- Length: 60 Minutes
- Objectives and Standards
- Materials and
- Procedure and
- Handouts and
We make thousands of choices throughout our lives—many with important consequences. Which college should I attend? Should I stay in school? Which health insurance plan should I pick? Some decisions are easy, but most important choices are complex and have long-term impacts. Many decisions even affect a person’s risk for disease or accidents.
Of course, decision-making happens inside the brain, which typically gathers and distills information from multiple sources before arriving at a decision. According to the Society for Neuroscience1 the decision-making process is organized like a court trial. Sights, sounds and other data are entered into circuits in the brain, where other brain cells act as a jury, weighing each piece of evidence. When enough evidence has been evaluated, the brain makes a decision.
These decision “trials” involve several parts of the brain, particularly the frontal lobes area, or frontal cortex (front part of the brain). This area handles planning and reasoning, and has roles in abstract and concrete decision-making. The amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for emotions and instinctual reactions like fear and aggression, also is involved.
Adolescent brains, which still are developing, solve problems and make decisions differently than adult brains do. Because adolescent frontal lobes are not yet fully mature, teens’ actions and choices are guided more by the amygdala and less by the frontal lobes.2 Due to their incomplete brain development, teens are more likely than adults to act on impulse, misread social cues or emotions, and engage in dangerous behaviors. In general, adolescents are less likely than adults to think before they act or consider the potential consequences of their actions.
In addition, the decision-making process can break down, especially when the brain is fatigued from being focused on a task for an extended time, or from lack of sleep. A tired brain is less effective at making important decisions, and more likely to make impulsive or confused choices.
Fortunately, adolescents can and do make good decisions, and they are able to improve their decision-making skills. In fact, we all can make better choices when we recognize what really is important, identify personal goals, and follow a systematic process to examine alternative solutions to a problem. In this activity, students will collaborate to make decisions for fictitious characters facing difficult decisions. In each case, students will answer the “Decision-making Questions.”
Once alternatives have been identified, a T-chart can be a simple, effective tool for evaluating options and making decisions. On one side of the chart, list the possible benefits or positive aspects (“pros”) of a particular course of action. On the other side, list the negative aspects (“cons”) of a decision. For example, Sandra was up late studying last night, and she is very tired this morning. Thus, the question to be decided is: “Should I sleep in this morning?”
Sandra must identify the goal before making a decision. In this case, the goal might be to achieve a good grade on an algebra quiz during first period.
What is the real problem or decision to be made? The framing of a decision makes all the difference. Say Josh is tired of riding the bus 45 minutes each day to work. At first, his choices seem simple: “Should I buy a car or continue to ride the bus to work?” But there could be other factors to consider. Perhaps Josh dislikes his job, or maybe it is not really in his best interest to travel such a long distance to work. If so, his decision could include questions like, “Should I look for a job closer to his home?” or “Should I search for a job that pays more, so I could buy a car without straining my finances?” The way we define a problem and the options available to solve it determines the quality of the decision-making process and the final outcome.
What is the objective or goal? Answering the question, “What do I really want?” provides a basis for evaluating all possible choices. To clarify objectives, it may be useful to compose a “wish list,” identify the worst and best possible outcomes, or think about how the decision will impact others. For example, Marissa may have several important objectives in mind as she tries to decide which college to attend: learn a subject area deeply, be intellectually challenged, have opportunities to participate in a variety of clubs, make lasting friendships, and be prepared for future pursuits. Her decision might become clearer if she lists her objectives in order of importance, and then thinks about the likelihood of achieving those objectives at the various colleges she is considering.
What are the alternative choices? The quality of a decision depends on the thoroughness with which options are evaluated during the decision-making process. Poor and/or limited alternatives inevitably lead to a poor final choice. To generate a useful list of alternatives, consider all possibilities, and eliminate any that will not help to meet the objectives. It is important to challenge limitations that could influence the decision. For example, Carlos may think that the high tuition at one college, which is an ideal match for him otherwise, means he should decide not to apply there. However, he may be able to overcome the cost issue by learning more about financial aid packages available at that school. Every feasible alternative should be evaluated in terms of how well it supports the objective(s).
Are there any tradeoffs? Many complex decisions involve compromise and require us to choose from several less-than-perfect alternatives. Monica’s intent to finish college with high enough grades to apply to dental school might compete with her desire for an active social life. In that case, her decision will involve choosing from several less-than-perfect alternatives. If dentistry is a strong career goal, Monica may have to choose to limit her social activities to a couple evenings per week. Setting priorities ahead of time can help to objectively identify and balance tradeoffs during the decision-making process.
How much risk is acceptable? Many choices involve risk or uncertainty. Because everyone has a different tolerance for risk, the “right” decision for one person may not be best for another. Each individual must reach a decision that balances his or her objectives with a level of risk that is acceptable to him or her. Josh would like to work closer to home. But the decision about quitting his current position to begin a job hunt in a different location depends on his ability to tolerate the risk of being unemployed for weeks or months.
1 Society for Neuroscience. Brain Facts: Decision-Making (http://www.brainfacts.org/sensing-thinking-behaving/awareness-and-attention/articles/2009/decision-making/).
2 American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology. The Teen Brain: Behavior, Problem Solving, and Decision Making (http://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/Facts_for_Families_Pages/The_Teen_Brain_Behavior_Problem_Solving_and_Decision_Making_95.aspx).
Objectives and Standards
Materials and Setup
Teacher Materials (See Setup)
Download (for projection) the following PowerPoint® slides
Materials per Group of Students
Copies of "Decision-making Scenario Example: Stephanie" page
Copies of one of the six decision-making scenario pages (All members of each team should receive a copy of the same scenario; each team should receive a different scenario.)
Students should work in teams of two to four.
Procedure and Extensions
Remind students that during the lesson, "Decisions and Risk," they examined a simple question: Should I consume a given soft drink? Ask, Did you change your mind about consuming the soft drink after learning its sugar content? Did you think differently about your diet and exercise habits after learning about lifetime risks of heart disease?
Ask, What part of the body made these decisions for you? [brain] Show students the slide, Brain Areas Used in Decision-making. If students are not familiar with regions of the brain, briefly describe the roles of the frontal lobes (the “thinking” part) and amygdala (the “emotional” part). Ask, by a show of hands, Have you ever made a decision based on anger or short-term happiness, when you should have considered other information? Follow by asking, On the other hand, did you ever make a decision based on facts, when you should have factored in your feelings?
Tell students that they can learn techniques for making better decisions. Remind them that most important decisions are complex, require rational and emotional considerations, and involve trade-offs between benefits and risks of less desirable outcomes. Ask students, by show of hands, Have you ever have made a decision that did not produce the outcome you expected or wanted?
Project the Decision-making Example: Stephanie slide on the board, or provide a copy to each student. Have the students take turns reading portions of the text. Without further instructions, have the students work in groups of two to four to decide on a course of action for Stephanie. Have each group report its decision and provide a rationale for that choice.
Ask students, Was it hard to figure out the best decision for Stephanie? Did you follow a process for selecting the best course of action? Allow groups time to describe the procedures they followed to reach a decision.
Ask the class, Would it help to have more guidance when making difficult decisions? Project the following decision-making questions (available as a PowerPoint® slide accompanying this lesson) on the board, and briefly discuss each one.
What is the real problem or decision to be made? The way we define a problem and the options available to solve it determines the final outcome.
What is the objective or goal? Answering the question, “What do I really want?” provides a basis for evaluating all possible choices.
What are the alternative choices? The quality of a decision depends on the thoroughness with which options are evaluated during the decision-making process.
Are there any tradeoffs? Many complex decisions involve compromise and require us to choose from several less-than-perfect alternatives.
How much risk is acceptable? Many choices involve uncertainty, and everyone has a different tolerance for risk. It is important to find a solution with an acceptable amount of risk.
Ask students for possible answers to each question above, using the Decision-making Scenario Example: Stephanie. Then have the class use their answers to make a decision for Stephanie. Ask, Did everyone reach the same decision for Stephanie as your team did previously? Why or why not?
Give each team copies of a different decision-making scenario page. Instruct teams to read their scenarios, discuss possible answers to the questions above, and choose the best answer for each. Instruct each group to use its answers to make a decision for its character.
Lead a class discussion in which groups explain the situations faced by their characters, their answers to each decision-making question, and their final decisions regarding the best course of action. Allow time for discussion after each presentation.
Have teams exchange scenarios, so that each is working with a new character. Describe the T-chart approach to decision-making. Project a slide that shows the template for using a T-chart for decision-making.
Have each group create a T-chart and identify a goal and a question that defines the decision facing its character. Teams should show the pros and cons of one possible course of action. (If several alternatives are possible, students may want to create more than one T-chart to evaluate all of the advantages and disadvantages.) Finally, teams should decide on the best course of action for their characters.
Discuss the T-charts as a class, and lead a class discussion in which groups explain the situations faced by their characters, their answers to each decision-making question, their experience with T-charts, and their final decisions regarding the best course of action. Allow time for discussion after each presentation.
Extensions or Homework
Some of our important decisions relate to health and medical treatments. Unfortunately, many people do not have enough information to make informed decisions about wellbeing and medications for themselves or family members. In class, show your students the video about how to ask questions of your doctor, (http://www.ahrq.gov/patients-consumers/patient-involvement/ask-your-doctor/videos/waitroom/index.html), and discuss ways in which the decision-making techniques in this lesson could be applied to a healthcare situation.
For more neuroscience information and lessons, visit the Learning Brain section on BioEd Online (http://www.bioedonline.org).
Handouts and Downloads
Students learn about evidence-based decision-making as they act as health care providers working to solve three patient cases, one of which may be a heart attack. (7 activities)
Students explore the cardiovascular system, build a model of coronary artery disease, create a poster of a heart attack, and learn about signs and symptoms of a heart attack. (3 activities)
AHRQ's Ischemic Heart Disease Products Translated for High School Populations
Grant Number: 1R18HS019248