We all make multiple decisions everyday, whether we feel like it or not. Some decisions--what to wear, whether to have toast or muffins for breakfast--are trivial. But others--where and whether to go to graduate school, which postdoc to accept, whether to have kids, which mate to choose--have serious, long-term ramifications for us and for others. And a few decisions--made by corporate and government leaders, key policy makers, and regular people--affect many people profoundly, for better or worse. Almost all these decisions have something in common: At every level, from the trivial to the world-changing, we make decisions with incomplete information. What we know doesn't lead to an obvious right decision nor does it use a simple, rational process. Since we can't be sure what the right decision is, we just do the best we can. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we get it wrong.

Even many scientists don't realize that there's a large and growing field of study dedicated to decision-making--although it's probably more accurate to describe it as a set of related fields. The field can be divided, roughly, into two parts: studies of how to make good decisions, and studies of how real people make real decisions in the real world--which is a very different thing. Decision scientists may be mathematicians, statisticians, economists, philosophers, management theorists, or psychologists. Their work may be empirical or highly theoretical. They may seek to understand how decisions are (or should be) made--or they may apply that understanding to any of a wide range of real-world problems--in business, government, the environment, national defense, and so on.

The National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) has a program dedicated to decision, risk, and management sciences, which, as its Web site indicates, is "directed at increasing the understanding and effectiveness of decision making by individuals, groups, organizations, and society." The field encompasses "judgment and decision-making; decision analysis and decision aids; risk analysis, perception, and communication; societal and public policy decision-making; management science and organizational design," NSF says.

The 10,000-member Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) has members working for homeland security, transportation, health care, law enforcement, the military, and telecommunications. These people apply scientific methods to help improve decision-making, management, and operations for many different kinds of organizations, says Barry List, director of marketing and public relations at INFORMS. "By using techniques such as mathematical modeling to analyze complex situations, operations research provides the power to make more effective decisions and build more productive systems based on more complete data; consideration of all available options; careful predictions of outcomes and estimates of risk; and the latest decision tools and techniques."

More SBE on ScienceCareers

In recent months, ScienceCareers has broadened its coverage of opportunities in the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences. Here’s a handy guide of our SBE resources:

  • SBE scientists can find a list of ScienceCareers articles on the Social Sciences portal, unveiled earlier this month, complete with its own RSS feed.

  • A separate index page provides an annotated list of our recent stories on career opportunities and profiles of SBE researchers.

  • To find funding for SBE research, GrantsNet--ScienceCareers’ funding portal--has established separate discipline categories for SBE opportunities on its Faculty/Postdoc/Grad Student and Undergraduate search pages.

Risk analysis--which includes risk perception, assessment, management, and
communication--uses analytical tools to model risk and continues to grow in importance according to Kimberly Thompson, an associate professor of risk analysis and decision science at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and president-elect of the Society for Risk Analysis. "In today's world, everyone needs to have a basic understanding of risk and to develop the ability to put risk in perspective," she says. Currently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, Thompson finds that the tools transcend disciplines, but that their existence does not mean that they are always used (effectively) for real decisions.

But decision-making is almost never simple or completely rational. "People often, but not always, exhibit systematic biases in judgment and decision-making, which can lead to worse outcomes than could be achieved," says Jonathan Baron, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and president-elect of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making.

"This fact has implications for law, medicine, business, and everyday life," says Baron--which means there are academic career opportunities at business schools, particularly in marketing and management, as well as in schools of finance, economics, law, government, and medicine. In government, decision scientists play a role in many policy decisions. And in the corporate world, decision scientists of one kind or another can be found working for any company with complex problems to solve and enough money to pay them.

Whether the goal is to optimize real-world decisions or understand them, the career opportunities are vast. Our goal in this feature--ScienceCareers.org's first feature dedicated exclusively to the social and behavioral sciences--is to provide a glimpse of the vastness. The U.S. portion of this feature, by the way, was made possible by funding from the National Science Foundation, for which we express our gratitude.

Deciding on a Career in Decision Science
Carlos Trujillo and Natalia Karelaia both left corporate jobs in their native countries to travel to Spain to study aspects of decision-making. Elisabeth Pain talks to them about their choices.

Decision Analysis Meets Environmental Policy
Regulators, policy makers, and others often find themselves making decisions with potential long-term consequences for the planet. Such decisions often involve a baffling mix of cost, risk, benefit, and uncertainty. Sarah Webb interviews some of the field's thought leaders.

Funding for Decision Science Research: Negotiating the Maze
Decision science funding is divided, roughly, into programs for basic decision-making research and a wide range of programs focusing on specific applications. Alan Kotok profiles the usual--and some unusual--suspects.

The Value of Working Together
Why do individuals within a group choose to cooperate? Anne Forde talks to Bettina Rockenbach and Özgur Gürerk, two German economists who study the topic.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet.

See also Science magazine's special issue this week, Frontiers of Social Sciences: Life Cycles.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet and may be reached at rarnette@aaas.org