Making decisions under uncertainty #5

Posted on September 22, 2011


In four preceding posts we’ve discussed the important role confidence (C) plays in making decisions in uncertain situations. We’ve discussed those with decision makers with blind confidence in their opinions (bigots and extremists) who attract desperate and naive followers. Next we considered those with strong, but not blind, confidence  ( ‘wise’ but fallible leaders) who make timely decisions, provide supporting selective evidence and address selective criticism, and who attract ‘reasonable’ but uncertain followers. These strong, but not blind,  decision makers are less appealing to the desperate and  naive who need simple, emotional, extremist  messages to reassure them…. keep it simple stupid ala  some TV evangelists. We’ve also discussed those lacking confidence in any initial opinion, but instead invest their confidence in a particular ritual or method (eg opinion polling) or  rely upon certain trusted statistical or scientific methods) as means of deciding what position to take at that particular time, or  lacking a trusted  ‘method’ they rely on a follow the leader strategy to guide their decision-making (eg. rely on political or religious leaders, ‘experts’, etc.).

Before we continue, recall the decision-making model we’re relying upon which simply says that we make decisions by relying on two mechanisms: first on the amount of confidence  (C) we have in an initial opinion (Ei), second, and/or the confidence (1-C) we have in an editing mechanism (g) that relies on selected evidence in the flow of subsequent informations (E1, E2, ….Ej…..En).

Ef = f[C, Ei + (1 – C)g(E1, E2, . . . , Ej . . . , En)

Confidence level


C = 0.9 to 1 True deductive believer—rejects (–) evidence
C = 0.7 to 0.8 Strong deductive believer—discounts (–) evidence
C = 0.4 to 0.6 Reasonable person who becomes overwhelmed by information overload and conflicting evidence; unproductive because of inability to settle on a given hypothesis (Ei), or evidence-sorting ritual (g), long enough to go to press
C = 0.2 to 0.3 Strong inductive believer—sophisticated (g’s)
C = 0.1 to 0 True inductive believer—dogmatic (g) rituals

Next we discuss those with some confidence in an initial opinion but not sufficient to actually make a firm decision.

strong inductive believer or  meteorologist.

In  the above  table just below the middling believer are investigators with enough confidence (C = 0.2 to 0.3) in a given hypothesis to help focus their editing mechanisms and data collection efforts, but their true commitment (1 – C) is to their methods and technologies. They devote their cognitive energy toward developing and apply sophisticated hardware, software, and/or statistics to a limited content domain. They are not caught in the vacillating cycle of the middling believer who procrastinates or sits frozen in indecision.  Rather, the mild belief of strong methodologies merely serves to help focus the driving methodological energy (1 – C), unlike the true technician who has little, if any, content focus. These strong meteorologists can be very productive doing sophisticated explorations and publications in a special research area, such as one type cancer research (e.g., breast cancer), or football statistics.

strong believers and strong meteorologists

If the chemistry is right between a strong believer and a strong meteorologist, it may generate the cognitive energy and skill to drive a very powerful and productive research team. The strong believing theorist (high C) provides the conceptual richness and sophistication in the given problem, whereas the meteorologist strong committment (1-C)  to a given data processing and analysis ritual (g) provides the sophisticated data collection and editing mechanisms to focus their trusted data processing rituals to the particular theory. Also, if the positive chemistry between the theorist and the meteorologist or technician persists, they will attract others, including students, other theoretical and methodological specialists, and camp followers, who will find niches in an expanding critical mass of speculations and observations the expanding research team provides.

Eventually, however, as the enterprise grows, the founders will tend to become overloaded; they will run the risk of becoming research managers and of being overwhelmed by the mass of puzzling or conflicting results, methods, grant applications, staff turnovers, and conflicts. They will have spawned a monster that gradually will overwhelm their bounded rationality, and they will seek to return to a manageable theoretical or methodological space, perhaps becoming theoretical bigots, or methodological purists, or simply depressed.

Finally, in the next post we will focus on the confused decision maker who has medium confidence ( C= .4 – .6) in an initial opinion, but no enough to go for it. Instead the remaining confidence (1-C) energizes various editing mechanisms (g) that cherry picks evidence from the subsequent flow of experience. These poor souls are typically procrastinators (keep changing their mind), or are anxious or frozen in indecision.

Posted in: Sciencing