How Do Parents Access and
Process Information about Schools?
IN THIS CHAPTER we use data from our Internet site, DCSchoolSearch .com, to learn more about how parents search for information about schools. To explore this issue, we merge insights from the marginal-consumer perspective developed in the last chapter with insights from decision theory, which we outline in the following pages.
In the past fifty years there has been a great deal of interdisciplinary scholarship concerned with the processes of judgment and decision making, producing well over a dozen distinct theoretical approaches.1 Beach and Mitchell (1998) divide these competing theories of decision analysis into three major categories: normative models, behavioral-decision theory, and naturalistic-decision theory.
Normative models—such as expected-utility decision theory (Keeney and Raiffa 1976; Von Neumann and Morgenstern 1943), subjective expected-utility decision theory (Edwards 1954), and the analytic hierarchy process (Saaty 1986)—are prescriptive, focusing primarily on how decisions should be made. Grounded in mathematical theories of probability and economic theories of utility, the normative models are often described as “elegant” and are frequently used by formal theorists.
Despite the attraction of these normative models and their widespread application in fields as diverse as sociology, anthropology, political science, and, of course, economics, many researchers have taken issue with their cognitive demands and their Herculean assumptions. Perhaps the most cogent criticisms are built on the seminal work of Herbert Simon (1955, 1957, 1978, 1985). In particular, Simon's concept of “bounded rationality” is widely recognized as providing the foundation for what is now termed behavioral-decision theory.2
In general terms, behavioral-decision theory seeks to apply empirical psychological findings concerning cognitive limits, shortcuts and suboptimal judgment to the normative models discussed above. Prominent approaches include judgment analysis (Cooksey 1996; Hammond et al.