Organizational Behavior Series: #3 Decision-Making
We constantly make decisions. Are yours always optimal? Not many of us would answer "Yes" to that question. What is involved in decision making? And how can a knowledge of what is involved in decision making be used in an organizational setting?
Although having relatively small roles in the 2006 romantic comedy Failure to Launch, Zooey Deschanel and Justin Bartha wonderfully illustrated various decision making concepts in a short, fun-filled scene involving the two impetuous friends and an unfortunate bird.
"3.5 Stars.... Nothing much makes sense: 40-year-old SJP rooming with Deschanel, 26? And if the parents want Tripp out, why do they make him breakfast and do his laundry? But it all helps make what could have been a rote romantic comedy appealingly weird." Kyle Smith - NYPost
The rational model of decision making, derived from classical economic theory, has obvious limitations. Put simply, there are time constraints on and limits to human knowledge and information-processing capabilities - and a manager’s preferences and needs often change. The theory’s shortcomings could be well illustrated using the antics of Ace (Justin Bartha) and Kit (Zooey Deschanel).
These characters lent credence instead to the assumptions of Herbert Simon’s bounded rationality model. Not that Ace and Kit lacked cognitive ability; rather, they exemplified the use of satisficing and of heuristics in this scene, given the constraints that they had. Kit apparently pumped the gun more than twice, causing the gun to do more harm to the bird than either of them wanted. Was she being malicious? It seems that she was just ignorant of how much pressure was really necessary. As Ace frantically carried the maimed bird to the kitchen table, she cried to him ‘Oh God, why did you make me do that?’ Because she was unable to accurately calculate the probability of success for only pumping the gun twice (by virtue of her limited knowledge of airsoft guns), she seems to have overestimated and assumed that ‘more is better’. This cognitive shortcut, known as a heuristic, would have allowed her to reach a conclusion without actually having considered the facts. Kit may have felt that since greater effort leads to better outcomes more-often-than-not, the same principle would apply in this situation. Known as an availability heuristic, this thought process is often used when the event that is being recalled (in this case, ‘more is better’) occurs more frequently (and is thus easier to remember (more mentally available)) than other courses of action (such as ‘less is better’). The individual reasons that if the event can be more readily recalled, it must be more significant (or at least more so than an alternative course of action). Thus, the decision maker discounts any other alternatives as inferior, essentially negating the third assumption in the rational decision-making model that “The decision maker is aware of all the possible alternatives”. In order to save mental activity, Kit chose a course of action that she had probably consistently seen to work and would therefore have a somewhat logical reason for positing that it would work at this point in time. But, unfortunately, heuristics often lead to errors in judgment, as Kit realized when the bird fell to the ground and did not get up.
(Sylvester was just as precipitous as Kit.)
Time was of the essence as she and Ace scrambled to … do something for the bird. The cost of choosing the optimum decision was too great. There was no time to plan; they had to think fast. The door flies open. Ace darts left. ‘No, that won’t work.’ He spins around. “Clear the table!” he barks. Everything is swept off. What now? Is the bird okay? Maybe it’s just stunned.
Kit: “Do you know CPR?”
Ace: “Well, yeah, but…”
Kit: “Do it!”
CPR is good enough, as Kit again bellows for Ace to “Do it” after he hesitantly begins to object. No alternatives are going to be considered; they are going to satisfice using CPR. The two of them were certainly capable of exploring alternatives. If the bird were only mildly injured, they could have gotten on the internet and looked up tips for nursing it back to health. They could have driven it to the local veterinarian, or even have just built a nest in a small shoebox and observed the bird over the next few days to see if it would recover on its own. They may have favored a different course of action; Ace surely didn’t have a habit of giving mouth-to-mouth to unconscious animals. But the needs of this situation required immediate action. Whatever their (specifically, Ace’s) preference may have been needed to be suspended at that moment as they selected the first alternative that was satisfactory. It was not ideal, but it could work – and that was all they needed.
What Do You Think?
Do you agree with Kit's decision to shoot the bird?
What if the bird that the couple shot in the film was not the bird that had been irritating Kit? What if the singing did not come from a single bird, but, rather, from a number of birds? If this had been the case, the couple’s assumption that the bird they saw on the particular day on which the scene took place could have provided the viewer with an example of the representative heuristic. They may have assumed that if a particular bird that landed on that branch on that day had come to the branch on previous days, then this must be the same bird. Unless the bird had a nest around where they found it chirping, however, there is not much reason to suspect that the same bird came to the area every day. Did Ace and Kit even know how to differentiate the birds that they saw and heard? Did they care? Because of their eagerness to implement their scheme to shoot something, they may have taken a cognitive shortcut and simply forced the conclusion that the same evil bird came to pester them day in and day out. Thus, in their minds, the probability of this being that bird was high; from their point-of-view, it always was that bird. They took a gamble and shot.
What other decision-making concepts can be derived from this scene?
Because Kit found the bird to be a nuisance, the couple came up with the non-programmed decision to shoot it with a BB gun. This led to the implementation of another non-programmed (and creative) decision to resuscitate the bird after they realized it was injured.
Steps in the Decision-Making Process
Ace and Kit recognized that there was a problem with the bird, set the objective of aiding it back to health, selected a course of action, implemented the decision, waited to see if the bird was revived (gathered feedback; arrow 5 in the diagram), and then watched it fly away. They did not spend much time gathering and evaluating data or listing and evaluating alternatives (arrow 2 in the diagram).
Bounded Rationality Model
When confronted with the problem of caring for the dying bird, the couple selected the first alternative that was satisfactory – performing CPR, without considering alternatives. Earlier, Ace had also attempted to check the bird’s pulse. These “rules of thumb” that they employed (‘if it works for humans, it may work for this bird’) may have been forms of risk aversion. They weren’t vets or ornithologists, so, for them, these heuristic decisions were the safest course of action.
In the beginning of the scene, Kit and Ace seem to be feeding off of each other as they wait for the right moment to shoot the bird. They created a plan to shoot the bird together, and now they were implementing it together.
Kit and Ace’s like-mindedness led them create a solution that both of them accepted without either one objectively considering what the outcome may have been. With a lack of reality testing, they seemed totally unprepared for the outcome that they may have actually killed the bird. They also forsook their moral judgment, seeing nothing wrong with injuring an innocent creature. Finally, Kit’s mental efficiency may have experienced deterioration, evidenced by the fact that she was so intent on the bird being shot, she over-pumped the gun.
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© 2015 F S Miller