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Applying the Scientific Model to the Decision-Making Process

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Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

Scientific models help people understand abstract phenomena, such as the speed of light, that are challenging to observe. Learn how the scientific model can be applied to decision-making processes. Explore psychological models, and understand how decision-making using models can be both bad and good. Updated: 09/18/2021

Scientific Models

Many processes that science deals with are difficult to understand in their true, abstract form. That's why we sometimes use a scientific model, which is a simplification, substitute or representation of what is actually being studied. For instance, it is difficult to understand the movement of water as it expands, condenses and turns into vapor; however, the model of the water cycle is a simple image detailing the movement of water from clouds to rain to the ocean and back to clouds. This is much easier to understand.

Psychological research studies (and this is a short list) behaviors, emotions, thoughts, memories, decisions and more - all products of the human brain. But physically, do you know what we find in the brain? All that's in there are some neurons, some glia and a few other tissues. Where are the behaviors? Where are the emotions, thoughts, memories and decisions? It would be wonderful if you could crack someone's head open and find a physical memory, but sadly, the human brain doesn't work that way.

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  • 0:07 Scientific Models
  • 1:18 Psychological Models
  • 2:38 Bad Decision Making
  • 3:58 Good Decision Making
  • 5:41 Lesson Summary
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Psychological Models

Without a physical piece to work with, psychology must rely on models. This can be as abstract as a quantitative analysis involving 15,000 individuals across several continents or as personal as a case study involving a single person. Models of the human mind can be as broad as Freud's theory of the id, ego and superego or as specific as the mechanisms of converting working memory into long-term memory.

Psychological models can actually be anything and typically take the form of the most advanced piece of technology currently available. In Socrates' time, it was a chariot, with a brightly colored horse trying to lead you to good actions and a dark horse trying to lead you to bad decisions. In the days of behaviorism, the popular model was a switchboard, with stimuli popping into the communication jack and triggering a behavior. Can you guess what the model is today? If you guessed the computer, you're close. Today's model is actually the Internet.

The problem is when people forget that this is a model - the brain is not actually a computer or the Internet. Like a metaphor, models are just nicely packaged bits of information meant to help ease understanding; they are not literal descriptions of a process.

Bad Decision Making Using Models

So, how do models lead to bad decisions? If someone misinterprets the purpose of the model and thinks this is how a mind or brain works, then they will make decisions based on bad information. Decisions made on poor models are as dangerous as making decisions on poor information.

One place that psychologically based decisions are made that can rely on bad models is the courtroom. As an example, consider a case where a witness swears that they saw the accused standing over the victim in a specific green shirt. The witness then goes on to make a statement that is challenged by an attorney, and the jury is asked to forget all of his testimony.

What are the bad models being used here? For one, there are many laypeople who assume memory works like a video recorder, taking in all of the details exactly as they happen. This is not true; memory is extremely malleable and subject to error, so the witness may have convinced himself of what he saw even if he really didn't. What other bad model of memory did you catch? Judges can instruct a jury to forget something they have just heard. Yes, I know I just said memory is malleable, but tell me, can you forget something that you just heard? Not likely, and it will be a factor in the final verdict, whether the court likes it or not.

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