Snap judgments about people and places can be remarkably accurate, and there is no substitute for simple logic and reflection in determining questions like which alarm clock or cellphone is the best value.Ah, good! I've noticed how little I've weighed all the details of my decision to sell my house and move to a condo I happened to drop in and take a look at one day when I was 15 minutes early for meeting my friend at a café.
But many more important decisions — choosing the right apartment, the optimal house, the best vacation — turn on such a bewildering swarm of facts that people often throw up their hands and put the whole thing temporarily out of mind. And new research suggests that this may be a rewarding strategy.
In a series of experiments reported last week in the journal Science, a team of Dutch psychologists found that people struggling to make complex decisions did best when they were distracted and were not able to think consciously about the choice at all...This reminds me of the quote used to start my review of Kenji Yoshino's book "Covering": "Don't think so hard. Life is not that simple."
Psychologists have known for years that people process an enormous amount of information unconsciously — for example, when they hear their names pop up in a conversation across the room that they were not consciously listening to. But the new report suggests that people take this wealth of under-the-radar information, combine it with deliberately studied facts and impressions and then make astute judgments that they would not otherwise form.
In the study, the research team, led by Ap Dijksterhuis of the University of Amsterdam, had 80 students choose among four cars based on a list of attributes for each, like age, gasoline mileage, transmission and handling. After presenting the attributes in quick succession, the researchers instructed some students to think carefully about the decision for four minutes and distracted others by asking them to solve anagrams.
When the list of characteristics was four items, students were more likely to pick the best functioning vehicles if they reasoned through the decision, rather than if they were distracted. But with 12 attributes, the distracted anagram solvers tended to make wiser choices, the study found.
The unconscious brain has a far greater capacity for information than conscious working memory, the authors write, and it may be less susceptible to certain biases....
The researchers developed a "complexity score" for 40 products and assets based on how many of each item's attributes people took into account. Cars, computers and apartments were at the top, dresses and shirts in the middle and oven mitts and umbrellas at the bottom.
Using that scale, the psychologists surveyed students who had recently bought some of those items and found that the more the buyers thought about their purchases of simple objects, the more satisfied they were. But the opposite was the case for complex purchases, where the more time spent in conscious deliberation, the less satisfied the students were.
What does this say about judicial decisionmaking? Judges take in a lot of information. They make a decision and must put their reasons in a piece of writing that we sometimes casually call the "decision," but we know they can't transcribe their actual decision. You can try to reconstruct how you made a complex decision, but you can't really even know the answer yourself. That's one of the reasons it's so endlessly fascinating to read judicial opinions. You know the real reasons exist at some deeper level, no matter how forthright the judge is.
And you can ask me why I'm moving and why I'm moving there? And I'll give you an elaborate answer. But it's not the answer, really. Is it?