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How Do People Make Decisions: The Psychology Of Decision-Making

    Woman with blonde hair wearing a white sweater and blue pants sitting on a brown chair trying to make a decision about something.

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    How do people make decisions? For a long time, the prevailing assumption was that humans are rational beings who make choices based on careful consideration of all available information. However, recent research in the field of social psychology has shown that most decision-making is far from rational. Instead, our choices are often influenced by a variety of biases and heuristics. Many of which operate outside our conscious awareness.

    In this article, we’ll explore the fascinating world of human decision-making. And shed light on some of the cognitive shortcuts that guide our choices. Whether you’re interested in improving your own decision-making abilities or simply curious about how our minds work, read on to learn more about this fascinating topic.

    Surprising New Research On Human-Decision Making

    In the past, psychologists believed that humans were rational beings who made decisions by carefully considering all available information. They believed that individuals were motivated to make choices that would benefit themselves. And were willing to invest resources into gathering and processing information to make the best decision possible.

    However, newer social psychology research has proven this assumption to be incorrect. Instead, our choices are often influenced by biases and heuristics that can lead us astray. Emotions, first impressions, and how information is presented to us can all play a role in our decision-making.

    The latest thoughts on how humans make decisions place a greater emphasis on these biases and heuristics. These theories acknowledge that our decision-making is often irrational and influenced by a range of cognitive and emotional factors. However, they also highlight the importance of developing strategies to overcome these biases and make better-informed choices. Some of the latest research aims to identify effective decision-making strategies. And teach people how to apply them in real-world situations.

    Cognitive Biases That Affect How We Make Decisions

    Humans make decisions based on a variety of factors, including cognitive biases, past experiences, and emotions. Behavioral sciences theories, such as those in psychology and economics, provide insight into how these factors can influence decision making. For example, cognitive biases, such as the availability heuristic and the confirmation bias, can lead people to make decisions based on incomplete or biased information.

    Past experiences can shape expectations and preferences, while emotions can influence the perceived value of different options. Additionally, social and cultural factors can also play a role in decision making. Here, people may conform to group norms or be influenced by the opinions of others.

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    How Do People Make Decisions Based On Subconscious Factors

    Humans often make decisions based on subconscious factors, such as emotions and past experiences, without being fully aware of how these influences are affecting their choices. These subconscious factors can be thought of as mental shortcuts or heuristics. They help people make decisions quickly and efficiently, without the need for conscious thought.

    Emotions, such as fear, pleasure, and excitement, can activate automatic, unconscious responses that guide decision-making. For example, fear can cause people to avoid certain situations or make them more cautious. While pleasure can make people more likely to repeat certain behaviors.

    Past experiences also shape people’s decision making through the formation of unconscious associations. For example, a person who had a positive experience with a certain brand of car may be more likely to buy that brand again in the future. Even if they can’t consciously remember why they prefer it.

    Additionally, unconscious biases, such as implicit biases, can also play a role in decision making. People may make decisions based on stereotypes or other unconscious associations without realizing it.

    Robert Cialdini’s Principles Of Persuasion In Decision-Making

    Robert Cialdini is a renowned social psychologist who has extensively studied the factors that influence human behavior and decision-making. He has identified several unconscious mental shortcuts or heuristics that people use to make quick decisions without having to process all available information. These heuristics include things like social proof, authority, and scarcity, which people use to quickly determine what is valuable or trustworthy.

    Cialdini’s research suggests that these mental shortcuts can be exploited by marketers and salespeople to influence people’s decisions. Often without their knowledge. By understanding and being aware of these mental shortcuts, individuals can make more informed and deliberate decisions that align with their values and goals.

    Heuristics & Biases From Daniel Kahneman’s Work

    Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky were pioneers in the field of behavioral economics. Their research demonstrated how people’s decision-making is often influenced by heuristics or mental shortcuts. They found that people tend to rely on these heuristics to simplify complex decisions. But that they often lead to systematic biases and errors in judgment.

    For example, they showed that people tend to be overconfident in their abilities. They can be swayed by irrelevant information, such as how a problem is framed. Their work also highlighted the importance of understanding how emotions and biases can affect decision-making. And has had a significant impact on fields like psychology, economics, and public policy. Overall, their research shows that human decision-making is a complex process that is influenced by a variety of factors. Understanding these influences is crucial for making better decisions.

    Dan Ariely’s Research

    Dan Ariely is a renowned behavioral economist who has extensively studied how people make decisions. His research has shown that humans often behave irrationally and can be easily influenced by factors that they are not consciously aware of. For example, he has demonstrated that people tend to make decisions based on social norms and the behavior of others, rather than on objective evidence.

    Ariely has also shown that people often prioritize short-term gains over long-term benefits. And that emotions play a significant role in shaping our choices. His work has highlighted the importance of understanding the underlying psychological processes that influence decision-making. It has implications for a wide range of fields, including marketing, public policy, and healthcare. By understanding how people make decisions, he believes that we can develop interventions and policies that encourage more rational and beneficial behavior.

    Overall, these behavioral psychologists and researchers have shown that people make choices based on unconscious biases. These can be influenced by a wide range of factors. The biases can lead to irrational or suboptimal decisions. But by understanding them and being aware of them, people can improve their decision making.

    Heuristics & Biases In Decision-Making

    Heuristics are mental shortcuts that allow us to make quick decisions based on limited information. They are a type of cognitive bias that can lead to irrational or suboptimal choices. But they dominate our decision-making mechanisms.

    Availability Heuristic

    One common heuristic is called the availability heuristic, which refers to the tendency for people to base their judgments on the most easily available information. For example, if you hear about a lot of shark attacks in the news, you may think that the risk of being attacked by a shark is higher than it actually is. This is because the information about shark attacks is more easily available to you than information about other types of accidents.

    A woman with a pink top and a man with a checked shirt watching a movie in a theater.

    Framing Effect

    Another heuristic is called the framing effect, which refers to the way that decisions are influenced by the way information is presented. For example, if you are given two options for a surgery, one with a 90% success rate and the other with a 10% failure rate, you may choose the first option even though it is the same as the second. This is because the failure rate is framed in a negative way.

    Representativeness Heuristic

    The representativeness heuristic is also a common one, which refers to the tendency to judge the probability of an event based on how similar it is to a prototype. For example, if you see a bird that is small and has a long beak, you may think it is a sparrow, even if there are other birds that look similar, but not a sparrow.

    Anchoring Effect

    The anchoring effect is another cognitive bias, in which people rely too heavily on the first piece of information they receive when making decisions. For example, if you are asked to estimate the number of jellybeans in a jar and you are first shown a jar with 50 jellybeans, you may give a higher estimate than if you were shown a jar with 200 jellybeans.

    Confirmation Bias

    Finally, the confirmation bias is a heuristic that refers to the tendency to search for and interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. For example, if you believe that a certain political candidate is corrupt, you may be more likely to believe negative stories about them and ignore positive ones. In conclusion, humans make decisions based on subconscious heuristics, mental shortcuts that can lead to irrational or suboptimal choices. Understanding these heuristics and being aware of their potential influence on our decision-making can help us make better, more rational choices.


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    How To Avoid Making Bad Decisions Triggered By Heuristics & Biases

    We have seen that human decision-making is essentially influenced by heuristics and biases. These mental shortcuts and cognitive biases can often lead to errors in judgment and decision-making. Here are some ways to minimize the impact of heuristics and biases in decision-making:

    Recent research has also shown that people can learn to overcome these biases and make better decisions. The first step is to be aware of the biases. Hopefully, you now know some of the common biases and how they operate on us. Learn to recognize them when they occur and re-evaluate your first gut feeling. Make sure that your choice is not being influenced just by these biases.

    Another important strategy is to use a technique called “debiasing,” which involves consciously identifying and challenging our cognitive biases. By questioning our assumptions and seeking out alternative perspectives, we can reduce the impact of biases on our decision-making.

    Young woman dressed in a white shirt shouting into a megaphone to illustrate that forcing your views on others is the wrong way to influence someone's decisions.

    Making Pre-Commitments

    Another effective strategy is to engage in “pre-commitment,” which involves making a decision in advance and committing to it ahead of time. This can help to reduce the influence of emotions in the moment. And encourage us to follow through on our long-term goals. For example, setting a specific goal to exercise for 30 minutes every day. And making a commitment to follow through on this goal, even when we don’t feel like it, can help us to overcome the temptation to skip exercise in favor of short-term pleasure.

    Sometimes, seeking out diverse perspectives also helps. Surround yourself with people who have different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. This can help you see issues from multiple angles and reduce the impact of biases.

    You can minimize the impact of heuristics and biases on your decision-making. This can be done by increasing awareness, thinking critically, seeking out diverse perspectives. Also, by using data and evidence, developing decision-making processes, considering the long-term consequences, and learning from mistakes.


    In conclusion, decision-making is a complex process that involves both conscious and unconscious factors. While people can make decisions based on careful consideration of all available information, recent research in social psychology shows that most decision-making is far from rational. Instead, our choices are often influenced by a variety of biases and heuristics that operate outside our conscious awareness.

    Some of these heuristics include emotions, past experiences, and social and cultural factors. However, researchers have identified effective decision-making strategies to overcome these biases and make better-informed choices. By understanding these mental shortcuts and biases, individuals can make more informed and deliberate decisions that align with their values and goals.

    Overall, the study of decision-making provides insight into how our minds work and can be useful in improving our decision-making abilities.

    Further Reading On Human Decision-Making

    Cover page of Influence The Psychology of Persuasion New And Expanded By Robert Cialdini

    “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini is a book that explores the psychology behind effective persuasion techniques. The book highlights six universal principles of influence – reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity – and provides examples of how they can be used in various situations.

    Cover page of Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

    “Thinking, Fast and Slow” is a book by psychologist Daniel Kahneman that explains the two different systems of thinking humans use, and how they affect our decision-making and perceptions of the world. It argues that the brain operates in two modes, with one being fast and intuitive, and the other being slow and deliberate.

    Cover page of Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

    “Predictably Irrational” is a book that explores how people consistently act against their own interests due to cognitive biases, emotions, and social norms. Ariely argues that understanding these patterns of irrational behavior can help individuals and businesses make better decisions.

    Shaun Mendonsa, PhD is an influencing expert and pharmaceutical development leader. He writes on the topics of influence and persuasion, and develops next generation drugs in human pharma by advising international pharmaceutical CROs and CMOs. He can be reached at [email protected].


    Decision Making, Career Development; Leadership Development, Career Advice; Influence; Persuasion; Principles of Persuasion; Personal Development

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