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  • University of Warsaw
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Decision Making in a Complex World: Using Computer Simulations to Understand Human Behaviour

Understand how humans make decisions by exploring illustrative videos, short articles, and simulations on your own computer.

1,044 enrolled on this course

Choosing an apple or a donut - how do humans decide what to do?

Decision Making in a Complex World: Using Computer Simulations to Understand Human Behaviour

1,044 enrolled on this course

  • 3 weeks

  • 2 hours per week

  • Digital certificate when eligible

  • Open level

Find out more about how to join this course

Gain insights into the social phenomena around making choices

People use social cues to help them make decisions in diverse situations. This information is often scarce and uncertain but is also sometimes overwhelmingly abundant. With so many variables, how does the human decision-making process actually work?

On this three-week course, the University of Groningen will explain decision making in the complex world that we live in. Their unique approach encompasses not only conventional theories about social norms but also cutting-edge computer simulation frameworks that help make sense of human behaviour.

Review historical and current theories on the decision-making process

On this course, you’ll draw on classic theories of human behaviour, social learning, and social norms as well as the latest thinking in economics, psychology, and sociology.

This background will help you understand the concept of rationality in decision making, as well as how environmental and social cues shape and are shaped by the choices we make.

Apply a computational approach to human decision making

After looking at the theory behind social phenomena and social reality, you’ll get to apply a simple algorithm and see how it describes the decision process in a specific situation.

You’ll also get to experiment with variations in decision processes that occur naturally among people by running them through the computer simulation.

See how individual behaviour and social reality shape each other

The University of Groningen is known for delivering both engaging material and strong academic support, and this course is no exception.

Blending classic and modern ideas about social learning, and showing how modern technology can be used to understand social norms, the University gives great insights into how and why individuals and groups make the choices that they do.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 4 seconds WANDER JAGER: Climate change, loss of biodiversity, managing a pandemic, these are all problems we face as humanity that require adaptation of our behaviour and the choices that we make. Many policies are developed to support such behavioural changes. For example, the taxation of fossil fuel, informing us about the state of nature, and legislation on wearing masks and social distancing. Increasingly, models are being used to forecast the impact of policy. And obviously, these models are based on assumptions on human behaviour. Economics has always been a discipline where formal models were being used. And as such, it is no surprise that many policy models are based on assumptions of economic rationality of the people. However, we do not behave as individually optimising people.

Skip to 1 minute and 13 seconds Instead, we have habits, learn from others, and are often satisfied with good enough choices. And these mechanisms have serious impacts on the effect of policies.

Skip to 1 minute and 29 seconds KATARZYNA ABRAMCZUK: For example, information campaigns on the impact of our meat consumption on the environment hardly change the food habits that we have, despite the widespread concern we share about this environment. At the same time, we see hipsters changing towards a plant-based diet and their lifestyle seems to be contagious, thus spreading the habit of eating plant-based food. In recent years, computational social science has made important steps in capturing social scientific theory into models of human decision making. In this course, we will introduce you to some of the latest developments in simulating human behaviour. Join us.


  • Week 1

    Modelling individual choices

    • Welcome to the course

      In these steps we introduce the course and its educators.

    • What is a rational choice?

      In these steps we introduce classical choice theory. We invite you to reflect on how well it corresponds with real decisions of real people.

    • How to solve complex problems?

      In these steps we show how complex decisions can be made using multi-attribute decision analysis and see that ultimately their evaluation rests on intuition.

    • How do real people decide and is it smart?

      In these steps we talk about how real people make real choices and discuss how they can be smart without optimisation.

    • Rounding up Week 1

      In this step we summarize Week 1.

  • Week 2

    The social context of decision making

    • Introducing the social dimension of decision making

      In this activity we introduce the social dimension of decision making.

    • Simulation and interaction

      Now we will discuss how groups and societies can be modelled using computer simulations.

    • Adding the social dimension to decision making

      It is often a smart strategy to ask other people after their experiences when making a choice. In the following we will explore how the sharing of information affects the choices of our simulated population.

    • Norms as part of decision making

      In this activity we will look at how norms become part of decision making and what are the simplest ways to model them.

    • Rounding up Week 2

      In this week we experienced how simple models on norms and information sharing can produce interesting phenomena.

  • Week 3

    Integrated models of decision making

    • Integrated models of decision making

      Welcome to Week 3. In this week we will explore a bit deeper what different aspects of human decision making and behaviour can be integrated in computational models. And this can be quite a puzzle.

    • Integrated models of human decision making

      In this week, we will add more behavioural processes in simulating human choice behaviour. After doing an exercise with adding habitual behaviour, we will show an integrated model being used to simulate a real case.

    • Using integrated models to simulate real social issues

      In this activity we will further explore integrated models and try to use them to simulate real social issues.

    • Course conclusion

      In these steps we wrap up the course.

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and join a global classroom of learners. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

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Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Explain how humans make decisions, according to classic and more contemporary theories on human decision making from different disciplines: economics, psychology and sociology.
  • Explain how the environment and societal clues can shape choices and the other way around.
  • Apply a simple algorithm / model describing a decision process in a chosen situation.
  • Experiment with different individual decision processes and their impact on the social level.
  • Debate the need for accurate representation of individual choice and decision behaviour when analysing social phenomena.
  • Identify which human behaviour has been included in a (computational) model.

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for anyone interested in how people make choices in daily life and in the usability of computer simulations to better understand these processes.

You could be a professional advising large groups of people (eg for a vaccination campaign), someone supporting decision making in complex environments (eg a doctor or financial advisor), or someone who wants to influence people’s choices (eg policy-makers and marketers).

Who will you learn with?

I'm a social scientist working at the University College Groningen. I'm interested in societal dynamics on land & seascapes, energy, food, migration, organisation, health and more.

I'm a social scientist working at the University of Warsaw. I enjoy understanding what is happening and how. Hence my interest in formal modelling. Also, I do research on Human-Technology Interaction.

Who developed the course?

University of Groningen

The University of Groningen is a research university with a global outlook, deeply rooted in Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands.

University of Warsaw

University of Warsaw is the leading research university and the largest higher education institution in Poland, with a comprehensive portfolio of research and teaching activities.

Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society

The Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society is exploring digitalisation together with economic, political and civil society stakeholders.


Action for Computational Thinking in Social Sciences (ACTISS) is an Erasmus+ project aimed to develop engaging and accessible online courses introducing the basics of computational social sciences.

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  • Access to 1,000+ courses
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Digital certificate when you're eligible

Cancel for free anytime

Buy this course

$89/one-off payment

Fulfill your current learning need

  • Access to this course
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Printed and digital certificate when you’re eligible

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  • Access expires 4 May 2024

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