2.7 Decision-Making

Decision-making is central to many (but not all) conflict resolution processes. It is unlikely that we would be able to move forward in a negotiation if we didn’t make decisions as to what to do next after engaging in problem-solving, either in collaboration with the other party or unilaterally. Before we consider decision-making from a cognitive psychology perspective, let’s have a quick look at how the process of decision-making is typically viewed in conflict management.

Literature in the field frequently discusses the question of how decisions are reached in groups (Condliffe, 2016). We will not consider decision-making at the group level in this chapter but will focus on individual decision-making. In the past, decision-making in conflict resolution processes, in particular in the context of negotiations, has been predominantly viewed through the lens of economics and microeconomics, with a focus on game theory and rational choice (or rational decision-making) theory (Avruch, 2006; Sally & Todd Jones, 2006). As Avruch (2006) notes: “Almost every formal academic treatment of negotiation, and quite a few informal ones as well, reveals its basis in the larger theory of rational choice (or rational decision-making) …” (p. 81).

Both game theory and rational choice theory aim to predict how individuals make decisions. Game theory provides a mathematical framework for analysing interdependent interactions of individuals in scenarios where the individuals are trying to reach a particular goal (Sally & Todd Jones, 2006). Rational choice theory forms part of game theory and assumes that people are rational agents who are clearly aware of their goals and preferences, have access to all relevant (and reliable) information about various options, can rationally prioritise their preferences and negotiate the best solutions for their problems. One major (and growing) point of critique of using rational choice to explain decision-making in conflict resolution processes is that decision-making is not a purely “rational” endeavour (if rationality is viewed as thinking without feeling) (Avruch, 2006). As we have previously noted, a growing body of literature, including neuroscience literature, has clearly rejected the idea that cognition and emotions are separate processes and that we rely on emotions and cognitions at the same time when making decisions (we will look at this point in more detail in the next chapter) (Feldman Barrett, 2017a; Feldman Barrett, 2020; Lempert & Phelps, 2016). While conflict resolution literature has discussed the role of emotions in conflict resolution processes for decades, the realisation that emotions are interlinked with cognition and integral to decision-making in conflict resolution processes appears to have gained momentum only in more recent times.

Let’s now consider decision-making from a cognitive psychology perspective. Decision-making brings all other cognitive processes together since it involves perception, attention, information processing, working memory, problem-solving, etc. Furthermore, decision-making involves reasoning and making judgements and looking at these processes in more detail can help us to better understand how we make decisions.

Heuristics and Biases

We will now consider some mental phenomena that affect how we engage in reasoning and how we make judgements, and that can lead to decision-making errors. We will focus on those phenomena that are likely to be concerned with conflict resolution processes, including various heuristics and biases. As you will notice in the text below and some of the readings, there is a lot of talk about “heuristics” and it’s worth clarifying the term before we move on to considering specific heuristics in the context of decision-making.

Overall, cognitive heuristics can be described as:

  • information-processing guidelines that enable us to think in ways that are quick and easy but that often lead to error (Kassin et al., 2020)
  • mental shortcuts that people apply when they use past experiences to guide present or future behaviour (Goldstein, 2019)
  • a “rule of thumb”.

You may have noticed that heuristics reflect “top-down processing” discussed earlier in this chapter. Please watch the following video as an introduction to heuristics and other psychological effects that can impact our decision-making:

The psychology behind irrational decisions – Sara Garofalo [4:39]:

Let’s now look in more detail at the various heuristics and biases that influence and potentially skew our decisions. Some of them were discussed in the video you have just viewed.

For further information about some of these heuristics and biases see Goldstein (2019, p. 403).


If you want to learn about these potential sources of errors in judgement in more detail you may wish you read Chapter 13 in Bruce Goldstein (2019). We will revisit some of these topics in Chapter 5 when we consider social perceptions in more detail.

Now let’s consider what all these heuristics, biases and effects may mean for conflict management. For example, “anchoring” (above noted as the anchoring-and-adjustment heuristic) is discussed as a negotiation tactic in many textbooks on negotiation (Alexander et al., 2015; Fells, 2016).  A first offer made by one negotiating party constitutes the first “anchor” in the negotiations, and research has shown that this initial anchoring can have an advantage for the party making the offer (Fells, 2016). Therefore, whoever makes the first offer may have this anchoring advantage. Even judges may be influenced by the anchoring effect (Kassin et al., 2020). Research has found that if exposed to a high anchor point (e.g., a sentence of three years instead of one year), judges tended to assign harsher sentences (Kassin et al., 2020).

For further consideration of how the above-noted heuristics, biases and other effects may apply to conflict resolution processes, please read the following reading now:

Key Reading

Korobkin, R., & Guthrie, C. (2006). Heuristics and biases at the bargaining table. In A. Kupfer Schneider & C. Honeyman (Eds.), The negotiator’s fieldbook (pp. 351-360). American Bar Association.

The reading focuses on negotiations and looks at:

• anchoring and adjustment
• availability
• framing
• contrast effect
• status quo bias.

In another reading of interest, Avruch (2006) discusses the applicability and value of rational choice theory, as well as its limitations in the context of social conflicts that have been caused by factors different from the typical “negotiable interests”, including values and needs. He explores these limitations by considering cognitive psychology, with a focus on the classical “buyer-seller” heuristic that has guided much of the understanding of bargaining in negotiation in the past. If you are interested, please have a look at this reading to explore the value and limitations of some cognitive processes for more complex conflict scenarios.


Avruch, K. (2006). The poverty of buyer and seller. In A. Kupfer Schneider & C. Honeyman (Eds.), The negotiator’s fieldbook (pp. 81-86). American Bar Association.

Decision-Making as Choosing Among Alternatives

Some of the heuristics and biases discussed above apply to the processes during which people judge what reasons are most likely to have caused a problem. However, decision-making may also involve judgment about which course of action to choose between several options. As an example from conflict resolution, let’s consider the choice between different conflict resolution strategies, including contending, yielding, avoiding and problem-solving (sometimes called collaborating), considered as part of Pruitt and Kim’s (2004) Dual Concern model. While Pruitt and Kim (2004) have developed their own theory of why an individual may choose one strategy over the others (including concern for self and other, perceived feasibility, blame direction and culture), cognitive psychology can give us some further insights as to why people may choose one option amongst several alternatives.

One approach considered in cognitive psychology is the utility approach to decisions. The “expected utility theory” is regarded as a theory of rational choice, which we noted earlier as having substantive implications for explaining decision-making in conflict resolution processes. Like rational choice theory, the utility approach is based on the idea that people make decisions rationally, assuming that if people have access to all relevant information (and this is frequently not the case when it comes to making decisions in conflict), they will decide on the option that results in the maximum expected utility (Goldstein, 2019). The term utility here refers to the outcomes that achieve a person’s goal. As for rational choice theory overall, one major weakness of the utility approach is its assumption of decision-making as a purely rational act, neglecting the effect of emotions on decision-making.

Besides an evaluation of the expected utility of an action, decisions may also depend on:

  • The context within which they are made.
  • How choices are presented (think for example of opt-in procedures versus opt-out procedures).

The idea that how a choice is presented impacts an individual’s cognitive processes is important for conflict resolution. One term that is frequently associated with the presentation of choices both in conflict resolution and cognitive psychology is “framing”. We briefly discussed the “framing effect” in the table above.  Just to recap, this effect refers to how an individual’s decisions are influenced by the way information is presented. According to the framing effect, equivalent information can be more or less attractive, depending on the highlighted features.

As a practical example of the framing effect, consider the following hypothetical:

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman explored how different phrasing affected participants’ responses to a choice in a hypothetical life-and-death situation in 1981.

Participants were asked to choose between two treatments for 600 people affected by a deadly disease. Treatment A was predicted to result in 400 deaths, whereas treatment B had a 33% chance that no one would die but a 66% chance that everyone would die. This choice was then presented to participants either with positive framing, i.e. how many people would live, or with negative framing, i.e. how many people would die.

Framing Treatment A Treatment B
Positive “Saves 200 lives” “A 33% chance of saving all 600 people, 66% possibility of saving no one.”
Negative “400 people will die” “A 33% chance that no people will die, 66% probability that all 600 will die.”

Treatment A was chosen by 72% of participants when it was presented with positive framing (“saves 200 lives”) dropping to 22% when the same choice was presented with negative framing (“400 people will die”).

The researchers concluded that people’s decisions are influenced by the way that choices are stated or framed: when a choice is framed in terms of gains, people use a risk aversion strategy, and when a problem is framed in terms of losses, people use a risk-taking strategy (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981).

The impact of framing has profound implications for conflict management. Firstly, understanding conflict parties’ frames, or how they have framed specific issues, can help to get a clearer picture of the causes or drivers of conflict (Campbell & Docherty, 2006). Secondly, conflict framing influences parties’ conflict resolution behaviours, strategizing, their choice of negotiation tactics, and, as we have seen above, their judgments and decisions (Campbell & Docherty, 2006).

To explore the role of frames and framing in conflict management further, please now read:

Key Readings

Campbell, C. M., & Docherty, S. J. (2006). What’s in a frame? In A. Kupfer Schneider & C. Honeyman (Eds.), The negotiator’s fieldbook: The desk reference for the experienced negotiator (pp. 37-46). American Bar Association.

Guthrie, C. (2004). Insights from cognitive psychology. Journal of Legal Education, 54(1). https://scholarship.law.vanderbilt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1748&context=faculty-publications

 Reflection Activity

At this point in the chapter, you might want to spend 10 minutes considering how the various insights from the cognitive dimension of decision-making discussed above may relate to conflict resolution. This topic is extensive so there is quite a bit to reflect on. You might want to consider the various heuristics and biases that may affect people when making decisions in conflict. You may also want to note some key learnings from the readings of this chapter, including the one by Korobkin & Guthrie (2006) and/or Caton Campbell & Docherty (2006).


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Neuroscience, Psychology and Conflict Management Copyright © 2024 by Judith Rafferty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.