Can’t See A Decision for All the Trees?

Can’t See A Decision for All the Trees?


Souces of Power – How People Make Decisions” by Gary Klein, 1999, 344 pages


Life is making decisions. Decisions about really small, trivial things and decisions about big things whose effects will be with us and those involved for years. Some decisions seem to come automatically to us without our giving it much thought. Some decisions have us debate and deliberate for hour, days, weeks even months quite possibly without arriving at a clear-cut decision.

Much has been written about how we make decisions. Processes and techniques have been laid out that explain the route from a given situation to a given decision in rational terms. However, when we think about it, how often do we seem to need and use elaborate analysis to arrive at our decisions even in larger, more important matters? How often does a workable decision present itself to us without lengthy analysis?

Maybe rational models of decision analysis are less prevalent in real life than all the writings about them seem to imply. Gary Klein has delved into how we make decisions especially under time pressure, with high stakes and shifting conditions. He makes the case for a different decision model: Naturalistic Decision making.

Rationalistic Decision-Making

What is typically taught in schools is the rationalistic decision-making model. It is based on deduction, logical reasoning, analysis, comparisons and finally selection of the best option from all the options identified.

This decision-making model rests on a number of assumptions. It assumes that the situation in which we find ourselves can be clearly defined and described and that it remains stable for the stretch of our analysis, decision-making and carrying out of the chosen decision. It also assumes that decision-makers lack skills in the area in which they are to make a decision and thus must use logical analysis in their decision making. It also assumes that logical analysis is needed to root out  bias inherent in all decision-makers.

The premise is: produce an accurate description of the situation, generate the options that fit the situation, analyse each option for strengths and weaknesses, choose one from amongst the group of options. This may work well in text books and in very controlled settings where the level of change, complexity and inconsistencies can be kept fairly small and where all the factors that go into making up the situation are well-known entities. Rationalistic decision-making tends towards the static.

How does this apply in real daily life? Real life tends to be ever changing, not overly consistent and has a lot of factors that interact with each other in ways that do not follow predictable scripts. How often do we in fact resort to other means of arriving at a decision, because we do not have the time for rationalistic decision making and cannot allow ourselves to be stuck in analysis paralysis – the window in which we must act is too short? For my part, many of my decisions are not made using rationalistic decision-making models.

Naturalistic Decision-Making

If rational decision-making does not serve us well in complex situations where we face time pressure, changing conditions and lack of information, how do we nonetheless arrive at decisions?

Naturalistic decision-making says that we rely on past experiences as fuel for our intuition and pattern recognition skills; our ability to make mental simulations and to use metaphor and storytelling to make sense of the situation and arrive at actionable decisions. We use past experiences, our own or other people’s, from the similar situation to size up the situation we are faced with, to arrive at an understanding of what type of situation this is.

We then start generating possible decisions, but only one at a time. We subject the first option that comes to us to a mental simulation to access whether it will meet the needed success criteria and do no harm. If the first option passes this test, we search no further but proceed to implementation.

Only if the first option does not pass our mental simulation check, do we proceed to generate the second option and pass that through or mental simulation, and if that one does not pass the test we proceed to generate the third option and so forth. The point here is that we generate options one at a time, and implement the first option that satisfies our requirements in the situation. We do not generate a number of options simultaneously and run a comparison analysis between them before selecting the absolute best from the bunch.

If the situation develops in for us unexpected ways, we then repeat the sizing up of the situation and we run our selected option through the mental simulation again. If it has stopped satisfying our requirements, we move on to the next option that comes to our minds. This allows us to move with the changing situation and the information we learn as we set about implementing the option that satisfies our requirements. Naturalistic decision-making is dynamic.


Can everybody utilize naturalistic decision-making? With time, enough experience under the belt and honing of intuition, pattern recognition and mental simulation abilities, most of us are able to do naturalist decision-making in the areas to which we apply our continued focus and practice. We should not, however, expect to be able to apply naturalistic decision-making to all areas of our lives. Some situations do call for and allow time for rationalistic production of multiple options with pros and cons. And then there is the difference between being a novice and an expert in the area for which the decision must be made.

Novices lack actual experience on which to draw when sizing up situations, generating an option and making mental simulations to decide whether an option will work or not. For a novice there is no recognition of similarities to earlier experiences and no repertoire of options that easily and clearly spring to mind. Novices need the additional time to do more rationalistic analysis and decision-making, while experts in the area in question can apply naturalistic decision-making. What we need to ensure is that novices get enough experience working in the area and preferably side by side with experts so that novices may turn into experts not too far down the path into the future.


The rationalistic, deduction and analysis based decision-making models tend to dominate text books and tend to be what is taught in schools. However, in most real-life situations the rationalistic decision-making model never comes into play. This is due to the complexity and changeability of situations, time pressure and lack of information that characterizes the decision-making situations.

Many of us come to rely more on past experiences when sizing up situations in areas where we have gained a good degree of expertise through focus and continual application. Experience allows us to recognize the type of situation and to generate and evaluate an option to put into action without having to do a grand analysis and comparison of many possible options. We can also recognize when something unexpected occurs and thus when we need to reevaluate our chosen option.

The quality and flexibility in naturalistic decision-making by far outdoes the more rationalistic approach in ensuring we get timely and good decisions, thus avoiding the dreaded analysis paralysis that may well mean that we miss an important window of opportunity. The key to unlocking the potential in naturalistic decision-making is to ensure that novices have access to build expertise by the assignments they are given and by being partnered with experts.