability that no-one will be saved.

Which would you go for?

Now, let’s imagine that neither Programme A or B is viable. Instead, the boffin proposes another two treatment programmes:

  • If you follow Programme C 400 people will die.
  • If you follow Programme D there is a one-third probability that no-one will die and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die.

Which would you choose now?

This probably didn’t trip you up — you may have spotted that programmes A and C are exactly the same and programmes B and D are exactly the same. However, when these choices were presented separately to two groups of people, those who were given programmes A and B mostly chose A, and those who were presented with C and D mostly chose D (Entman, R. M. (1993), Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication 43(4)  51–58.)

Presenting the options in a slightly different way with different wording resulted in people making radically different decisions. This is an example of a cognitive bias — a repeatable irrationality in the way we tend to think and make choices. This particular cognitive bias is called framing (or possibly the pseudocertainty effect), but dozens of them have been identified.
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