The Science of Decision-Making

With big decisions, you may feel as though they can be put off indefinitely — after all, decisions can be overwhelming. Most of us are required to make big decisions on a daily basis, and the process of making these decisions can be mentally and physically daunting, resulting in running through all possible outcomes, overthinking, and analyzing every detail until you feel immobilized.

That being said, there is a science behind how we make decisions. However, compared to the multitude of theories and understandings of the nature of science, researchers have given sparse attention to the science of decision making. Nonetheless, understanding the science behind making decisions can be helpful when making large decisions, trying to target bad habits, or even when trying to implement new behaviors.

For those conducting neuroscience research, decision-making often involves an individual conducting a logical analysis in circumstances of certainty. However, individuals may also take the form of a cost-benefit analysis in situations of uncertainty. In situations with certitude, the probability of most persons making a clear choice is moderately high, but when choices involve a cost-benefit analysis and hesitation, there is more unpredictability and individual dissimilarity in the outcome (1). Additionally, an individual often reflects on their experience(s) and values, as well as future outcomes of the decision, as part of the foundation for making that decision (2). Thus, this type of decision-making process may lead to different outcomes and different cognitive operations for individuals.

It has also long been accepted that emotions influence decision making (3). Individuals rely on internal cues as well as external contextual information, which can positively or harmfully impact the emotional state surrounding the decision-making process (4). It has even been proposed that individuals rely on pretend reasoning and emotion as separate cognitive domains as a key element of the decision-making process (5). In fact, decision-making may be guided by the emotional evaluation of an action’s consequences, given that individuals must be able to provide a common metric for evaluating choices and making a decision. For some researchers, this metric is the somatic marker (Bechara et al., 2000; Damasio, 1996) in which bodily sensations imply a link to physiological experience and emotion that influences the cognitive operations of decision making. Moreover, decision-making may actually be guided by the emotional evaluation of an action’s penalties and significances, given that individuals must be able to provide a common metric for evaluating choices and making a decision (2).

The science behind decision making has it that, decision making involves multifaceted, cognitive, and emotional managing, as well as individual judgements of risk and reward. Furthermore, Cognitive Neuroscience can be highly informative in helping us understand the types of “decision mistakes” that as human beings we are more prone to making. For example, Daniel Kahneman’s work on the psychology of judgement, decision-making, and behavioral economics (6) (Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, 2002). Daniel Kahneman identified the human errors that arise from heuristics and biases (7). We help you understand this information and apply it to your particular dilemma.

Whether caused by “normal human error,” the complexity of the decision, general indecisiveness, depression, anxiety, obsessional tendencies, or a temporary inappropriate experience causing retreat, the insight from a trained professional is useful. If you have difficulty making decisions confidently, then working with someone who understands the process of decision-making can help you examine several sides of the issues and creatively generate options for action in an attempt to engage in more thoughtful and productive decision-making. To learn more about how you as an individual make decisions, contact Eliana Cohen Psychology in Toronto and schedule an appointment today!


  1. Gazzaniga MS, Heatherton TF. Psychological science: Mind, brain, and behavior. Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic; 2002.
  2. Lamar, M. (2006, June). Neuroscience and decision making. In Presentation at” Improving the Decision-Taking Process in Institutions” workshop, London School of Economics.
  3. Vartanian O, Mandel DR, editors. Neuroscience of decision making. Psychology Press; 2011 Apr 14.
  4. Adolphs R, Tranel D, Bechara A, Damasio H, Damasio AR. Neuropsychological approaches to reasoning and decision-making. In Neurobiology of decision-making 1996 (pp. 157-179). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
  5. Bechara A, Damasio H, Damasio AR. Emotion, decision making and the orbitofrontal cortex. Cerebral cortex. 2000 Mar 1;10(3):295-307.
  6. Daniel K, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011.
  7. Tversky A., Kahneman D. Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Science, New Series, Vol 185, Number 4157. (Sep 27, 1974), pp. 1124, 1131.