Decision Making: How Mental Models inform Choice

Decision making is comprised of an array of varying factors that all culminate into a final choice. Throughout the decades many cognitive processes and theories have been presented in an attempt to shed some light on decision making, while some have succeeded none have been able to paint a complete picture of how a decision is made. One fundamental factor influencing decision making is the brain’s ability to remember events, places, objects, and ideas on different timescales like today, yesterday, last week, or last decade. The current working theory for memory came from George Miller in the research paper “Plans and the structure of behavior.” His theory on “working memory” boils down to the idea that the brain is not infinite, instead, it can only hold a finite amount of data in the very temporary, active or “working” part of the brain (Miller, 65). Prior to proposing this theory Miller himself did a research study called “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” that attempted to show how short term memory in humans is limited to 7, plus or minus two chunks, or blocks, of information.

//Explain through research more

Some contradicting research by James Shanteau was done a decade or so after Miller first proposed this theory. Shanteau demonstrated that for expert livestock judges the Miller seven, plus or minus two limit was not enough. Instead these judges were able to use up to 11 pieces of information simultaneously in order to judge the quality of livestock (“Psychological Abilities of Livestock Judges”). The main caveat of Shanteau’s later research however showed that expert judges often do not utilize this theoretical limit and often fall back to the “normal” seven or so chunks (“Psychological Characteristics and Strategies of Expert Decision Makers”). Although higher than average work term memory numbers have been recorded it is the fact that the brain doesn’t maintain it that reveals just how restricted mental processes are in the brain. Even if the number of chunks or blocks of information stored in the brain is variable to some degree there is still a consensus amongst researchers that there is a definitive finite number of things the brain can work on simultaneously hold in working memory.

A neurological theory called “Mental Models” provides an interesting accompanying viewpoint to Miller’s early work. Kenneth Craik in his book “The Nature of Explanation” describes the initial theory behind how the mind makes internal models to represent real world objects, systems, and ideas (51). These models aren’t meant to be perfect however, they are the brain’s attempt at simplifying the world around it into useable yet incomplete picture by only focusing on aspects that matter. Much like Miller’s limited working memory theory Craik’s mental models are also another attempt by the brain to decrease the cognitive load its under from the senses.

With the physical requirements of the brain limiting its short term capacity the possibility of influencing short term memory to yield different results becomes possible. This idea is called “Anchoring” and was established by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in their study “Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases”. In one study Kahneman asked subjects how many countries are in Africa as a percentage of countries currently in the United Nations. Then a wheel, labelled from 0 to 100, was spun in the subject’s presence. Afterwards they were asked if that number on the wheel was higher or lower than the estimated percentage of countries in Africa they determined beforehand. Finally, subjects were asked to estimate the value of their percentage guess. Overall, every percentage guess stayed within plus or minus 20 of the number presented on the wheel. Interestingly enough, this suggests that the value on the wheel influenced participants’ perceived value of their own guess. (1128) This study also suggests that humans have a tendency to frame long term memories in light of the more immediate short term data. This is significant because it shows how the limited working memory of the brain is not only finite, preventing holistic decision making, but is also unconsciously altered by senses or processes within the brain.

On this note is the modularity and adaptability of mental models. As new information is obtained models can be adapted to incorporate it.

//Talk about neurological feedback loops – explain

Similar to how expert judges can become capable of breaking out of the working memory limit Boronat and Logan wrote in 1997 about how attention could be linked to memory encoding and how better attention could allow mental models to better facilitate domain-specific knowledge. Specifically Boronat and Logan ——-

//note how doctors use more abstracted versions of mental models to handle more data? – in emerging pg 150

This idea of “calibrating” the organization of the brain is not new, for centuries humans have been exploiting the brain’s well developed visual memory to better remember other types of data like sounds, names, and numbers. //Talk about memory palace – might cut this if not adding anything to overall research.

Another aspect of how short term memory influences decision making is brought up by Schneider and Shanteau, in their book “Emerging Perspectives on Judgement and Decision Research” they propose that the why the brain retrieves memories from long term storage also affects the way it is interpreted by the brain thereby influencing decision making.

In a similar vein as the concept of anchoring is how framing contributes to one’s decision. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in their research “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice” establish the idea that the way a choice is presented to an individual can totally influence their perception and the overall outcome the person takes. //Cite simplest example. One aspect of framing commonly overlooked is the actual number of choices. In a famous research study often referred to as the “Jam Study” by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper it was demonstrated that more choice actually seems to be detrimental to the consumer. In this study booths were setup in a grocery store with one displaying six flavors of jam while the other had 24. The main goal was to determine the customer’s motivation when first seeing the booth and then their later purchasing behavior in regards to the jam. Barry Schwartz in his book “The paradox of choice” coined the term “choice overload” to describe this phenomena.

How mindlessness and mindfulness (automatic vs cognitive decision making) relates to the system 1 and system 2 idea from daniel kahneman in thinking fast and slow

  • Logan’s theory of automaticity from “emerging…” –
  • neurological aspect of Feedback loops – relate back to memory models
  • Emotional effect on decision making –

In conclusion, memory and decision making seem inexorably linked, etc, etc.


2 thoughts on “Decision Making: How Mental Models inform Choice

  1. hcelemen says:

    From the beginning to the end, I was undoubtedly aware of where you were going with this paper. You certainly made it clear in your title too. It is good that you narrowed down your research and found you focus by finding a connection between decision making and memory. I liked how you outlined the key points you wanted to cover for this paper. I really liked that you cited your sources and explained how they connect back to your topic. The way you organized the paper seem to build up on each findings from your sources. Further you kept referring back to your sources and connecting them to each other, which reinforces the idea of this theory about decisions and memory (as you stated in your conclusion). I would like to hear more about the implications and importance of this study. For instance, how are scholars have been utilizing or implementing this theory? You referred to the “choice overload”. It would be interesting to hear about more studies where companies or stores manipulate the consumers using this method. How do they achieve their end goal? How do they inevitable cause the consumer to pick their product? What is the success/fail rate of such a method? As a consumer myself, and being presented with infinite choices and situations of decision making, I am very interested to learn more about this too. Having subheadings may be useful for summarizing each topic to help organize your related sources and topics. , I like how well written this draft and I look forward to the rest of information you will be including later on.
    – Hannah


  2. annawallace003 says:


    I really enjoyed reading your paper due to such an interesting topic that you have chosen to pursue. Everyone in their life has to make decisions at one point or another so this is a topic that anyone reading would be able to relate to. I can see that you have a well-developed flow of ideas and it is clear that you have done your research. I remember talking with your in class about this topic and it looks like you have done a good job developing it into a research paper.
    As far as suggestions go, I would say that the paper could be worded in a way that communicates more between sources. You have all of the information now just try to tie it together a little more. However, this is the draft and it looks like you have plans to do this in the future. I am also curious about your conclusion. Do you plan to leave it at that or propose any other questions at the end? I know that in class we have talked about our papers not having a definite answer to our research question in the end so you may want take that into considerations. You have proven to be very knowledgeable about your topic and it shows through your paper.
    Overall I think that this draft reflects a great start to a research paper and I would just work on the conversations being evoked throughout the paper and making sure that there is a definite argument being put into place.

    Great job!


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