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Poliheuristic Theory: A Middle Ground Between Rational and Cognitive Decision Theories  

Alex Mintz and J. Tyson Chatagnier

The poliheuristic theory of decision making is a framework for explaining both the outcome of a choice and the process by which the decision maker arrives at that outcome. It posits a two-stage process in which individuals first apply a noncompensatory principle, eliminating those options that negatively impact the decision maker on one or more critical dimensions. In the second stage, the decision maker employs a conventional decision rule, such as expected utility theory or the lexicographic decision rule, to choose among the remaining alternatives. The poliheuristic theory of decision has been used by scholars of political science and international relations to explain decisions in hundreds of scenarios—these include foreign policy in democratic and autocratic states, the organizational and operational decisions of terrorist leaders, and the behavior of groups—attesting to its explanatory and predictive power. Other scholars have used experimental methods to demonstrate the theory’s ability to accurately describe the decision process. Analysts can apply poliheuristic principles when using the Applied Decision Analysis methodology to explain or predict a decision. The analyst can use his or her knowledge of a decision to construct a matrix of possible choices (alternatives) and decision criteria (dimensions). The analyst can then assign weights to the various dimensions and determine which should be regarded as noncompensatory. By eliminating the alternatives that result in a negative impact on the critical dimensions and then choosing among the remaining options in an analytic way, the analyst can then predict (or explain) the decision maker’s choice.


The Poliheuristic Theory of Crisis Decision Making and Applied Decision Analysis  

Inbal Hakman, Alex Mintz, and Steven B. Redd

Poliheuristic theory addresses the “why” and “how” of decision making. It focuses on how decision makers use heuristics en route to choice by addressing both the process and the choice related to the decision task. More specifically, decision makers use a two-stage process wherein a more complicated choice set is reduced to one that is more manageable through the use of these heuristics, or cognitive shortcuts. In the second stage, decision makers are more likely to employ maximizing and analytical strategies in making a choice. Poliheuristic theory also focuses on the political consequences of decision making, arguing that decision makers will refrain from making politically costly decisions. While poliheuristic theory helps us better understand how decision makers process information and make choices, it does not specifically address how choice sets and decision matrices were created in the first place. Applied decision analysis (ADA) rectifies this shortcoming by focusing on how leaders create particular choice sets and matrices and then how they arrive at a choice. It does so by first identifying the decision maker’s choice set or decision matrix; that is, the alternatives or options available to choose from as well as the criteria or dimensions upon which the options will be evaluated. ADA then focuses on uncovering the decision maker’s decision code through the use of multiple decision models. Combining poliheuristic theory with ADA allows researchers to more fully explain decision making in general and crisis decision making in particular. An application of poliheuristic theory and ADA to decision making pertaining to the Fukushima nuclear disaster reveals that even in this high-stress crisis environment decision makers followed the two-stage process as predicted by poliheuristic theory. More specifically, in the first stage, decision makers simplified the decision task by resorting to cognitive heuristics (i.e., decision making shortcuts) to eliminate politically damaging alternatives such as voluntary evacuation. In the second stage, decision makers conducted a more analytical evaluation of the compulsory evacuation options.