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Decision field theory
Primary author: Khadijah elShabazz
Decision Field Theory (DFT) was originally developed within a mathematical framework in 1993 (Busemeyer & Townsend, 1993). The authors created the theory from multiple disciplines including psychology and mathematics (Busemeyer & Townsend, 1993). Overall, the theory was designed to help explain decision making, decision behaviors, and prediction patterns of humans by using a cognitive approach (Busemeyer & Townsend, 1993). The theory sought to analyze an individual’s cognitive process during the decision making process while assuming that an individual will always weigh options/decisions against each other (Rieskamp, 2008). Each of the considered options is comprised together in an “overall difference score” (Rieskamp, 2008, p.1450). According to DFT, an individual finally makes a decision once that score surpasses a “decision threshold” (Rieskamp, 2008, p.1450). DFT states that the decision threshold will always change; the decision threshold will be different depending upon the person and the situation (Rieskamp, 2008). Furthermore, time also plays a factor in Decision Field Theory as the individual will spend varying amounts of time contemplating options (Rieskamp, 2008). Another key aspect of DFT was the idea of uncertainty (Busemeyer & Townsend, 1993). The authors incorporated the uncertainty aspect as a sway to examine how one responds to information and weighs out each option (Busemeyer & Townsend, 1993). DFT was later expanded, in 2001, to encompass a multialternative approach (Roe, Busemeyer, & Townsend, 2001) which added the complexity and variety of choices that plague humans while making a decision. As previously stated, the theory was originally used for mathematical concepts; yet as the theory itself was expanded, aspects of this theory can be applied to public health.
There was no published research conducted on DFT and public health; yet components of the theory may be relevant to public health. As the major concept of Decision Field Theory is to analyze the decision making process, this idea is prevalent in some of the major theories and models in public health. In the Transtheoretical Model (TTM), the concept of decision making is shown specifically in the form of decisional balance as individuals weigh the pros and cons of whether or not to change a behavior (Glanz, Rimer, & Lewis, 2008). Furthermore, the decision making process can also be applied throughout the entire theory at each of the stages, as the individual must always decide to progress forward or terminate the entire process (Glanz
2008). Another theory commonly used in public health that seems to utilize the concept of decision making is the Transactional Model. Glanz and colleagues (2008) noted the similarities that the Transactional Model has in relation to the TTM; hence the Transactional Model can be applied to DFT as well. Specifically, the “problem-focused coping strategies” (Glanz
2008, p. 218) aspect of the Transactional Model can be linked to the DFT as a type of decision making process. Community and group models also display relevance for the Decision Field Theory in public health. Empowerment and critical consciousness provide populations of people with the ability to make the decision to defeat health problems within their community (Glanz
Applications of Decision Field Theory are shown in many different contexts of public health. One area of public health that strongly uses decision making is animal hoarding. Animal hoarders make use of decision making in a variety of ways. Deciding to hoard animals, deciding to ignore the health status of one’s self and family members, and the decision to disregard the unsanitary conditions in the home (Patronek, 1999; Nathanson & Patronek, 2009) all indicate the choices that animal hoarders face (elShabazz, 2010). One of the expanded models of the DFT that included the multialternative aspect (Roe
2001) is also shown in animal hoarding by giving the hoarder a variety of alternatives in terms of their options to hoard or not hoard, to keep one animal or multiple animals, and to choose between their family and their animals (Patronek, 1999; Nathanson & Patronek, 2009). Hence, the relationship between the DFT and the TTM intertwine here. The relationship between the TTM and animal hoarding was previously proposed (elShabazz, 2010) and was shown to be significant to use in helping individuals suffering from hoarding tendencies; hence it can be implied that the DFT may also be a way to help treat hoarding situations based upon the similarities of the decision making process of both the DFT and TTM. Another example where Decision Field Theory factors into public health is shown in the immigrant population in regards to accessing health care. One issue with the immigrant population is priority (Agbonhese, elShabazz, & Karmo, 2010). After deciding to migrate to the United States with the hopes of better opportunities (Okie, 2007), immigrants face new decisions of how to live and adjust to life in a new country (Agbonhese
2010). It was shown that immigrants do not always decide to make health care a priority and therefore exclude themselves from services (Leclere, Jensen, & Biddlecom, 1994).
The use of the decision making process was shown to have an effect on current theories and models that are used in public health. Furthermore, specific examples of the individual (animal hoarder) and community (immigrant population) in the public health context also signified that the decision making process is influential in the realm of the public health field. Such examples suggest that the Decision Field Theory may be extended from its mathematical origin and useful to study health issues in public health which refutes the original idea of Busemeyer & Townsend (1993) who stated that “Although it is possible to apply Decision Field Theory to complex real-life decisions, these decisions do not allow the necessary experimental control to discriminate among competing theories” (Busemeyer & Townsend, 1993, p. 436). The authors originally thought that the rationalization of the decision making process must come from scientific evidence (Busemeyer & Townsend, 1993); yet as the theory has been expanded over the years, the evidence suggests otherwise and leans towards incorporation of Decision Field Theory into studying other public health topics as well, especially those that involve specific decisions made by the individual that may yield in a negative result. One example of a public health topic that may benefit from researching the relationship among itself and DFT is obesity. Understanding the cognitive decision making process of why an individual chooses to eat until their weight becomes grotesquely out of control may help researchers determine new ways to help combat that disease. Furthermore, other topics such as condom use among sexually active teenagers, alcohol use before driving motor vehicles, and women who use narcotics while pregnant are other examples where DFT could provide insight into why individuals make a particular decision and how or if those individuals rationalize the decisions they choose.
Agbonhese, J.O., elShabazz, K., & Karmo, G. (2010.) Immigrant population: access and
utilization of health services. Indiana University School of Medicine-Department of Public Health.
Busemeyer, J.R., & Townsend, J.T. (1993). Decision field theory: a dynamic-cognitive approach
decision making in an uncertain environment.
American Psychological Association
, 100 (3), 432-459.
Glanz, K., Rimer, B. K., & Lewis, F.M. (Eds.) (2008).
Health behavior and health education:
Theory, research, and practice .
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
elShabazz, K. (2010). Using literature to analyze the effectiveness of the relationship between
the Transtheoretical Model and animal hoarding. Indiana University School of Medicine- Department of Public Health.
Leclere, F., Jensen, L., & Biddlecom, A. (1994). Health care utilization, family context, and
adaptation among immigrants to the United States.
Journal of Health and Social Behavior
, 35, 370-384.
Okie, S. (2007). Immigrants and health care- at the intersection of two broken systems.
New England Journal of Medicine
, 367 (6), Retrieved on October 18, 2010 from
Patronek, G. (1999). Hoarding of animals: an under recognized public health problem in a difficult to study population.
Public Health Reports, 114
Patronek, G. J., & Nathanson, J. N. (2009). A theoretical perspective to inform assessment and
treatment strategies for animal hoarders.
Clinical Psychology Review, 29
Reiskamp, J. (2008). The probabilistic nature of preferential choice.
Journal of Experimental
Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition,
34 (6), 1446-1465.
Roe, R.M., Busemeyer, J.R., & Townsend, J.T. (2001). Multialternative decision field theory: a
dynamic connectionist model of decision making.
American Psychological Association
, 108 (2): 370-392.
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