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Decision Making

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Dr. Richard W. Scholl
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Attitudes are defined as a mental predisposition to act that is expressed by evaluating a particular entity with some degree of favor or disfavor. Individuals generally have attitudes that focus on objects, people or institutions. Attitudes are also attached to mental categories. Mental orientations towards concepts are generally referred to as values. Attitudes are comprised of four components:

Cognitions. Cognitions are our beliefs, theories, expectancies, cause and effect beliefs, and perceptions relative to the focal object.

Affect. The affective component refers to our feeling with respect to the focal object such as fear, liking, or anger.

Behavioral Intentions. Behavioral intentions are our goals, aspirations, and our expected responses to the attitude object.

Evaluation. Evaluations are often considered the central component of attitudes. Evaluations consist of the imputation of some degree of goodness or badness to an attitude object. When we speak of a positive or negative attitude toward an object, we are referring to the evaluative component. Evaluations are function of cognitive, affect and behavioral intentions of the object. It is most often the evaluation that is stored in memory, often without the corresponding cognitions and affect that were responsible for its formation.

Approaches to Decision Making- How do attitudes influence our behavior and decisions?

Four ways of thinking about the choice process can be described. We will use the example of the selection of a job candidate among three potential candidates. These three pure approaches and one mixed approach are descriptive of pure types and it is not argued that any of these models presents a preferred approach.

Cognitive Approach

The purely cognitive decision maker would rank order the three candidates on the basis of chosen criteria and assess each candidate's attributes (e.g., education, experience, skill set) against the criteria set. A utility function representing the weighted product of attributes and criteria would be used to develop the final ranking and thus choice. This model represents the process used by individuals with a strong Thinking Cognitive Style. See also Decision Making Models

Affective Approach

Ordering of the three job candidates would be accomplished on the basis of how each candidate makes the decision maker feel. The candidate that evokes the greatest positive (pleasurable) affective response would thus be ranked first. The affective response may be derived through association (i.e., category attributes) or directly attributed to the interaction between the candidate and the decision maker. It is believed that the manner in which the candidate affirms or disaffirms the self concept of the decision maker has a strong impact to the decision maker's affect response to the candidate. This model represents the process used by individuals with a strong Feeling Cognitive Style. See also Self Concept Models

Evaluation Approach

Attitudes are often stored in the form of evaluations without the cognitive and affective information that acted to form the evaluation. Using this approach, candidates would be rank ordered on the basis of evaluation, that is, the overall evaluation of goodness or favorability.

Mixed Models

The cognitive (thinking) and the affective (feeling) represent pure types rarely experienced and act to anchor ends of a theoretical continuum. The Cognitive/Affective and Affective/Conflict sections of the continuum represent conflict between cognitively based rankings and affectively based ranking. Individuals represented by these types experience both types of rankings, but find them to conflict. The C/A type tends to resolve this conflict by using the cognitive ranking, while the A/C type would tend to rely the affective ranking.







Attitude change and persuasion

Our program's communication goals involve developing skills in writing and speaking to influence the decision making and behavior of others.

If we now return to our assumptions regarding decision making, we can deduce that to influence decision making (and behavior if we view behavior as a rational choice process,( e.g., Expectancy Theory of motivation), we must influence one of the three components of decision making: Criteria, alternatives, cause/effect beliefs (Cognitions)

Individuals attempt to maintain consistency among components of attitude and between attitudes and behavior. When inconsistency exists, a condition termed cognitive dissonance, develops. Individuals are motivated to make some change to reduce this cognitive dissonance. In changing cognitions, what you are attempting to do is create cognitive dissonance between the cognition you are presenting and the one that the target presently holds. When this dissonance is created, the target can either discredit the presenter or change his/her cognition to eliminate the dissonance (a simplification, but one that helps us develop a working model). Whether the target changes his/her cognition or discredits the communicator is largely a function of the communicator's credibility.


Credibility can be thought of as based on two perceptions the target hold of the communicator:

Target's perception of the communicator's Expertise. This is enhanced when the target has knowledge of the communicator's credentials, education, experience, accomplishments, etc. The establishment to a communicator's expertise is one the important roles of someone introducing the communicator. While a speaker can establish her/his own expertise, he/she runs the risk of overdoing this part of a presentation and turning off the audience.

Target's perception of communicator's Trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is established through deed and targets experience with communicator, by information obtained from trusted sources and by attribution of self interests. For example:

Speakers attempting to convince an audience to do something that in clearly in the speaker's self interest tend to elicit low trust. When the audience perceives to have no direct stake or interest in the topic, there is most often moderate initial trust.

When the speaker appears to be speaking against her/his self interests, there is most often high initial levels of trust.

Persuasive communication influences decision making (i.e., persuades the target to choose a particular alternative or course of action) mainly through attitude change or changing the target's cause/effect beliefs. Therefore, when developing a presentation plan (written or oral) some of the guidelines taken from the perspective of attitude change theory are:

Presentation Purpose

  • Be clear as to what you are attempting to influence.
  • Have specific objectives for your presentation

Audience Analysis

Decision Process. Understand the target's (audience's) decision making process:

  • What criteria are they using?
  • What alternatives are they considering?
  • What is their definition of the problem- What meaning does the audience attribute to the issues you are presenting?

If you are likely to encounter resistance, is this resistance based in disagreement with your goals, criteria, or interests, or is the resistance based on disagreement with your assumptions, theories, or beliefs? That is, are you likely to be confronted with value conflict ("I understand and agree with you that we could save money using your approach, but is not important to me that we save money") or theory conflict ("I would love to save money, but I do not see how your plan will save us money")?

Audience Attitudes

  • What are their present attitudes (cause/effect beliefs)
  • Are present attitudes rooted in cognition or affect?
  • Will the audience have a strong position on your issue? If so, what are the interests behind this position?

Sources of Motivation. Understand the audience's sources of motivation- Is your audience predominately driven by:

  • Instrumental concerns
  • Interpersonal concerns (self concept external)
  • Personal standards and goals (self concept internal)
  • Group or organizational goals (goal internalization)

Audience Cognitive Style. What assumptions are you making with respect to the cognitive style of the audience?

  • Is the audience primarily Extraverted to Introverted? This will impact the type of interaction both during and after the presentation.
  • Is the audience predominately Intuitive or Sensing? This will affect whether you use and inductive or deductive persuasive strategy.. whether you speak in literal or figurative terms.
  • Is the audience Thinking or Feeling? This will determine the effectiveness of a cognitive or affective approach
  • Is the audience Judging or Perceiving? This will affect its openness to new approaches and ideas.

Audience Stage of Change. What stage of change do you expect the find your audience?

  • Precontemplation
  • Contemplation
  • Preparation
  • Action
  • Maintenance

Speaker Analysis

  • What is your credibility with the audience?
  • How will you develop credibility (expertise and trustworthiness) with the audience?
  • What is the affective or evaluative orientation of the audience to you?
  • What techniques will you use to build audience identification with you?

Persuasive Strategies

  • How are you going to support your ideas?
  • What data and other forms of evidence are you going to use to support you theory?
  • Make sure the target knows what you want her/him to do.
  • Are you going to use a cognitive, affective or mixed approach?

Categories and the Cognitive Process of Categorization

Categories are mental representations of the entities one perceives in the environment. Categories can be very broad, such as the category, public university, or very narrow such as public universities in the northeast with enrollments of less than 7000. Mental structures are complex networks of categories and sub categories. Categorization occurs through all sensory modalities and is performed effortlessly and unconsciously.

Four models have been proposed to explain the processes used by individuals to categorize sensory stimuli, that is place an object into a category. These are:

Exemplar Models

In exemplar models, a category is represented with memories of specific exemplars, that is, specific people or objects we have encountered. For example, Commander Data (Star Trek) or Chet Hickox are my exemplars of Thinking Types. In this approach categorization of unknown entities is achieved when the cognitive system (using parallel search, performed automatically and unconsciously) finds an exemplar that is most similar to the entity.

Prototype Models

Prototype models represent categories with prototypes, or single centralized category representations. The cognitive system abstracts properties that are representative of a category's exemplars and integrative them into a single average or modal, representation.

Classical/Rule Models

In the classical view, categorization is achieved through the application of rules which specify properties that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for category membership.

Mixed Models

Based on a large body of research evidence has been found to support all three types of processes. Most theorists agree that categories have multiple representations and that individual use all three cognitive mechanism in categorization.

Attitudes are attached to categories. Objects (people, things, etc.) placed in a category are assigned the attitudes associated with that category. A change agent can either attempt to change the attitudes associated with a category, thus changing the target attitude regarding an individual element in that category (hard job) or use the strategy of differentiation whereby the agent attempt to remove the attitude object from a category and place it into a category with a more desirable attitude or create a sub-category with a different attitude structure that allows the target to hold dissimilar beliefs of the target than the main category (easier job) .


Ajzen, I. 2001. Nature and operation of attitudes. Annual Review of Psychology, 52: 27-58.

Petty, R. E., Wegener, T. T., & Fabrigar, L. R. 1997. Attitudes and attitude change. Annual Review of Psychology, 48: 609-647.