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How do we make decisions?

Article discussing how we make decisions
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
If we accept the basic premise that effective leadership and followership is inextricably linked to sound judgement, then it follows that decision-making in all its forms is equally important.
In this section we examine some psychological perspectives on decision-making, focusing on the operational or tasking level of emergency risk management.
It is in this environment that the impact of high risk/no time scenarios is at its most acute. However, it could also be argued that even at coordination and strategic levels of command, the same principles of decision-making apply.
In essence, the simplest decision-making model consists of a number of discrete but interlinked stages. Flin, O’Connor and Crichton (2008) describe it as:
  • situational awareness/problem definition
  • generation of and evaluation of one or more options
  • selection and implementation of an option
  • outcome review
This elegant model suggests a strong analytical process, which is entirely rational at all points. As we shall see later, such non-intuitive decision-making processes include:
  • rule-based response; ie following a prescription or a checklist
  • choice through comparison response; ie an analytical approach (see above)
  • creative response; ie adaptation of existing processes following careful consideration
These decision-making methodologies remain important and essential items in the commander’s toolkit.
However, we can see from past examples that many failures of emergency risk decision-making are influenced by technical, system and safety culture factors. In other words, the dynamic nature of time/risk critical situations demands a decision-making style that is more than a rational, cognitive process.


What has been shown is that people often take mental shortcuts or heuristics to arrive at the most expedient decision as this is less effortful and usually results in the correct course of action being selected.
This method is incredibly effective and allows us to rapidly make the right call time and time again. It is one of the reasons humans are such a successful species.
Heuristics can also lead to biases, which can trap us into making certain decisions in the same way, regardless of the circumstances.
An example would be that we tend to put more effort into avoiding a loss than we do to make a gain; as we shall see, this is especially important for emergency managers.
Another example of heuristic decision-making is anchoring (Tversky and Kahneman 1974). When it comes to numbers and figures, we tend to anchor our decisions to a particular number that may be evident at the time. Therefore, if when buying a bottle of wine we have a figure of 10 in mind, then any bottle that costs 10 or thereabout is acceptable, regardless of the actual quality and appearance.
Many studies have been done into these phenomena and we only have room enough to touch on a few. But, as we shall see, these psychological, cognitive and emotional processes are as important as what might loosely be called logical/rational processes and all of them contribute to our understanding of how emergency risk managers decide what to do.

Your task

Having seen the example of anchoring, investigate other types of heuristics and share how these affect decision-making in an emergency situation.


Flin, R. H., O’Connor P., and Crichton, M. (2008) Safety at the Sharp End: A Guide to Non-Technical Skills. Aldershot: Ashgate
Tversky, A., and Kahneman, D. (1974) ‘Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases’. Science 185 (4157), 1124-1131
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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Emergency Management: Risk, Incidents and Leadership

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