Rational Decision Making Model

… a core concept used in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101

Concept description

Leslie Pal (reference below) describes the rational decision making model (see box below) as comprising seven steps:

  • Choose objectives
  • Consider alternatives
  • Outline impacts
  • Determine criteria
  • Apply models (scenarios)
  • Implement preferred option
  • Evaluate consequences.

Pal writes (pages 19-21):

“The rational decisionmaking paradigm, a feature of virtually every introductory textbook on policy analysis, is outlined in Box 1.1 [below]. Note that the procedure is generic: it should apply as well to deciding public policy as it does to choosing a mate or one’s wardrobe.

“Few of us are this systematic when we make everyday decisions, but the more important a decision, the more likely that we will think about it carefully and perhaps approximate this model. Will approaching a matter systematically make for a better decision? Maybe. But making decisions rationally is not the same as making reasonable decisions. A reasonable or good decision is defined less by the process that produced it than by its appropriateness as a solution to the initial problem. While the rational model could, in principle, be used to choose a mate, most people would argue that making this type of decision with the heart or one’s emotions is more reasonable.

“It is worth taking a moment to consider the implications of the rational model for policy analysis and decisionmaking, if only because “rational” seems synonymous with “reasonable” and the opposition of “rationality” and “intuition” seems to give preference to the former. For one thing, the rational model has embedded within it a strong concern with efficiency, which Herbert Simon (one of the most important decision theorists) defined as choosing alternatives that provide the greatest results for the least cost (Simon, Smithburg, & Thompson, 1958, p. 60).

“Simon was convinced throughout his long and distinguished career (he was born in 1916, won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1978, and died in 2001) that social betterment would come from the application of rational techniques to complex decisions. He acknowledged that pure rationality in decisionmaking was an impossibility, and that, instead, human beings made decisions under various constraints, in a model he described as bounded rationality in search of satisficing solutions.”

See also: Pal’s Types of Reasoning in Policy Analysis; Lindblom’s Incrementalism and Muddling Through.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Models of Decision Making (core topic) in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101.


Leslie Pal (2014), Beyond Policy Analysis – Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times, Fifth Edition, Nelson Education, Toronto. See Beyond Policy Analysis – Book Highlights.

Simon, H., Smithburg, D. W., & Thompson, V. A. (1958). Public administration. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 12 April 2017.

Image: Seven Deadly Sins, at http://7adsins.com/2011/10/think-your-customers-make-rational-decisions/, accessed 12 April 2017.