February 21, 2006

Don't think so hard. That decision is too difficult.

The more complex a decision is, the less you should think about it:
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.

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.
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.
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...

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.
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."

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?

20 comments:

Ruth Anne Adams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pete said...

Ann wrote:

"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?"

No, it's not. Though I'm opposed to the move, from the beginning I pointed out that you had already made up your mind, whether you cared to admit it or not. All the rest was conversation. Ultimately, you'll move because you want to move, and then find reasons to justify it.
I don't think that's a good way to go when purchasing a condo but then that's just me.

reader_iam said...

Well, it might be more accurate to say "the less you should think about it consciously, or in a focused fashion."

I strikes me that it's not so much that it's put out of mind entirely, but rather the difference between, say, standing over the stove and stirring a stew and putting the stew in a crockpot so you can spend the day doing something else. The cooking happens, but less attention needs to be paid.

The other thing about decisions, especially lifestyle ones such as yours, is that I don't think we really start at ground zero, do we?

For example, let's take the example you gave but not relate it to you, Ann.

Someone has some spare time and on impulse decides to look at a condo. This seemingly spurs a big change, and perhaps with the appearance of little thought.

Really, though, isn't the likelihood high that this action is really just a response to a whole series of decisions already made, perhaps unconsciously but probably a mix, about that person's current life and changes desired? By the time the "fateful day" arrived, the decision was probably already 90% (or whatever) made: what was left was actually the "execution," and how to do that.

There have been countless times in my life, when making larger decisions, when it must have seemed that I just one day woke up and said, "OK. This is it." But in looking at it later, in all but the rarest of exceptions, I can identify the trajectory over days, weeks or even months of those decisions.

Perhaps the wrangling through people go is that they are trying to re-think, re-visit, or second-guess the decisions that they've really already made. Perhaps they seek too high of a comfort factor, or less sense of risk. Maybe they don't like what their instinctual decision tells them about themselves. Maybe they're too concerned about the "shoulda's," whether internally or externally imposed.

I think we think too concretely about the process of, well, thinking. We want it to be an assembly line, with specific components added at specified times, with results documented and sure. But it's not like that.

reader_iam said...

And to bring it back you, Ann, I never viewed the whole condo thing as a true impulse buy, which is why I'm not inclined to second-guess it, which wouldn't be my business anyway.

Jonathan said...

People tend to use fewer variables in making decisions than they think they use. However, that doesn't necessarily mean people make better decisions by casually ignoring variables. Some decisions may require careful consideration of many variables. Other decisions may require careful consideration of which variables to ignore. Generalization of rules is tricky.

Bruce Hayden said...

I don't see your decision as that much of an impulse buy. Maybe a little. But my parents did almost exactly the same thing 20 years ago at a similar place in their lives (a little later, because they had 5 sons).

When my youngest brother was a senior at Dartmouth, my mother decided she wanted a bigger bedroom and bathtub. She spent a month trying to figure out how to redo their house of 25 years to accomodate that. Then started looking at new houses. A week later, after looking at maybe a dozen houses up in the mountains, there was a rumor that the president of the S&L my father represented was going to sell his. The next day, after a board meeting, my father asked him, he said yes, gave him a price. The next day, they accepted. And have been quite happy with their decision ever since.

But subconsiously, I think a lot of things were going on in their heads. First and foremost, it was their house, and not our house. It was not really bigger, just a lot more space for entertaining and for their bedroom, etc. Instead of six bedrooms, they had three, plus an office each. Instead of kids all around, it had hiking paths, etc.

It seemed abrupt, but really wasn't. I think that a lot of frustrations had built up over the years, and they needed the move to answer them. They were making a statement really that they were done with parenting, having put 5 boys almost all the way through college.

Ann, I am sure it was a little different for you. But this new place is likely to fit you and your state in life, much better than the house you are getting rid of. The old one just didn't fit you any more.

Maxine Weiss said...

I think if you work backward and start with the result....where you want to end up.

You then go back with all the steps you need to get there.

I don't know how a condo gets you where you want to go. Other people's cafes and shops are the vehicle? OK, if you say so!

Judges do that all the time. Sad to say, but they already know the result they want, and just work backward to get there with the justifications.

Very scientific. Scientists start out with their "hypothesis" which is really just a glorified conclusion, and then work backward trying to justify it, until they get the desired result, that they want.

Fat is good for you. It's good to be overweight. Smoking is healthy----we all know that "study" is coming!

Whatever you want to hear, whatever result you want....there's always a way to get there.

Peace, Maxine

Bruce Hayden said...

Back to the article. I think that a lot of what is going on is moving the decision making from the left brain to the right brain. The left brain handles the decisions when there are fewer variables through logic. But when you get too many variables for the left brain to handle, decisions are better done in the more holistic, intuitive, right brain.

I enjoy the interaction between the two sides of my brain. The trick for me is to get the left brain engrossed in a problem, going chunkty-chunk methodically analyzing it. Meanwhile the right brain is watching and using this as input. All of a sudden, a light goes off - which is the right brain ah-ha moment.

The trick is to not miss the ah-ha. The left brain seems to distrust the right - after all, it has been doing all the work. It seems like the more we use our left brain, the less we listen to and for the right brain.

Bruce Hayden said...

The problem with judges working backwards to where they think things should end up is that we want consistency and reproducability in our law. I think the other problem with working backwards is that often bad facts result in bad law. So, in a first case, a judge decides for a really deserving party with weak facts. But that sets precedent that is used the next time by someone not nearly as deserving.

I think that that is one of the things that would be hard as a judge to keep in mind. They are obviously human, and, as such, they have a natural tendency to pick one side or the other. And, often, they subconsiously do. Unfortunately, in criminal cases, it is usually the cops the judges pick to believe.

In any case, most of us want our judges to be judging from the left side of their brains, and not the right. Partly, this is reproducability, and partly it is that everyone's intuition is different.

JohnF said...

Bruce makes a fair point, but in the end it is a losing one. I think about 99% of judges' decisions are reached before the ratio decendi is given (or even conceived). That's been my experience over a few decades, at least.

And I don't think that's unusual. I'd go so far as to say that nearly all our decisions are reached before the rationalization. Our brains are incredible instruments for justifying what we want as an outcome.

I remember reading Dan Drezber's blog during the summer of 2004 as he invited people to list reasons to vote for Bush or Kerry so he could make up his mind. It was very funny to watch him ultimately "weigh" all the reasons and make his decision. The truth was that either decision could have been made very easily from the sea of reasons he was swamped with. How did he choose which reasons to rely on, or which reasons to weight more heavily? No one can say, and his own rationale pretty much just said "this is more important than that."

Well, that is a long story, but the truth remains that decisions almost always get made before the rationales are selected.

That's been my experience, at least. Of course, in the words of Dennis Miller, I could be wrong.

Anthony said...

This part struck me:

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.

I find this to be the case with me for many Big Decisions. Often I will contemplate something -- recently, buying a house instead of renting -- for a long time (like, two years), some of it consciously, some of it apparently not. And then at some point I'll just make what appears to be a snap decision and go for it within a matter of days/weeks.

It may seem like something small kicked off the decision, but in reality it was a long process of coming to a decision and then acting on it once the right conditions were in place.

Matter of fact, I just did this. I've been mulling about what to do with my car (1978 Mustang II, great condition) for the last couple of years. New car vs. restore the Mustang. Either option was expensive and was going to affect my finances and behavior for years to come. About a month ago, I finally decided Yes, I'm going to restore my Mustang, and it's already been repainted and the engine is about to be replaced.

I suspect Ann's moving was probably something that she'd been mulling over in some degree for a long time and it finally clicked when she found a nice condo she liked. To us readers it seemed like a snap decision, but that may not be the case in her own head.

Drives my wife absolutely NUTS, btw. She complains that I won't make a decision on anything for a long time, and then, boom, I'm all about Do It Now.

Ann Althouse said...

Maxine: "Whatever you want to hear, whatever result you want....there's always a way to get there."

Ah, but you're leaving out the most important part: how is it we want what we want? I think that the process of decisionmaking has already occurred. That's why we want it. Then, in our relatively disabled conscious minds, we try to lay out the reasons. That's not "result-oriented reasoning," that's an honest attempt to understand our own minds which process more information than they are capable of laying out in words. There's nothing wrong with that. It's so right.

One more reason to say: if it feels good, do it!

Der Hahn said...

I think far more people are affected by 'analysis paralysis' than most of us realize.

There are a lot of benefits to never moving beyond the analysis phase of a major decision. For example, if you're in the market for house, you can go to home shows, tour open houses, talk to people about buying a house, study house plans and designs all without having do any real work or decision making. Plus you avoid what might be a lot of real work on your current dwelling since you're 'thinking about moving'. No need to do any messy expensive maintenance, remodeling, or deep cleaning.

You get a lot of positive feedback about how thoroughly you're researching the decision, and how knowledgeable you are on the topic. You can almost always come up with endless reasons why you haven't actually committed... interest rates are up, prices are up (or down), nothing is available in my price range, everything available is a dump, etc etc etc.

Making a decision opens you up to second-guessing by well-meaning (or not so) bystanders, and accusations that you thought more about the last tin of candy you bought.

Plus you now have to do all that work cleaning, and repairing, and actually moving.

vbspurs said...

The more complex a decision is, the less you should think about it:

You have to do better than that, Ann.

Malcolm Gladwell already told me about this, in "Blink!".

P.S.: LOL@ Ruth Anne's Altoids.

Cheers,
Victoria

Pogo said...

In "Blink," Malcolm Gladwell tried to simultaneously argue both that prolonged rational analysis can produce more accurate outcomes than instinctual responses, but also that "blinking" often fails (i.e. rapid conclusions are sometimes erroneous). Not much of an insight, really.

This process rather seems in many respects similar to the concept of distributed information in the free market. Lots of little pieces of information become joined into one result, the best choice for that group (or person). It works far better than centralized decisions, but because how it works remains unclear, the "invisible hand" in your head or in the market is oft disregarded as a specter.

Jacques Cuze said...

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.

Yes, that's right. Glad to see you finally agree with me. Everyone is biased by the culture they grew up in and their experiences. There is no magic "objective" "neutral" pill for judges (or journalists).

It is fun, but folly, for constitutional law professor bloggers to try and determine the number of angels may legally fit on the head of a pin by looking at the constitution and pretending that their own culture and experiences do not play a large role.

The logical conclusion is that the Constitution must be a living document and that understanding a justice's background, experiences, and biases is critical to understanding how the judge will interpret the living Constitution.

Jack said...

Hmm. I am not convinced that this study shows what is claimed for it. The article states that "the distracted anagram solvers tended to make wiser choices." They "tended to" but evidently not always. On the other hand, the researchers clearly knew which were the "best functioning vehicles" in every case. I would be willing to bet that the analysis they used to make this determination was neither rushed nor distracted, but had some rigorous tests that they perfomed.

Also note that the decision making time was limited to 4 minutes and that the initial data was provided "in quick succession". So the distinction here is between two styles of making snap judgments, not between snap judments and more careful ones.

The true lesson here seems to be: if you must make a decision quickly with limited information, it is helpful to let your unconscious mind take the helm, but it better still to take more time and do a thorough analysis.

Pogo said...

Quxxo sez, "Everyone is biased" and "The logical conclusion is that the Constitution must be a living document ".

That's just so cute. You really try to insert your talking points everywhere, don't you. Of course these conclusions do not follow from Ann's statement. Nice try, though.

Her statement merely conveys the complexity of decisionmaking. It doesn't posit that all decisions are built on sand. Eschew such deconstructionist piffle, quxxo. It's simply a paean to nihilism.

Ann Althouse said...

I don't think this article is about making snap decisions -- the subject of "Blink." It's about allowing the subconscious mind to work over time: the idea of "sleeping on it."

knoxgirl said...

Ruth Anne: I'm right there with you. In fact, Altoids would be a real splurge.