Program Outcomes for Youth
Social Competencies

Decision Making
Dawn Scott


Adolescence is a "time of increased pressure for problem solving and personal decision (Worell & Danner, 1989, p. 3)." Adolescents are called upon to make many difficult decisions including decisions regarding career, sexuality, school involvement and risk behaviors. Choices made at this time have the power to influence many aspects of an adolescent's future. Therefore, it is essential that adolescents be aware of the potential impact of their decisions and learn effective decision making skills.

Decision making can be defined as the process of making choices among possible alternatives. The skills considered important to effective decision making are based on a normative model of decision making, which prescribes how decisions should be made. These skills include: 1) identifying the possible options; 2) identifying the possible consequences that follow from each option; 3) evaluating the desirability of each of the consequences; 4) assessing the likelihood of each consequence; and 5) making a choice using a "decision rule" (Furby & Beyth-Marom, 1992). In a model for teaching decision making, Wilson & Kirby (1984) include the following skills: defining the decision to be made; educating oneself (gathering facts and generating alternatives); considering options; identifying a choice; designing a plan to carry out the decision; and evaluating the decision. These models address goal-directed, planful decision making. Although cognitive aspects of decision making are considered important to adolescent risk-taking (Lavery, Siegel, Cousins & Rubovits, 1993), risk-related decisions require additional considerations (Furby & Beyth-Marom, 1992).

Related Elements:
Both internal factors (such as locus of control and self-concept) and external factors (such as relationships with parents and peers) influence decision making.
Motivational factors such as self-beliefs, goals, values, attitudes and emotional states influence decision making.
Developmental factors (cognitive, affective, social) influence decision making.
Adolescents make critical decisions in a shifting social context; the ability to evaluate decisions and to adapt or adjust them as necessary is important.
Some options and alternatives are more open to some adolescents than to others; adolescents must learn to recognize and cope with possible societal constraints.
Different styles of decision making may be appropriate for different types of decisions, e.g. in emotionally sensitive or stressful situations vs. career decisions.
Decision making ability is associated with coping ability.
Any one decision can be considered a series of choices, not a one time event.
Decisions are not made in a vacuum; feedback influences decision making.
There is a precedent setting aspect to decision making; current decisions influence future choices.
Decision making is a complex, non-linear process; skills develop as one matures and with experience.


Not all adolescents are equipped with the necessary pre-requisite skills for effective decision making. These skills are dependent on such factors as age, gender, intelligence, social class, race/ethnicity, family structure and dynamics, religiosity, temperament, and social/culture environment (Mann, Harmoni & Power, 1989; Strauss & Clark, 1992; Fuligni & Eccles, 1993; Schvaneveldt & Adams, 1983). Other considerations include conformity and compliance in relation to peers and parents; attitude toward and perception of risk; and temporal perspective (Scott, Reppucci & Woolard, 1995). The ways in which adolescents use information in making decisions and the subjective value attributed to consequences is influenced by developmental and contextual factors.

Adolescence is a time when important decisions are made based on little life experience and which have lifelong consequences. Therefore, it is essential to determine the best ways of enhancing effective decision making. Interventions designed to enhance adolescent decision making ability have led to outcomes such as: higher levels of school retention, economic self-sufficiency and more responsible sexual behavior with pregnant and parenting adolescents (Donnelly & Davis-Berman, 1994); lower mean tobacco use at the two-year follow up of a substance abuse prevention program (Snow, Tebes, Arthur & Tapasak, 1992); and higher levels of positive prosocial behavior and lower levels of antisocial, self-destructive and socially disordered behavior at a four- to six-year follow up of a social decision making and problem solving program (Elias, Gara, Schuyler, Branden-Muller & Sayette, 1991).

Regarding decision making and risk-taking behavior, Trad (1993) suggests that although decision making ability alone does not account for risk behavior, it is important to evaluate adolescents' planning and decision making skills to determine possible areas in need of intervention. He also suggests it is important to assist adolescents in adopting a future-orientation, so that both short- and long-term goals and consequences are considered before making a choice.

Decision making ability is an essential aspect of optimal adolescent development. It is necessary for adolescents to be given the opportunity to practice making personally meaningful choices if they are to be effective decision makers (Jacobs & Ganzel, 1993); cognitive skill attainment alone does not guarantee that adolescents will transfer such skills to real life situations (Keating, 1990).


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Trad, P. V. (1993). The ability of adolescents to predict future outcomes. Part 1: Assessing predictive abilities. Adolescence, 28, 533-555.

Wilson, P., & Kirby, D. (1984). Sexuality Education: A Curriculum for Adolescents. Santa Cruz, CA: Network Publications.

Worell, J. & Danner, F. (1989). The adolescent as decision-maker: Applications to development and education. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, Inc.




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