The Rational Decision Making Model

The Rational Decision Making Model

Understanding the Rational Decision-Making Model

When analyzing all the elements, factors and pressures of the decision-making process involving foreign relations, the most desired process to make the best plan of action, one hopes to follow the Rational Model. A decision maker who follows this decision-making model seeks to maximize benefits and minimize costs when analyzing all alternatives. When making a decision a rational decision maker follows this model: 1) State acts as a unitary actor 2) Elucidates goals 3) Determines policy alternatives 4) Analyzes the costs and benefits of alternatives 5) Selects action that produces best outcomes and least costly (Mingst, 2001). The actor, if attempting to make the ideal decision uses goal setting and ranking assessment of alternatives and ranks the options based on Holistic search patterns. A key aspect of the rational model is the maximizing outcome and not satisficing by accepting an alternative that is ‘good enough,’ opposed to the best alternative. An example of a decision maker that has followed this model as opposed to the cognitive or bureaucratic model would be President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missle Crisis. Although the analytical model is not always used in decision making as it takes more time to analyze and assess possible outcomes, costs, and benefits of alternative options.

Analyzing Alternative Selection Methods

     When a rational actor is following the ideal type model, he or she will utilize using a compensatory ranking system to find the most cost-efficient alternative. A compensatory ranking system uses a point by adding and subtracting certain outcome costs. This system allows a choice with a bad ranking in one area of the decision, to be erased by a higher ranking for the same option. Other models of decision making use a non-compensatory system, which does not allow a good ranking to make the bad outcome irrelevant. These decision makers that do not utilize the compensatory system are not necessarily acting as irrational; they may be using other models such as the cognitive school. The ranking system used in the rational process can have many factors putting pressure on the decision maker to pick a particular alternative. The Psychological element assumes that a policy makers emotions or audience costs cause them to choose a less than maximized choice.(Mars, p.64 2011) However, the rational approach can only taken if they do not influenced by outside pressures, pressures that cause them to analyze only certain alternative and information provided by a holistic and linear approach in their decision making. By following the guidelines set up by the rational model you are more than likely to arrive at a decision with the best profit maximization.

Profit Maximization

     The process to achieve profit maximization has individual elements that enable one to achieve the goal. Following specific search patterns, proper methods of assessment and who should be involved in the process. Following these certain processes along with having to avoid outside pressures such as biases, cognitive analysis shortcuts, and emotional influence. By following those critical elements of profit maximization, a maximized outcome to be obtained. To follow the ranking system, a decision maker can add the positive results (+1) and subtract (-1) for a negative element of the alternative. (Johnson, 2011).

Holistic Search Pattern

  To be able to select the most sensible alternative, the including of all information that provides and credible is essential, known as a holistic search pattern. If a decision maker were to neglect or frame information that did not agree with their desired outcome, the decision maker would be satisficing rather than maximizing. The best alternative maximizes the best outcome with the lowest costs; on the other hand satisficing arrives at a conclusion that is satisfactory or “good enough”.

The attractiveness of certain cognitive shortcuts as well as other none- rational procedures, allowing you to arrive at a less than an optimal alternative option. These shortcuts that actors follow in certain situations are framing or neglecting of credible and valuable information that do not agree with the decision makers desired outcome. Biases also cause a leader to diverge from the rational process by being effected by outside pressures such as emotion, or even ideologies based on familiarity to a situation. (Vinson, 21, 2015)


When attempting to pick the most logical alternative, following the model includes certain elements that a non-rational decision maker may not use properly, causing the actor to be affected by individual biases. Some of these items in the rational model that can create such biases such as groupthink and emotional biases would include the linear or multiple viewpoint groups as well as outside psychological pressures.

While attempting to make an unbiased decision, a rational actor may form advisory groups, consisting of high-ranking government officials or outside experts on the information. An example this would be during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy formed the group known as EXCOMM. EXCOMM, which was made up of the members of the National Security Council, aided the President to assess the potential outcomes or decision costs of an alternative. (Bode, 2013) However, when utilizing expert advisors, a decision made ideally made by a group of rational actors a decision maker may fall into the groupthink bias.

The firm influence of advisory groups creates the entrance for the bureaucratic model into the decision-making process. This model makes the influence of advisory groups essential to the decision process, to please a certain group of outside pressures.

Groupthink bias occurs when the decision maker forms these groups, the composition of that group is made up of people who the actor wants to be involved in the process, someone they trust. Since there is no democratic election to select a proven official to the group, the decision maker can select the advisor that they know will support the outcome they desire. The groupthink bias has other effects that enable the decision maker to distance or even remove the opposing advisor out of the decision-making process, causing other members of the group to help the leader achieve his desired alternative, knowing that if they oppose the alternative, they will be removed from the decision maker’s inner circle. (Reher, 84,2015)

Alternative Models to the Rational Model

Many types of models approach the analysis of a decision by accounting for a certain characteristic or procedures that are not analyzed by the rational model. The rational model focuses on the goal made and why it led the unpressured actor to that decision. Other models such as the bureaucratic model and cognitive approach, each account for an element of the decision, which created the structure, which led to the alternative to be selected.

A cognitive decision-making process seeks to analyze the shortcuts and the effects of those shortcuts on the outcome of the decision. This model looks at decision influences such as on- holistic search patterns, group-think, and advisory group biases.

The Psychological model attempts to identify emotional or personal characteristics of a decision maker that cause the analytical model to be incredibly difficult to follow. Psychological biases occur when the leader has been personally affected by the conflict that demands a response. Anger, sadness or even familiarity that a decision maker experiences during the process may cause them to use cognitive shortcuts to arrive at an alternative that is “good enough.” (Riaz, 2015). Unlike the psychological model of decision-making analysis, a rational approach uses a limited rationality approach. This characteristic of the rational model does not look to see what the structure of the decision process may have had an impact of the selected alternative. Instead, the rational process focuses on the goal that made by the decision maker that caused them to arrive at the best-ranked alternative.

An outside pressure that may cause individual biases in a decision-making process is the use of ideologies. Using a past situation that the leader believes to be very similar or the same, then using the decision that had a particular outcome in the recent conflict; this can result in a different, negative result due to the overlooked differences in situations.

Decision to Invade Iraq, 2003

     An example of an important decision that utilized the cognitive and psychological schools was the decision by President George W. Bush used when he decided that the U.S was to invade the Middle Eastern nation of Iraq in 2003. The bureaucratic model heavily influenced Bush, by allowing advisory groups and the groupthink process to steer him in a self-beneficial direction. This decision also can be analyzed the psychological effects on the President during the process. This school analyzes human characteristics or natural emotions, engulfed in a decision maker that cause them to use shortcuts or be influenced by biases. Bush in the years leading up to the invasion, believed the situation to be similar to his father President George H.W Bush’s involvement with Kuwait in the 1990s. The ideology used by Bush to treat Iraq in the same manner that his father was able to maximize the outcome in Kuwait, which in the end was realized to be very different and unrelated incidents. The cognitive approach to foreign policy decision-making was present in the 2003 decision as well as the agenda-setting issue by President Bush. Bush set the U.S in a pathway to war, well before Congress signed the declaration of war. To arrive at the desired outcome, the President used shortcuts and neglecting of information that opposed his view from being used against his agenda. (Chattam, 1986).

 Cuban Missile Crisis and the Rational Model

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union acted as puppet masters in conflicts over the spreading of communist, being a third party aid to their respective sides of democracy and communism to avoid all-out nuclear war. This was the case before the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviets attempts to send nuclear weapons within firing range of the United States; a less than maximized alternative would not be able to save the U.S from danger. President John F. Kennedy is one of the few decision makers in international relations that was able to and successfully followed the rational model of decision-making. (DeRouen, 2001). Kennedy cast a wide net to gather information, by searching information with groupthink and an unbiased advisory group. Holistic search patterns were used, and all information and alternative outcomes were analyzed. To avoid all-out war with an invasion of Cuba and impedingly failed diplomatic relations with the communist nations, Kennedy used a profit maximizing alternative assessment. This thorough, well thought out, fair and unpressured decision-making process, when analyzed by the rational school of decision making led to the decision by the U.S to set up a naval blockade of any nuclear weapons or threats to Cuba from the Soviet Union. This decision posed to achieve the desired outcome while minimizing the threat of mass destruction or all out war. The rational model provides a consistent value- maximizing decision while following the guidelines set up by specified constraints, a goal not easily accomplished. (Allison, 1986)

The Crisis in United States’ neighborhood, even when tensions continued to escalate during the time of the decision- making process, continued to follow the rational model. As the U.S and the Soviet Union entered into a chicken fight, President Kennedy and his advisors from EXCOMM and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) were able to change alternatives potential outcomes and eliminating any alternative that had inefficient costs and less than maximized outcomes. In this dynamic setting, the U.S was able to assess alternatives in a dynamic environment rationally. The chicken game when following a rational model should include the idea of brinksmanship. (Marcus, 1998, 333)

Rational Model in a Chicken Fight Situation

A situation that forces to actors to pre- commit to a decision and then go head on with the opposition’s set goal. In a chicken fight like the one the U.S was involved in with the Soviet Union, the decision makers participating in the conflict have 2 options. Either they steer out of the opposition allowing a second best alternative to take the original goals place or they can continue to head straight on at the enemy and showcase your commitment to that goal. When committing to the set policy or goal, the decision maker will show the opposing party that they are not going to allow a second best alternative to be the determined plan of action. This display of determination to continue head-on at the other decision maker or brinksmanship is the rational model’s structure when involved in such a scenario, not satisficing in a chicken fight. Seen in President Kennedy’s decision to set up a naval blockade of Soviet nuclear weapons into Cuba.  Demonstration of the U.S willingness to take drastic measures to ensure their security if the blockade was broken. Kennedy considered many options but was reluctant to escalate the conflict further by invading Cuba or arrange diplomatic negotiations that would most likely end up allowing less than optimal agreements, which would allow continued danger in the U.S. (Starr, 2013)

The Rational Model

The rational model of decision-making when making an assessment of why the goal selected influenced the decision maker, to follow such specific procedures and policies. When an actor understands that any alternative that is not the most cost efficient and the outcome can be nothing short of the ideal, an agent will use the guidelines established by the rational or ideal type model; although there are many characteristics that a rational model entails. However, the main focus is on the five critical elements of rational decision-making: 1) goal setting and ranking 2) consideration of alternatives 3) Assessment of consequences 4) profit maximization of alternative selection. (Mingst, 2001). Other alternative interpretations of the rational model go on to include elements such as the state acting as a unitary actor, proper assessment of alternative costs and benefits and assessing the outcome of the alternative decision. (Alisson, 1986)


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