The Structure and Anatomy of a Decision


Before venturing any further into the study of decision making, such as learning about its barriers, tools for implementation, rules and the application of the creative process, and the role problem solving plays, among other things, it is best to spend some time in consideration of what actually comprises the anatomy of a decision. This is a bit more complex than one might suspect.

To begin with, we should examine the definition of "anatomy" and "decision," as well as the manner in which they may be linked. It is expected that at the completion of this article you will have a much broader knowledge base about the makings of a decision that will be applicable throughout the remainder of this study.

What do we mean by "anatomy?"

The most common thought that comes to mind when the term "anatomy" is uttered, is visions of skeletons and organs that are revealed most often through dissection. However, for our purposes, the word refers to the structural make-up or internal workings of something -- its composition, its constitution, its form and structure. Composition is an apropos synonym, and refers to the constituents or ingredients that are part of a mixture used to create the "whole" of a thing. Constitution means the fundamental principles of something, and form and structure should be self-explanatory. Therefore, all of these words can be used to support and/or replace each other by way of explanation.

As we undertake the study of the anatomy of a decision, what we are trying to do is to understand what is the make-up of a decision, what are its form and structure, its ingredients, so to speak, and, if applicable, its principles. Shall we move on and see if understanding the term "decision" is simpler?

What is meant by "decision?"

A decision is a resolution or a conclusion reached after consideration of an issue. A decision can be formal, such as a judgment, or it can be the process of resolving a question or concern.

Let's see if we can be more clear about this:

A decision is a choice about either a course of action, a strategy of action, or an option that leads in the direction of a desired objective, whether the ultimate outcome matches this or not.

Sometimes a decision is merely knowledge of the nature of an action.

The term "decision" cannot be considered in isolation. It makes the most sense when it is in the context of something. For example, you may need to make a "management decision," or an "executive decision," or a "personal decision," or a "professional decision." Perhaps you are facing a "life and death decision," or simply a "spur-of-the-moment" decision. When thought about in these terms, the word decision begins to make greater sense, like adding meat to a bone, enhancing the idea.

Back to the drawing board – what is the anatomy of a decision?

If we combine the essence of the separate concepts, it could best be explained this way:

The anatomy of a decision is the structural makeup of a resolution that is better understood, when placed in the context of its use.

The anatomy of a decision is also better understood when all of the factors that go into the creation of it are examined. This should make the phrase much easier to internalize. The ingredients, or components of a decision include past experiences, individual differences, cognitive biases, relevance to the decision-maker, and his or her level of commitment. Let's examine each of these parts that constitute a decision, individually.

Experience as a component of a decision

A decision is not a simple concept to grasp, nor are its integral segments. The first, however, experience, does speak to the foundation of a decision, because it is the basis for all that emanates after it, and it is as individual as a fingerprint, unique to the person alone. A resolution, or conclusion, is composed of the past actions and realities of an individual. If, in the course of a person's lifetime, they have made a decision somewhere in the past that was positive or beneficial, then it is likely going to be the "go-to" source upon which future decisions are made.

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For example, if a person believed they were due for a raise, and in other instances in their past -- at other jobs, or this one -- they have been the recipient of a pay increase after bringing it up to their boss, then he or she will probably opt to consider this same course of action again. It could be explained more simply as, "If it isn't broke, don't fix it." An idea that has worked in the past is the natural springboard for future actions and decisions.

The opposite is also true. If a person has tried online dating and the past dozen experiences have been duds, then he or she will probably be inclined to find another source for a mate. Negative experiences are equally valuable in the course of decision making, and are a part of the make-up or anatomy of a decision for each person. These past experiences are natural starting points in the decision-making process. Even when the historically expected decision turns out to be wrong, this, too, becomes a part of the fabric of a person's decision framework, and continues to serve the same purpose.

Individual differences as a component of a decision

Because each of us is different – so, too, will be our perspective about a decision. Many factors come into play; the most obvious of these are our age, sex, socioeconomic level, ethnicity, and education. It is difficult to separate the "who we are" from the "what we must decide." However, that is not to say it can't be done – or that it shouldn't.

Personal biases as a component of a decision

Although personal biases can be combined with individual differences, and in some cases are, in this article they will occupy a separate, if not brief, examination. Our personal biases are those things to which we have a preference or commitment, and they are sure to be many. They include everything from our choice of diet, to our professional preferences, and, of course, so much in between. An example of a personal bias might be that you would prefer to attend an all male or female school, instead of one that is co-ed. Another personal bias might be your choice of religion. While individual differences may be assigned from without, personal biases emanate from within. They may have been influenced by individual differences, but they do not account for them.

Cognitive biases as a component of a decision

Now this is a concept more challenging to grasp. It calls for higher-level thinking and reflection.

By way of definition, a cognitive bias is a tendency to think a certain way. Because bias is often looked upon as a negative behavior, so, too, is cognitive bias. What it represents is a deviation from good judgment and rational thinking, and it manifests in a number of ways. One type of cognitive bias is rooted in hindsight, where one tends to believe something was unavoidable, because it has historical precedence. Another type of cognitive bias that can have negative repercussions is omission bias, and the reader will see that – as in many cases when terms are presented in this article, the words seem almost self- explanatory – it is as it sounds. People will formulate a resolution or conclusion by either deliberately or unknowingly omitting some piece of information that affects the outcome. Still another type of bias emanates from confirming what is already expected through the use of simple observation. All in all, it is important to recognize and understand cognitive biases when options are in the making.

Personal relevance and commitment as components of a decision

Based on the understanding of the meaning of decision – that it is a strategy or course of action, it naturally follows that personal relevance and commitment would be an important consideration. In the case of personal relevance, a decision – i.e., solution, resolution – is often driven by personal relevance, particularly when it affects the person individually. It cannot be otherwise, as that is illogical – except in the case of altruism, where a solution is resolved based on the higher need of another. Commitment is the other side of the same coin. If a decision is the result of personal relevance, their commitment to such plays a role, as well. Commitment, however, is a more tangible concept. It comes in the form of time or money, most often, and is representative of that individual's sense of responsibility, obligation, and devotion.

The quality of any decision is a direct result of the quality of the effort that goes into making a decision, as well as the quality of the effort that goes into executing that decision.

In other words, the anatomy of a decision is not only the sum of its parts, the skeleton that gives it structure, and the course of action, strategy or choice that it represents. In effect, a decision is a living, breathing response with consequences, and under those circumstances is one of the weightiest undertakings of human intellectuality – even when the decision is something as minor as choosing a flavor of ice cream. Why? Because that decision alone is the collective reflection of hundreds of decisions made prior to it in the course of a lifetime.

We begin the decision-making process early on in life, as babies, and develop the skill as we age. Sometimes people plateau in their decision-making abilities, and other times they seek out opportunities to enhance this ability – such as you are doing by engaging in this article.

Decisions are a natural and expected part of life. We begin decision making at a very young age, and hopefully become more adept at the process as we mature. If we are cognizant of the influences that can hinder decision making, it is probable that we will be successful at it.

How to Use Problem Solving Steps and Problem Solving Tools

There are many parts that must be addressed in understanding and mastering the skill. One of these is the act of problem solving; knowing the steps to the problem-solving process

Problem solving is the act of finding a solution to a challenge, utilizing a methodology that provides a positive approach; whereas, decision making is a process that is implemented in the course of problem solving, perhaps once, or even multiple times, in order to reach a resolution. The individual involved in problem solving will use decisions as keys toward the final answer to a conundrum, with problem solving recognized as an analytical undertaking. However, intuition can also play a role in collecting information toward the final solution. Decision making employs the application of judgment. In the end, problem solving is a mental process, but it shares some of the attributes of decision making including the identification and shaping of the dilemma – giving it a "voice," identifying, and then implementing solutions and evaluating the results. These will be considered separately in the sections that follow.

More about problem solving

Researchers believe that problem solving is the most complex of all human mental functions, much more so than decision making. It requires a higher level of cognitive operation than nearly any other behavior, and even if, and when, it is flawed, it is still what makes us uniquely human. Too, scientists believe there will never be a level of artificial intelligence capable of mirroring the human capacity for problem solving.

Decision making is making a choice among the options that may exist, and have been discerned through problem solving. As the term implies, it is action-oriented and comes at the conclusion of fact-gathering and reflection. Decision making ends in a course of action or conclusion of some type, which can, itself, be an opinion. Problem solving is the method employed to determine what options are available and how they might be applied. Problem solving is an action unto itself, apart from decision making. While the latter requires the former for completion, the opposite is absolutely not necessary.

Step 1 – Problem identification

Now that we better understand the difference between problem solving and decision making, it would be extremely instructive to understand the steps one can access to solve a problem. In this case, problem solving is like decision making, because each can resort to a defined process that can be learned and applied. Although different experts have offered different approaches to problem solving, for our purposes we will limit the number of steps to four – a number that will be repeated throughout the to ensure you are not overloaded with information you won't be able to use in the future. You'll also notice that parts of the process mirror decision making.

First, define the problem. For this article, we will choose two different examples from which to work. In the first, a young woman steps outdoors in the middle of the winter to find that her car won't start; in the second, a man has just been laid off from his job. What are the problems in each instance? Well, in the first, we have someone who cannot even begin the business of her day, because her car is not in working order, and in the second, we have someone who has unexpectedly exchanged employed status for unemployed. Although, it might seem almost too easy of a task to state the problem, these simple examples were given for the reason that practice should begin at an elementary level and proceed to higher and more difficult levels. Therefore, think for a moment about how you might verbalize the first problem. Perhaps you might say, "The problem Ms. X is facing is that her engine will not turn over." That is quite specific, the very point of defining a problem. The problem in the second example could be explained this way: "Mr. Y lost his job and must find employment immediately as his is the sole source of income for his family." In either case, the dilemma is stated in plain, unambiguous language, a necessary prerequisite to tackling any problem.

Step 2 – Identifying solutions

This step requires a combination of brainstorming and research, where possible. Those involved in problem solving must consciously create a list of alternatives to a problem they are facing. This may have to be done in a short amount of time, such as with Ms. X, who will have to resolve the issue of a non-working vehicle quickly, or, if possible, develop a series of research-based conclusions from a review of relevant literature and/or by asking family, friends, and experts in the particular field for their input. In the case of the gentleman who is unemployed, the problem is that he needs to find replacement income as quickly as possible. One solution that might be offered is applying for unemployment. A second alternative is to ask associates, family,and friends if they know of any immediate employment opportunities. However, in the case of finding answers to a problem, Mr. Y may want to take a more global view and brainstorm all of the possible employment solutions available to him. This might include returning to school to update his skills, or asking his wife to get a job that would help relieve the immediate financial pressure the family may face. Ms. X also has a series of options, whether the aim is to get her car in working condition, or to find alternative modes of transportation. In either case, this second step requires formulating a variety of possible solutions from which a final resolution can be made, evaluating each for their sensibility and viability.

Step 3- Select a solution

The point of problem solving is to find answers, whether it be for something sophisticated – such as choosing a course of action to treat a patient with breast cancer -- or opting to return to school, as did Mr. Y, and sharing home responsibilities while his wife entered the workforce. Remember, decision making is an action, problem solving is the mental method employed, with all options analyzed for their suitability. Part of the problem-solving process is to ensure that the option is able to be implemented. For example, when reasoning out an answer to the problem of unemployment, Mr. Y might add the idea of remaining unemployed forever to his choices. However, this hardly seems realistic, and therefore would not be a serious alternative to solving his problem. The step that involves actually choosing a solution has been reached after much careful consideration and forethought, with some solutions discarded, most likely, because they would prove unworkable in the end.

Step 4 – Put the solution into action and evaluate

We have now reached the point in the problem-solving process that requires action. Whatever option the problem solver resolves is the best course of action must be implemented -- here again, to determine its viability. This means the solution has been examined for its appropriateness and possibility of realization, and that it has become a vehicle for implementation. However, even now, the problem solver is hardly finished. That is because true problem solving includes the act of monitoring, testing, and gathering feedback to validate its long-term applicability to the situation. It should not be surprising if there are bumps in the road to implementing a solution to a problem, yet, the individual or group that has invested time and effort at the front end of the problem-solving process, will likely be met with fewer challenges at the end.

The Best Tool of the Problem Solver

Experts say there are dozens of strategies and tools at the disposal of the potential problem solver. Some claim as many as 25 – a number too formidable to be taken seriously, and too difficult to internalize for the purposes of solving a problem. Others have created options that are easy to access and, therefore, much more useful. In being more utilitarian they are naturally referred to on a more regular basis and become a part of the individual's skill set when addressing the challenges that are part and parcel of everyday living.

One of the most powerful and effective tools for problem solving is the graphic organizer. It is as it sounds, a visual representation of any aspect of a problem for which you may be working toward a solution. For example, if you are having trouble identifying the problem, it might help to jot down phrases on a large sheet of paper, then juxtapose them in different orders until they make sense, and present the challenge as you want it to be stated. Or perhaps you are attempting to list the breadth of options that comprise a possible solution. This can be done by creating a simple list, using colors to represent the order in which you would place them, such as using red as a "real possibility," and yellow as one less likely. Here, the idea of a Venn diagram comes into play. This is a graphic organizer that allows you to overlap concepts into more than one area, as necessary. In the real world, ideas don't always fall neatly under one heading or another, so this is an exceptional choice for visualizing the parts of a problem.

Another form of graphic organizer that helps the problem solver organize his or her thoughts on a problem is the balance sheet. Again, using a format that is easily manipulated, and often the tried and true method of paper and pencil serves this purpose the best, divide it down the middle. Frame the solution across the top of the sheet and beneath it, list pros on one side of the page and cons on the other. Do not hesitate to include any possible resolutions, no matter how ridiculous they may sound at first. Imagine that 100 years ago, when people were trying to decide how they would travel from point A to point B, someone, somewhere, might have created a graphic organizer that included the idea of "flying." It was probably immediately dismissed back then, and here were are in the age of space travel. Indeed, graphic organizers are the most adaptable and expansive tool for the problem solver today.


In this article, we have examined the steps of the problem-solving process, which we have deliberately tried to conform to the format of decision making as well. It is all too obvious that much time and effort can go into training in all aspects of problem solving and/or decision making, but if the process becomes too unwieldy in the end, then the instruction is not useful. You should follow the four basic steps of problem solving. These are: identification of the problem, creation of a list of viable solutions, opting for one of the solutions that is the most sensible, enacting the solution, and evaluating it periodically. Finally, despite the fact that problem solving is considered one of the most complex cognitive human behaviors, there are tools to help simplify the process. The most valuable, and most employed, is the graphic organizer via which the problem solver creates a visual representation of any part of the problem-solving process under consideration.