The Thinker’s Toolkit: Alternative Strategies for Choosing Among Alternatives

Think about the last time you were standing in your local grocery store staring at the great wall of cereal boxes trying to decide which box or boxes of cereal to buy.  The cereals purported to be healthy are clustered together and banished to the hinterland of the upper shelves, while the delicious sugary cereals are located on the lower shelves where children can see and reach them.  On the cereal boxes are claims about quality, taste, or being part of some indescribable healthy diet.  Beneath the boxes are tags that list the cereals’ unit prices.

In this decision situation, you know your alternatives (i.e. the set of cereal boxes on the shelves), and you know the criteria you plan to use to evaluate the alternatives (e.g. price, quality, and taste).  With all of this information at your disposal, how do you decide which box or boxes of cereal to buy?

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While the decision situation you face in the grocery store is relatively trivial, it is similar to more consequential decision situations, like which investments to make, which medicines to take, and which career advancement opportunities to pursue, that have important implications for your finances, health, and career.  In these situations, like at the grocery store, you have alternatives to choose from and criteria you can use to evaluate the alternatives.

Just remember that in many, if not most, cases the alternatives and criteria are not presented to you like items on a restaurant menu.  When they aren’t given, you need to use your experience and imagination to think of them.  Once you know the alternatives and criteria, you are poised to evaluate your alternatives and make a decision.  But how?  What strategies, or models, can you use to help you choose?

Powerful Decision Strategies with Pompous Names

There are many strategies for choice, including, among others, the linear model, the additive difference model, the ideal point model, the conjunctive model, the disjunctive model, the lexicographic model, and the elimination-by-aspects model.

Despite their daunting names, most of these strategies are actually quite common.  I’m sure you already use some of them to choose among alternatives.  For example, using the conjunctive model, you set certain cutoff points for the criteria and then eliminate the alternatives that do not meet all of the cutoff points.

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Sometimes I find myself using this strategy to select cereal in the grocery store.  I think to myself, “the cereal needs to be below a certain price, above a certain subjective threshold for quality, and above a certain subjective threshold for taste.”  With this in mind, I eliminate from consideration any and all cereal boxes that do not meet my personal cutoff points for the criteria.

This strategy saves me time and mental effort because, by eliminating alternatives that don’t meet all of the cutoff points for the criteria, I reduce the amount of information I need to process before making a decision.

Courage and Cowardice in the Face of Conflict

The seven strategies listed above can be organized into two groups – compensatory strategies, which confront the conflict in the choice situation, and non-compensatory strategies, which avoid the conflict in the choice situation.

The linear, additive difference, and ideal point models are compensatory.  The conjunctive, disjunctive, lexicographic, and elimination-by-aspects models are non-compensatory.

Compensatory strategies allow you to trade off a low score on one criterion for a high score on a different criterion; whereas, non-compensatory strategies do not allow such tradeoffs.

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In the grocery store, I was using the conjunctive model, a non-compensatory strategy, which is why I had to eliminate from consideration any and all cereal boxes that didn’t meet the cutoff points for the criteria.  If I were to use one of the compensatory strategies, and I happened to come across a cereal that was superior on quality and taste, but did not meet my cutoff point for price, I would be able to resolve the conflict in the decision situation by trading off the low score on price for the high scores on quality and taste.

Like a Good Fruit Salad…It’s All About the Combination

As you may have already guessed, we can use more than one strategy to evaluate our alternatives and make a choice.  In fact, we often use non-compensatory strategies first to reduce the amount of information we need to process, by eliminating alternatives, and then use compensatory strategies to conduct a thorough analysis of the remaining alternatives.

Together, these strategies enable us to structure any relevant information we have available, make efficient use of our limited information processing capabilities, and reach conclusions that are sounder than those we could reach with intuition alone.

By learning to use these strategies to help you choose among alternatives, you will be able to use them more quickly and effectively, reach defensible decisions based on the information available, and explain your reasoning to others.

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One thought on “The Thinker’s Toolkit: Alternative Strategies for Choosing Among Alternatives

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