How You Decide: The Science of Human Decision Making

Course No. 9560
Professor Ryan Hamilton,
Emory University, Goizueta Business School
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21 Reviews
85% of reviewers would recommend this product
Course No. 9560
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Understand how habits form and are activated, and how best to change them when we want to.
  • numbers Learn how to make better decisions by understanding appropriate reference points, sensitivity to changes in value, and the super-sensitivity we all experience when it comes to potential loss.
  • numbers Explore why and how our goals motivate us, which goals inspire our greatest effort, and how best to motivate others to help them meet their own goals.
  • numbers Discover how using reference points, reasons, resources, and replacement can improve your own decision making.

Course Overview

Have you ever wondered why your neighbors painted their front door lime green? Or wished you could watch TV without reaching for those snacks over and over again? Have you ever walked up and down the toy aisles to find a birthday present and left without buying anything, just to stop at the convenience store on the way home and buy the only toy on the shelf?

Those three activities—choosing a paint color, changing a habit, and purchasing a gift—might seem unrelated at first glance. But all are examples of the fascinating process of human decision making. Thousands of times each day, even tens of thousands by some estimates, we are presented with choices that require a decision. From the mundane to the life-changing, our brains are constantly working to solve these decision puzzles.

How in the world do we do it?

Over millennia, philosophers, theologians, and mathematicians have all weighed in on the topic, and in recent centuries, economists, psychologists, and sociologists have joined the investigation. People have always been fascinated by how the mind works. We also have a desire to learn from our mistakes, but in order to do so, it’s important to understand how we came to the decision that led to those mistakes.

From the Trojans’ acceptance of that big wooden horse, to the factors that help us decide whom to trust and whom to disbelieve, to the food you are likely to purchase in the market tomorrow—someone somewhere has put forth a theory to explain the decision. Some of these past theories could most politely be described as “aspirational,” describing decision making as it should be, not as it often is. Others have caught on in the minds of the general public and even been published in the popular press, only to be later disproven. But the information presented in this course is different.

In How You Decide: The Science of Human Decision Making, Professor Ryan Hamilton, Associate Professor of Marketing at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, uses research revealed via the scientific method to understand and explain human decision making. While his easygoing manner and anecdotes about surprising and bizarre choices will keep you enthralled, Professor Hamilton also shares what decision science has revealed through empirically tested theories that make falsifiable predictions and lead to testable hypotheses.

Using the manufacturing process as a metaphor to present those truths, Professor Hamilton describes in 24 in-depth lectures:

  • the informational raw materials you use as inputs to the decision-making process
  • how your cognitive machinery prepares and assembles those raw materials into a decision
  • the motivational control mechanisms that govern and tweak your cognitive machinery to produce a decision.


Dr. Hamilton’s boundless sense of wonder and enthusiasm for the subject of human decision making, solid foundation in the scientific method, and pervasive sense of humor are apparent in every lecture. While most of us believe we make decisions by examining our options rationally and reaching a logical conclusion, Dr. Hamilton, a consumer psychologist, shares a much more interesting reality of fascinating experiments, often irrational choices, and sometimes counterintuitive results.

Based on the outcomes of his own published experiments and those of his colleagues, Dr. Hamilton presents information that allows you to better understand the choices you face every day, the tools you can use to make the best decisions for your personal goals, and how to most effectively influence the decisions of others. Whether your goal is to improve your personal life or to apply decision science to your business, you’ll find the up-to-date research results and practical advice you need in this course.

The Rut of Routines: Everyday Scenarios

Everyone has routines that are established over weeks, months, or even years. These routines become such a part of your life that they can obscure the fact that you’re actually making choices throughout the routine. For example, you go to the store to buy a bag of your favorite coffee. You’ve been drinking this coffee for so many years that you don’t even consider the purchase a “decision.” But when you arrive, you find that the store manager has rearranged the shelves and added five new brands plus six new flavors of your favorite brand. You pick up each new bag, read the label, and sniff the aroma. But you just can’t seem to decide what to buy. What’s happening here?

In this course, you’ll learn:

  • how the number and placement of choices affect your decisions and can even keep you from making any decision at all
  • how the memory of a song or a joke can cause you to make specific choices months or years later
  • whether or not subliminal messages can cause you to make decisions against your will
  • how the blood flow in your brain can be altered by advertising without any conscious thought on your part
  • how heuristics, while often helpful, can sometimes lead to stereotyping and other poor decisions.


You’ll also discover how you can affect your cognitive machinery and the decisions of others. For example, say that for years, you paid your children to do chores around the house. Over time, you watched them learn to make their beds, do their own laundry, mow the yard, and even do the dusting. But when you visited them in their first apartments, you were shocked to see that they were filthy. How could they possibly have made a decision like that? What went “wrong?” You’ll investigate:

  • the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation
  • how reason-based decision making that seems rational can lead us astray
  • the power of partitioning to affect your own decisions and others’
  • how to most effectively break a bad habit or establish a good one
  • why the commonly used list of pros and cons can actually be a poor decision tool.


What Tools Can We Use to Make the Best Possible Decisions?

Whether you need to buy a car, sell your business, relocate, find a new job, choose a caregiver for your parents, or decide the design and price of a raffle ticket, you always want to make the best possible decision for the occasion. In this practical course, you’ll delve into useful topics such as:

  • the importance of reference points and how they are interpreted (and misinterpreted) by your cognitive machinery
  • how the halo effect influences your decisions for better and for worse
  • why we often choose irrelevant reasons to justify our decisions
  • how intuitive processing and heuristics come into play when our cognitive resources are a mismatch for the decision at hand
  • why we use the tool of replacement in decision making and how it can lead us astray
  • how to “stack the deck” to influence the decision making of another person.


Throughout this course, Dr. Hamilton emphasizes the complex nature of human beings and the many environmental, physical, and emotional aspects of life that can impact any specific decision at any given moment. But while he cautions you to have realistic expectations in the prediction of human behavior, he also gives you the scientifically based tools you need to improve your personal and business decisions.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Thinking Scientifically about Decisions
    Have you ever wondered why people make the decisions they do? Using the metaphor of manufacturing, learn what science has revealed about human decision making: informational raw materials go in, the cognitive machinery processes, control mechanisms guide the machinery, and a decision is made. x
  • 2
    The Two-System Model of Decision Making
    What's going on in your cognitive machinery as you manufacture your decision? Delve into the two-system model of decision making: System 1 is your automatic and intuitive processor, your earlier system from an evolutionary perspective; and System 2 is the flexible, powerful serial processor that you think of as you. x
  • 3
    The Role of Heuristics in Decisions
    Heuristics are the decision shortcuts that people use every day. While too imprecise to lead to optimal decisions, they are powerful tools that allow you to make appropriate decisions fairly easily. However, if you don't understand the limitations of heuristics, they can easily lead you astray from the truth into stereotyping and assumptions. x
  • 4
    How Habits Make Decisions Easier
    Habits are our immediate automatic responses-good and bad-to situations when we don't take the time to manufacture a purposeful decision. Decision science gives us the psychological framework within which to understand how habits form and are activated, and how best to change them when we want to. x
  • 5
    Self-Regulation and Choice
    Have you ever felt that your mind was so overworked you just could not make one more decision? Learn about the "cognitive fuel" needed for System 2 to rein in the automatic responses of System 1, and figure out how to recognize when you really are too resource-depleted to make your best decisions. x
  • 6
    The Value Curve and Human Decisions
    Prospect Theory reveals the ways in which our decision-making machinery values an item and why. Learn how to make better decisions by understanding appropriate reference points, sensitivity to changes in value, and the super-sensitivity we all experience when it comes to potential loss. x
  • 7
    Emotional Influences on Decision Making
    Have you ever driven a bit recklessly when you felt angry or frustrated? If so, you know that emotions affect our decisions. Recently, scientists have discovered that our emotions play an even larger role than previously thought; in fact, they are an integral and necessary part of our cognitive machinery. x
  • 8
    How Goals Guide Our Decisions
    Can you influence the cognitive machinery that manufactures your decisions? Absolutely. Learn why and how our goals motivate us, which goals inspire our greatest effort, and how best to motivate others to help them meet their own goals-whether it's your sales team at work or your children at home. x
  • 9
    Reason-Based Choice
    Even when manufacturing the seemingly simplest of decisions, our control panel can steer us in the wrong direction. Learn why our cognitive machinery often over-weights attributes, considers information that really has no bearing on the decision at hand, and sometimes makes short-term evaluations that won't serve us well later. x
  • 10
    Mental Accounting as a Factor in Decisions
    Mental accounting is a powerful decision-making tool we can employ to improve our lives. Learn how the process of partitioning objects and experiences in purposeful ways-everything from money and food to debt and social obligations-can increase happiness, decrease pain, and lead to better physical and emotional health. x
  • 11
    The Role of Mindsets in Decision Making
    We don't make decisions in a vacuum. Before we even have the opportunity to decide our next action, before a stimulus even comes our way, we are mentally prepared to receive it. Our mindset, that stage of mental preparation, significantly affects how we perceive and process information and the decisions that result. x
  • 12
    How Consistency Drives Decisions
    Learn how the strong desire for consistency-between beliefs and actions, and between current and past actions-drives both our decision making and our judgment of others' actions. But what happens when our own actions are not consistent with our stated beliefs? Decision science reveals that we tend to make a surprising accommodation. x
  • 13
    Social Influences on Decision Making
    Our relationships with others and broader societal pressures influence our decision making, whether or not we're aware of it. Learn how we look to others for guidance in the most subtle of ways, and consider the many decisions we make to try to mimic or please those whom we perceive to be powerful. x
  • 14
    Nonconscious Influences on Decision Making
    Can subliminal messages cause us to make decisions almost against our will? Although a major hoax perpetrated on a panicked public caused us to believe just that for a while, science has demonstrated that we have more control than that-but there is still reason to be wary. Learn about the scientifically proven ways in which we are subtly influenced by subliminal messages and environmental cues. x
  • 15
    An Evolutionary View of Decision Making
    You might never have thought to blame a bad decision on your ancestors' development millennia ago, but there just might be reason to. Learn about the often surprising and unexpected ways in which evolutionary drives-hidden beneath the surface of our control panel-guide our decision processes even today, for better or for worse. x
  • 16
    Regulatory Focus and Human Motivation
    For centuries, decision-making motivation was seen in the context of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. But recent scientific research reveals a more complex framework. Regulatory Focus theory shows that we operate from four motivational states, not two, and it reveals a richer and more accurate framework for understanding our decisions. x
  • 17
    Decision Rules
    How much information do you collect before making a decision? How much is optimal? Do you focus on the pertinent data or let extraneous information affect your choices? Discover the decision rules we use every day, and learn about the many fascinating real-world ways in which we evaluate and compare choices. x
  • 18
    How Context Influences Choice
    Uncover the many unexpected ways in which information context affects our decisions. What happens when our mind acts like a big shovel, scooping up all the data in its path and processing that information together, whether relevant or not? Scientific studies reveal how the choice context can lead to some surprising decisions. x
  • 19
    How Framing Effects Guide Decisions
    Even as children, we learned that the way in which we presented a choice to our parents was often as important as the specific question we asked. Decision science reveals just how that tool-decision framing-can be used to our benefit, and how it is used to manipulate our choices as consumers. x
  • 20
    The Role of Memory in Decisions
    In addition to the new information your brain is constantly acquiring, you use memory in your decision-making process. In fact, the quality of any decision often depends on accessing the appropriate memories at the appropriate time. Learn how some surprising tools can help you recall those memories more effectively. x
  • 21
    Assortments, Variety, and Choice
    Although consumers almost always say they want more options, research shows that when faced with too many choices, consumers are sometimes unable to make any decision at all. Decision science reveals the best tools to use to narrow your choices when deciding on everything from a movie to a soul mate. x
  • 22
    How Evaluability Affects Decisions
    Research shows that when evaluating options, we tend to place more importance on attributes we understand and less importance on those we don't-without considering relevance to the decision at hand. Learn how to better evaluate the choices in front of you and to avoid as many poor-decision pitfalls as possible. x
  • 23
    Halo Effects and Choice
    Can a marketing campaign affect how a food tastes? Even though you know the ad hasn't changed the food itself, medical imaging reveals that your brain reacts as if it did! Learn about the fascinating ways in which this halo effect can hinder or help the accuracy of your decision making. x
  • 24
    The Four Rs of Decision Making
    Scientists don't anticipate developing one unified theory to model decision making; human beings are just too complex. But you can improve your own decision making-as well as your ability to understand and influence the decisions of others-with these powerful empirical generalizations: reference points, reasons, resources, and replacement. x

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Your professor

Ryan Hamilton

About Your Professor

Ryan Hamilton
Emory University, Goizueta Business School
Professor Ryan Hamilton is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Emory University's Goizueta Business School, where he has taught since 2008. He received his Ph.D. in Marketing from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. In 2013, he was recognized by the Marketing Science Institute as one of the most productive young scholars in his field. Professor Hamilton also has received multiple teaching...
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How You Decide: The Science of Human Decision Making is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 21.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Now I know why This course gives great insight into the "how" and "why" of our decisions, with excellent examples from the research literature. The scientific principles are described in an easily understood manner, and Dr. Hamilton style of lecturing is relaxed and approachable
Date published: 2017-12-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Mechanistic perspectives on choosing among options This course explicitly uses a mechanistic framework to look at how and why we choose A rather than B or C when presented with options. In my mind, "decision making" is much larger than this. It includes things we deliberately do that don't seem to be the outcome of looking at various options, such as deciding to get married after knowing someone for only two weeks, deciding to focus all of our spare energy on marathon running or deciding to drive 200 miles today to save some lives of people caught in a flood in Houston. The course doesn't illuminate those kinds of decisions at all. With that said, the course held my interest and I found the last quarter of it especially interesting. Amazing how easily all of us get manipulated! The professor is engaging, precise and understandable in every sense of the word.
Date published: 2017-08-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Intro to Behavioral Decision-Making Here’s a good exploration of something we do throughout the waking day – making choices. The course seemed lively, relevant, well-supported, and coherent. The author covers decision-making as a complicated behavior, rather than an abstraction or a neurological brain activity. He doesn’t seem to decide whether “free choice” exists, but does show choices are heavily conditioned by our social environment, habits, mood states, etc. The course is mainly Explanatory – how choices are made – rather than Prescriptive – how to make better choices (although understanding how we choose should help us choose better). The author also helps recognize the subtle tricks of advertising, social media, self-justification, or propaganda. He focuses on social economics so if you seek to understand choice as a philosophical or character-based endeavor, it may not be as appealing. The author generally supports his conclusions with science-based research and interesting anecdotes, although some areas (such as ego-depletion) are more controversial than the course states. I also thought the course helped navigate current issues about matters of choice; for example, I better understand how socially-oriented media can influence our choices in undemocratic or deceptive ways, and I now have more support for objective and intelligently-inputted algorithms to help decide certain selected problems. Shortcomings? Although the behavioral framework provides a useful foundation, we are perhaps more than the simple rigid sum of our behaviors or tendencies, and other approaches to Decision-Making might suggest a more skillful direction to help us achieve more happiness and less suffering than simply explaining our behavioral complexity (I’ve found works by Ariely, Ekman, Stockdale, DeSteno, and Wakin useful for these issues). This is just a matter of emphasis, and diverse approaches perhaps work best in combination. Anyway, it’s a good introduction to a facet of our decision-making processes.
Date published: 2017-07-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding course and professor!! Thoroughly enjoyed the course and Professor Hamilton!! Course information is very relevant to both daily decisions and business. The Professor is a pleasure to listen to; it is obvious he is an expert in the field and has a humorous and intellectual persona. personally enjoyed the section on evolutionary impact of decision making; chapter on Cialdini's writings, and the final lesson where he sums up course and gives 4R's! Well worth investment of time and money!!! I would definitely purchase offerings by this professor!! Also, I did video although audio version would also be excellent. I have purchased over 200 courses.
Date published: 2017-07-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very clear and a nice complement to Behavioral Eco I found these lectures to be especially clear and engaging. this was a nice complement to Behavioral Economics: When Psychology and Economics Collide
Date published: 2017-06-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Psychology and Marketing of Life I bought this course as it sounded interesting as a "light" TGC offering that would add into the "over dinner" learning mix without being too information intense. While this course is not the most "heavy" course that I have taken from TGC, it nevertheless gave a lot to think about. It reminded me of some of the experimental psychology courses that I took in undergrad that organized information about experiments and decision making. This course built on that type of course with lectures that made a connection to every day life. For example, there is one lecture that describes how participants are given various incentives to participate in studies, and how some are more effective than other in eliciting participation. As a coincidence, I was approached to be in a study while we were watching this course, and I could recognize some of the tactics and incentives that I was exposed to first hand. Another lecture beautifully captured that in essence, how you are raised as a child and what type of feedback you receive affects the way that you approach decisions and how others approach decisions. Perhaps not a revelation, but the way in which the information was approached was fascinating. Overall, the course is a primer for how companies market to individuals and how you interact with the world and others. The professor had an easy, approachable style. Although I bought this course as a video course, there really isn't anything that is added to by watching this as opposed to listening to it - I'd readily recommend as an audio course.
Date published: 2017-05-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A must course for life Extremely relevant to all aspects of life. Even though I am a psychiatrist with 25 years experience, I found the material and organization extremely stimulating and clinically and personally helpful. The presenter offers numerous overlapping descriptions of research studies that lend support to present theory. This course will make a great gift form my colleagues and family members.
Date published: 2017-04-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course for the interested lay person I anticipated enjoying these lectures during my morning commute and happily report that I look forward each afternoon to continuing them. The presentation is clear, organised, enthusiastic, and witty. The material is relevant and applicable to life.
Date published: 2017-04-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting but had much more potential. Some of the classes in this course were very interesting and had several AHA moments for me. However, Several other classes were boring and too detailed. Also there was too much emphasis on experiments which some i found not interesting. I wish he expanded more on the topic of habit and system 1 vs. System 2 brain. If the instructor reads this, i hope he dedicated a WHOLE course on the topic of habits, and try to answer the BIG question of HOW system 2 can train system 1 ?!? Thanks.
Date published: 2016-11-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Lots of interesting study examples The presenter is easy to watch, but not captivating like some. The lessons are interesting, but again, leave you feeling there is more. I watch several lessons at a time and always find some of the examples thought provoking. Worth watching.
Date published: 2016-10-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Insightful I have over an hour drive each day commuting to and from work. Great Courses keeps me thinking and alert. I am constantly learning insights that help me in my daily life. How You Decide: The Science of Human Decision Making is one of the better courses I have listened to from The Great Courses. The information is insightful and has helped me to understand how I and others make decisions and has lead me to now make better decisions.
Date published: 2016-10-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absolutely fascinating This is yet another course by TGC dedicated to how we make decisions. I have heard two others dedicated exclusively to this subject: one is “Behavioral Economics…” given by Professor Huettel, and “How ideas Spread” given by Professor Berger. Professor Taylor, in his course “Unexpected economics”, also dedicates a significant chunk of the course to individual decision making, and “Art of Critical decision making” (which I have not yet heard) seems to also be directed at the same subject. The question is: given the plethora of courses on the subject, is there anything new to learn in this course? Having heard most of the courses above, I think that the answer is arguably yes… The courses differ in their orientation: Behavioral economics is a broad survey of many studies that have been conducted in the field. The focus is on the many different aspects that affect our decision making process, with less time devoted to explaining any underlying theories on the subject. The research cited most by the professor seemed to originate most from economics, and Neurology. In “How ideas spread” Professor Berger is most interested in explaining what decision mechanisms are involved in how we spread ideas – the underlying mechanisms of Marketing; so it is focused on a relatively small subset of decision science. Finally, in Unexpected economics, the focus is on decision making when there is dynamics relating to a constrained resource. In the current course, the focus is somewhat different… First of all, the subject is the theory of decision-making in general – so the course is not focused on any subset of the phenomena of the field. The perspective is primarily psychological, and some of theories presented were new to me. This field, as professor Hamilton notes himself in one of the final lectures, is really not yet a coherent, elegant body of knowledge such as for example, the “Grand unified theory” in physics - which tries to integrate all known physical phenomena. Instead, it is really composed of a bunch of empirical observations and models about disparate phenomena all centered around decision making. The ongoing metaphor in the course as to current understanding of the field, is to an old-school analogue control module that operates a very complex machine (our cognitive thinking process), using different knobs – some interacting with each other, some turning yet not having any effect, while others having no labels to clarify their affect. In lecture two, Kahneman and Taberski’s psychological two system model is explained. I found this to be a very useful, quite integral model – capable of explaining many aspects of decision making. In this regard, however, lecture two was as good as it got. While other theories covered demonstrated very compellingly aspects of decision making; among others how we seek reasons for our decisions (some reasons being hilariously irrelevant), and how our perspective of ourselves as consistent beings affects our decisions, they all seemed to deal with tiny aspects and not to shed any general light on the subject. This is apparently no fault of Professor Hamilton’s; it is simply the state of the field - at least at present. Many of the research studies discussed in the course were discussed in at least one other course mentioned. The course most closely matching this one in scope and perspective, in my opinion, is “Behavioral Economics”. The delivery of the courses was strikingly different however… Professor Huettel’s delivery was quite dry and detailed, with tiny tidbits of dry humor thinly dispersed within. Professor Hamilton’s delivery was quite different: he talks much as a reasonable average person, analyzing quite in depth what a normal person would think in the circumstances described in the studies discussed. The presentation was very humorous and enjoyable, and the “average person” perspective was quite instrumental for understanding the different models. So were there new things to learn in this course relative to the previous ones? Yes… A lot? Certainly less than when hearing a first course on the subject, but there were certainly new perspectives and content that made the effort of listening to the course worthwhile. I find the subject absolutely fascinating, so it may be that I have a relatively high capacity for hearing such courses.
Date published: 2016-10-12
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