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6.2. Mental Representations of Complex Decision Problems

6.2.1. Theory and Concepts

According to Johnson-Laird (1983) a mental representation (MR) is a temporary result of individual perception being stored in working memory for the moment of consideration. Building MRs depends on the individual's experiences and long-term knowledge from which relevant information is retrieved, reordered or translated into other forms (Cox, 1999; Kearney & Kaplan, 1997).

MRs consist of different components such as attributes and benefits (Myers, 1976) and also situational variables and causal relations between them. Depending on the point of view the decision itself can also be considered as a variable of the MR. While attributes relate to physically observable states of the considered choice options, benefits describe outcomes in terms of dimensions of more fundamental needs. Situational variables describe states of the system which cannot be influenced by the decision-maker or they result from a far-reaching decision in the past. Kusumastuti (2011) refers to attributes as instrumental and to situational variables as contextual aspects. Anyhow, as MRs represent causal knowledge of the environment, that is complex IF-THEN relations under different circumstances, they can be mapped as causal networks with nodes as variables and unidirectional arrows as causal links (Arentze, Dellaert, & Timmermans, 2008). This structure allows for an application as Bayesian Decision Network with additional parameters for conditional probabilities and utilities and facilitates the simulation of the decision process. Figure 6.1 shows an MR for an exemplary activity-travel task depicted as causal network.

Introducing MRs for rational decision-making does not necessarily mean that individuals represent the real world genuinely. Due to the limited capacity of the working memory individuals will experience limitations on the amount of information that can be represented (Anderson, 1983). Consequently, MRs will generally involve a significant simplification of reality and are, thus, tailored to the specific task and contextual setting under concern (Johnson-Laird & Byrne, 1991).

Limited cognitive capacity is not the only determinant for the construction of MRs. It was already stated above that the considered attributes and benefits depend task.

Arbitrary example of a mental representation for an activity-travel

Figure 6.1: Arbitrary example of a mental representation for an activity-travel

largely on respondents' experience and information stored in long-term memory (Kearney & Kaplan, 1997). Taking just these two determinants into consideration MRs would barely differ between different contexts. Recently however, research has emphasised that depending on the context with which decision-makers are faced different aspects in the attribute-benefit chains may be more or less prominently activated (Dellaert, Arentze, & Timmermans, 2008; Ratneshwar, Warlop, Mick, & Seeger, 1997; Srivastava, Leone, & Shocker, 1981). In other words, contextual circumstances and the state of the person activate different needs which in turn cause the individual to define targets the choice alternatives should meet (Arentze, Dellaert, & Chorus, 2014). Nijland, Arentze, and Timmermans (2010) stated, for instance, that for daily recurring location and travel choices an individual's needs for time saving, entertainment and convenience, etc. vary across situations depending on the individual's state and contextual settings. External influences like advertisement and fashion on the one hand and internal psychological processes on the other hand are also considered as source of need activation (Ratneshwar et ah, 1997).

In terms of contextual settings of a decision task, different influences on the activation of needs and eventually on the construction of MRs have been discovered. The Construal Level Theory (Trope & Liberman, 2003) proposes that people's mental representation of future events changes with temporal distance. The relative emphasis on benefits versus attributes would increase with the temporal distance of the events. This effect of temporal distance between the decision-maker and the considered task would also hold for other sorts of psychological distances like spatial or inter-personal distance (Liberman & Trope, 2008).

Next to the time horizon for which the decision is considered also the importance of the (anticipated) consequences of the activity task affects the variation of the number of represented attributes and benefits and their causal interlinking (Dellaert et ah, 2008). Trivial decisions are considered as less complex than decisions whose consequences have implications for a longer period of time or are perceived as severe or uncertain (Payne, Bettman, & Johnson, 1993). The latter type of decisions is hence likely to result in higher mental effort. Payne argues further that individuals are able to adjust the required mental effort according to the desired accuracy of MRs.

Moreover, the choice set per se is likely to influence the size of MRs. Not only the number of choice alternatives might influence the number of considered attributes (Tversky, 1972), but also the (dis)similarity between the possible courses of action determines the mental effort which the decision-maker needs in order to find the optimal solution (Shocker, Ben-Akiva, Boccara, & Nedungadi, 1991). Thus, the quality and quantity of choice alternatives are assumed to influence the construction of MRs.

 
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