The art of decision-making

Little boy choosing foodOne of the skills that parents discover a need for is that of making good decisions, sometimes about crucial matters in the life of a child.  Some people find this easier than others.  When the art of decision-making is broken down into elements, the process of reasoning is one of them.  On our helpline and in meetings, we are often given the privilege of taking part in a parent’s reasoning process through active and, ideally, informed listening that enables a person to think something through without attempting to make the decision for them.

So what is reasoning?

A point to start from is that reasoning is always based on facts that are known or assumed.  There is always a sense that more intelligence is probably out there.  It is safe to say that when a scientific finding is announced in the news, someone will add that “more research is needed”.  Where the brain is concerned, we definitely do not know everything yet about how it works.  Where children are concerned, parents often have to make decisions based on information that is not complete but is the best available at the time.  If information is “partial” that can mean I am in possession of some of the facts but not all of them, as in “We partially know”.  Or it can mean that I am biased in favour of someone or something (“I’m partial to a cup of coffee”).  Both meanings may apply to someone involved in a decision.

In an effort to make sure they know everything necessary to make a good decision, parents are likely to seek out skilful people (such as professionals in particular fields), trusting them to guide the decision-making, and/or as much information as can be found.  Sometimes a good decision will come clear after this.  At other times there is too little or too much advice and information, some of which conflicts.  In some cases there is pressure as well from other people who believe they already know best.

What if after carefully thinking out what decision to make, someone else involved comes to a different conclusion about the decision to be made?  Why could this be?  One answer could be that they are reasoning from a different starting-point.  Another possibility is that they have used a different reasoning process.  This is not always obvious at first.  In a recent example, a professional told a parent that local services would not be able to provide a piece of equipment for her child because they would not be able to fund it and the assessed need could be met with something much cheaper.  This led her to do some research to identify another possible source of funding.  However then the same professional discouraged her from applying for it because he thought the child should not have the equipment.  The missing link that she did not know about was probably that local funding decisions were based on equipment being deemed appropriate, as well as whether they could afford it.

Decision Theory

Because decision-making can have important consequences, there is a varied field of study with a number of academic journals about decision-making, particularly with partial information.  Decision Theory applies to any situation where a person or group is deciding with “goal directed behaviour in the presence of options” (Hansen S. 1994/2005).  It highlights some common pitfalls.

For example, it is possible to spend a lot of time gathering information about a question, and working out how to achieve a goal, without making much effort on identifying and making decisions related to it that may be important.  A related pitfall would be to jump into making a decision without having enough information or thinking out how to achieve the goal.

Decision Theory comes up with some inventive ways of making decisions that can be useful for standing back from an issue slightly and seeing it from a different angle.  Hansen (1994/2005) gives the example of choosing one of three soups in a supermarket.  He likes can A better than (“>”) can B; can B > can C; and can A > can C; so he chooses can A.  In doing so, though, he first has to decide what he likes best about them.  Is it the taste, or is it the price?  A further mathematical concept is “greater/less than or equal to”, or “≥/≤”, expressed in Decision Theory as “at least as good as / not at least as good as”.  It is also possible to not have a preference between two or more of the options available, and as might be expected, the Theory goes on to further layers of complexity.

Another way to aid decision-making is to assign points, say out of 20, so he gives soup can A 15 points, B 13 points and C 7 points. Most of us will make choices about soup without thinking much about it, and if we choose the wrong one it does not matter very much. However, it does when real choices for a child are substituted for “a can of soup” (“three nurseries”, “three transition options”, and so on).

Decisions also involve background information, such as circumstances that the decision-maker cannot alter, and/or are uncertain. This may lead to a decision to take different options depending on different scenarios, or how important those are.  An Example:

 Weather is bad Weather is good
Join coach trip to the beach With friends but cold and wet Enjoy day on beach with friends
 Do not join trip to the beach Stay dry but no day out No trip but do something else

Depending on how you rate these outcomes, you might assign scores out of 20, such as:

Weather is bad Weather is good Decision
Join coach trip to the beach With friends but cold and wet, 5 Enjoy day on the beach with friends, 18 18+5 = 23
 Do not join coach trip to the beach Stay dry but no day out, 7 No trip but something else, 15 7+15= 22

So if I were making this decision for myself, I would decide to join the coach trip despite the unknown weather.  However, if I was worried about the effect on a child of possibly getting cold and wet, I might give a lower score to that option, making the decision go the other way. If there are as few options and possibilities as this, it is easy to make such a decision without drawing a table and assigning scores to it. However, if there are many options and possibilities, such a table could help to clarify the decision considerably (or apply “defuzzification”, as it is called).

At the same time, the Theory has its limitations. Personnel in institutions using it (possibly without knowing it) will try to make decisions on achieving a goal that they are asked / expected to achieve. Families on the other hand, may wish to go outside of those limitations and include the option, “should we aim for this goal at all?”  People may also want to include different factors, for example a family arguing for a particular respite facility may see the suitability of various possible facilities for their child as the most important factor. If they go to see their MP about a resulting disagreement with services, the MP may see the collective effect on all the disabled children in the area as most important. How many relevant factors are taken into consideration is referred to in the Theory as “preference completeness”.


Another, much older field of study is of Logic. Again, there are more formal ways of setting out Logic in order to stand back slightly from a decision process if it is hard to focus on because it is, for instance, emotional. This is another complex field, but just to say that it brings to light other common pitfalls that can affect decision-making.

Some of these occur with media headlines and news summaries, which would not be good for making decisions without going further into them to find out what the facts really are. A recent headline, for example, was “Does education affect mental health?” (NetDoctor 2015), going on to ask “Does the standard of a person’s education influence their mental health?” and a quick look at the article below that would lead to the conclusion that surprisingly no, it does not. A slower look reveals that this finding does not directly relate to what goes on in the classroom but is more about the levels and types of education people receive, for example finishing after school, further / higher education, or beyond (Stewart-Brown S. 2015), and relates to one finding among others.

Another pitfall is to take information that is accurate in itself, but then to apply it too readily, in formal language something like “Children with condition A have symptoms X+Y, therefore all children with symptoms X+Y must have condition A”. I have seen not only individuals but also organisations make this logical error, which again relates to incomplete knowledge.

Tips for staying on top of it

It is easy to feel daunted by a lot of data and complications when trying to make a decision. These tips should help to focus on what is important and to make the process feel more manageable.

  • Keep referring back to the bottom line, meaning what you are aiming for and what the essentials are.
  • Have a good basis to start from, knowing that the facts, such as you can determine them, are sound. If claims are made in news sources, delve deeper into where the findings come from and how these relate to other findings.
  • Question others involved, to find out what the basis is for their conclusions, including the children themselves, if possible.
  • A good listener can be a great help.


Hansen S. 1994/2005, Decision Theory:  a brief introduction. Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm.

NetDoctor health news 26 March 2015, Does Education Affect Mental Health?

Stewart-Brown S. et al. 19 March 2015, Socioeconomic gradients and mental health: implications for public health.  British Journal of Psychiatry DOI: 10.1192/bjp.bp.114.147280.