February 20, 2008

Seminar features expert on decision making

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. — If you're looking to solve a problem, it helps to come at it with more than one decision-making style.

"When you get to brainstorming, the spontaneous can come up with eight million ideas, but execution is squat," said William C. Coscarelli, professor of curriculum and instruction at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

"When it comes to evaluating the ideas, you want to shift to the systematic."

Coscarelli has spent 20 years researching how people seek, organize and evaluate information when deciding what to do and has developed a system for categorizing their decision-making styles. He will talk about how these styles work, the strengths and drawbacks of each and how people can use this knowledge in their daily lives at a College of Education and Human Services free, brown-bag seminar. His talk will take place at noon Tuesday, Feb. 26, in Wham 219. Those who come may bring their lunches; the dean's office will provide drinks and snacks.

Spontaneous deciders see the big picture, leaping from vantage point to vantage point to do so. One thought leads to another, which leads to the next, which inspires a new thought, a process Coscarelli calls "chaining." They make quick decisions because they need to try on their choices to full understand them. They often don't worry about making the wrong choice as they can easily switch to a new one if the first one doesn't work.

This drives the systematic folks nuts. Logical and analytical, they see the big picture's individual components, weighing each one separately. Acutely aware of risk, they carefully take their time in deciding.

"A spontaneous person will go to the new restaurant in town and have the most outrageous thing on the menu," said Coscarelli, a self-described spontaneous. "The systematic doesn't like to go to a restaurant unless they've been there before, and then they will have the chicken.

"If a spontaneous makes a decision and it's wrong, it doesn't matter because the perceived risks are low — they'll just abandon it. A systematic who makes a bad choice will just keep working away at it."

Most people — 80 percent of those who have filled out Coscarelli's copyrighted decision-making inventory — fall in the systematic category. But when it comes to how they make sense of the information they have gathered, they divide more evenly between what Coscarelli calls external and internal processing styles.

To explain these styles, Coscarelli likes to show a cartoon that demonstrates both. The cartoon shows two people facing each other. One wears a sign that says, "I NEVER KNOW WHAT YOU'RE THINKING!!" The other has a thought bubble that says, "I always know what you're thinking."

"The external needs to hear the words to analyze information; the internal prefers to analyze privately," he said.

"These two dimensions of 'internality' and 'externality' are all too often overlooked and lead to tensions in group work as well as in personal relationships. In fact, these differences can be more troublesome than the conflicts that can arise between the spontaneous and systematic styles."

Becoming aware of your own style can help you communicate better. Coscarelli told of one faculty member who always got blasted on student evaluations for not answering questions. She came to him for help because she perceived herself as always answering questions. When he observed one of her classes, he spotted the problem immediately.

"She was 'chaining' all over the universe," he said. "She'd start to answer the question but one thought would remind her of something else and off she'd go. As far as the kids were concerned, she was talking but not answering.

"Once I explained the styles to her and asked her which she wanted to use for which setting, she turned that around amazingly fast. It was beautiful."

Those who attend Coscarelli's talk on the 26th will get a chance to fill out the inventory and have it scored.

The next talk in the series, given March 19 by Mark J. Kittleson, professor of health education and recreation, will focus on how social networks affect personal health.