Comparative Decision Making: An Emerging Interdiscipline

How can we continue to analyse human decision making in an age when free will is considered to be an illusion? The answer lies in a behavioral approach. Instead of thinking of decisions as the result of rational human evaluation, we would benefit from discussing them as conditional behavioral responses. This allows us to envision many different algorithmic agents as decision makers and challenges different intellectual traditions to compare notes on where this line of thinking leads.

What do shoppers buying groceries, plants growing their roots in the soil, computer programs shifting the flow among blocks of code, and nations choosing leaders through elections have in common?  They are all making decisions.  Whether this seems obvious or startling of course depends on how one thinks about decision making.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky from a diverse array of disciplines—computer science, agriculture, political science, biology, linguistics, business, medicine, economics, psychology, and education—recently discovered that they all work on decision making and might be able to trade ideas to good effect.  This soon led to an interdisciplinary seminar series and new approaches for training graduate students. In the spring of 2011 came an international conference with funding from the US National Science Foundation and the UK Provost to see what happened when some leading researchers addressed this broad perspective. The conference spawned a book, Comparative Decision Making, published by Oxford University Press earlier this year, addressing the similarities, differences, and insights generated through this boundary defying reach. In this article, we will sketch some of these findings and emphasize the potential for addressing decision making in a comparative way. We hope this will whet your appetite for the book itself, where these ideas are elaborated in greater depth and completeness.

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