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Navigating the field of decision analysis

December 1, 2018

Managers, policy makers, and decision makers with responsibility for environmental decisions have an extraordinarily difficult job. The systems they manage are complex (coupled human-natural systems), with many dimensions and complicated dynamics. Our knowledge of how those systems respond to management actions is often limited, so many of the decisions have to be made in the face of uncertainty.

The field of decision analysis provides a comprehensive set of tools for structuring, analyzing, and making decisions. Arising initially as a way to understand and manage risk, the field has expanded in the last 80 years to cover such topics as multipleobjective trade-offs, time-dependent linked decisions, the value of information, and competition among multiple decision makers. At the same time, cognitive psychologists and behavioural economists have studied human decisions to understand when our innate processes work and when they fail.

Formal decision analysis is increasingly being used in many sectors, including economic, industrial, manufacturing, agricultural, transportation, and medical sectors, by individuals, corporations, non-profits, and government agencies. Occasional application of decision analysis to environmental decisions began in the mid-1970s, but the environmental science and management world was largely unaware of decision analysis until the late 1990s and early 2000s. (A major aim of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions – CEED –
was to better connect decision analysis and environmental management).

Today, the field of environmental decision analysis is coming of age with the maturation of a rich set of tools to help decision makers frame, analyze, and implement decisions. Sometimes
the wealth of tools is daunting, but there are core principles that tie decision analysis together. To help the reader navigate this complexity, we summarize the field of decision analysis in four key messages.