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Decisions, Decisions

Article #142 • Written by Greg Bjerg

Recently I decided to buy a new home and a new printer for my computer. Guess which decision took the most effort? If you guessed the printer, you guessed right. Turns out that that my choice of a house was perfect, and my new printer was a good choice too. Did I get lucky, or is there something else happening?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not always advantageous to engage in thorough conscious deliberation before choosing. Several different experiments looked at what researchers called the “deliberation without-attention" effect. It's a take on when to "follow your gut" and when to make a well-thought-out decision.

For relatively simple decisions (like buying a printer) it is better to use a highly rational and researched approach. However, when making a complicated decision (like buying a house) the unconscious appears to do a better job of resolving factors and making a sound conclusion. Of course this goes counter to the conventional approach most of us use to make everyday decisions.

To test the “deliberation-without-attention” hypothesis, four studies were done on how consumers made choices. Some of the experiments were done in a laboratory setting and others used real shoppers.

One experiment involved the purchase of a new car. The participants were given reading material including positive and negative information about four hypothetical automobiles. Other participants were asked to just think about the cars for four minutes and choose one. Still other participants were distracted for four minutes with another task and then asked to choose a car. While those who had time to think about their choice made good decisions when the information was simple (only four attributes listed per vehicle), they more often made poorer choices when the information became more complex (12 attributes listed per vehicle).

In another study, shoppers were quizzed about their purchases upon leaving an IKEA store and a department store. They were asked specific questions about the cost of their items, how much they had known about them before coming to the store, and how much time they thought about their purchases before they bought them. Follow-up telephone interviews revealed that shoppers who spent more time deliberating about simple purchases (such as kitchen accessories) and less time deliberating about more complex purchases (such as furniture) were ultimately more satisfied with their choices.

The idea that the unconscious plays an important role in the cognitive process comes right out of Freudian psychology. Conscious thought does not always lead to making a good decision because it has low capacity. We can only think about a few options at any time; a person can pay attention to only a limited amount of information at once. This can cause people to focus on small things (like a car's cup holders) and not see the bigger picture. “Option paralysis” can result when there are too many factors and we keep coming to different conclusions. The unconscious mind is capable of processing a larger amount of information, but with less precision.

Then there is the "weighing problem." A conscious mind can give too much weight to some factors and not enough for others. People can overestimate the importance of a house's square footage and underestimate the commute to work.

New York Times science reporter Malcolm Gladwell popularized this research in his bestselling book Blink. Gladwell wrote about the power of the unconscious mind and it's ability to "thin slice." Thin slicing refers to the mind's ability to find patterns in certain situations based on very narrow information from past experiences. In one reported experiment in Blink, experimenters asked people to decide if a couple was likely to divorce after seeing them for a few seconds. This snap judgment was often more accurate than if people were given more detailed information about the couple.

Not everybody agrees with the "deliberation-without-attention" hypothesis. Some critics call the hypothesis mere pop psychology and part of a larger trend of a return to Freudian concepts. And what about life or death decisions like being on a jury or making costly investment decisions? Like most good research, it raises more questions than it answers.

So is the "deliberation-without-attention" hypothesis correct? Let me sleep on it and get back to you in the morning.

Article written by Greg Bjerg, published on 20 March 2006. Greg was born and raised in Iowa and graduated with a degree in Journalism from Drake University. Sadly, he passed away on 20 March 2011.

Edited by Alan Bellows.

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25 Comments
Berkana
Posted 20 March 2006 at 03:54 pm

Bink is indeed a great book to read. I'd also recommend Gladwell's prior book, Tipping Point.


another viewpoint
Posted 20 March 2006 at 05:15 pm

No doubt about it...this article has hit a bullseye. However, what wasn't mentioned in the article was that there seems to be less decision making time spent considering all the angles, pros and cons, goods and bads...the larger the dollar value gets.

Indeed this type of thinking runs rampant in the highest levels of corporate American companies where the board of directors can decide to spend 15 million dollars in a heartbeat for a new piece of machinery...but will spend 3 hours debating what kind of coffee machine is needed to replace the old one. They have obviously lost their proper sense of perspective.

Not to mention, they'll sit around slapping themselves on the back while approving large bonuses for themselves while at the same time making sure their employees don't get raises that keep pace with the cost of living, receive fewer and fewer benefits while at the same time end up paying more those benefits.

It is unfair world. Bless all those that are able to survive.


Arcangel
Posted 20 March 2006 at 07:46 pm

another viewpoint says "Not to mention, they'll sit around slapping themselves on the back while approving large bonuses for themselves while at the same time making sure their employees don't get raises that keep pace with the cost of living, receive fewer and fewer benefits while at the same time end up paying more those benefits.

"

Sounds like GM executives to me. I made the big mistake of buying a GM vehicle on the whim without considering the competition and paid for it throughout my ownership of the vehicle. Funny thing is I usually scrutinize everything I buy.


Metryq
Posted 21 March 2006 at 04:09 am

"Follow-up telephone interviews revealed that shoppers who spent more time deliberating about simple purchases (such as kitchen accessories) and less time deliberating about more complex purchases (such as furniture) were ultimately more satisfied with their choices."

I don't doubt that there are times when one should make a "snap" decision, and there are people who have a real talent for it. However, humans also have an unlimited capacity for rationalizing their decisions. If someone is not entirely happy with a "complex" purchase they will probably convince themselves that they are satisfied (or satisfied "enough"), rather than face the alternative. Therefore I would not call that particular study "scientific."


Furnace
Posted 21 March 2006 at 04:57 am

I think a lot of this comes down to the general use of whatever is being purchased. Houses and cars are purchased very infrequently, but used all the time, so people know exactly what they like and dislike about it which likely boils down to just a few details. For example, my last car had a horrible blind-spot, so that was the first thing I checked when test-driving my current car. I couldn't care less that the racket-bracket was Grade B instead of Grade A. The smaller stuff, like coffee makers, are considered "hassles" so people want to get it right the first time AND make it as functional as possible. Comparing one that makes two extra cups of coffee versus one that has a clock built in can be a tough decision for some.


MaddMan
Posted 21 March 2006 at 05:41 am

Furnace said: Comparing one that makes two extra cups of coffee versus one that has a clock built in can be a tough decision for some."

I've solved the problem...

Wear a watch.


orc_jr
Posted 21 March 2006 at 05:51 am

wrong! one time i was playing chicken with a goose in a kayak and it wouldn't budge so i had to make the last-second decision to swerve away and i was very unsatisfied with my choice.


another viewpoint
Posted 21 March 2006 at 06:00 am

Arcangel said: "Sounds like GM executives to me. I made the big mistake of buying a GM vehicle on the whim without considering the competition and paid for it throughout my ownership of the vehicle. Funny thing is I usually scrutinize everything I buy."

I have a friend (now retired) that used to work as a bus mechanic for a large city transit authority. Blue collar, card carrying union member and all that. He was greatly upset when he found out I purchased an import vehicle. When I noted that the imports (then) were more fuel efficient and had a higher reliability rating, he responded with, "...you can always write and complain to Detroit if you're not satisfied." I countered, "I did tell Detroit how I felt about their product...I bought the competition!" If that's not a loud enough complaint, then I don't know what will get their attention.

Funny thing...the US taught the Japanese (and other countries) how to build cars. They took our ideas and improved them and then turned around and beat us at our own game. It doesn't take very long or a genious to figure out where the best "value" is. And THAT IS...the bottom line when making a purchase.


Grendel
Posted 21 March 2006 at 06:36 am

orc_jr said: "wrong! one time i was playing chicken with a goose in a kayak and it wouldn't budge so i had to make the last-second decision to swerve away and i was very unsatisfied with my choice."

How did the goose get in the kayak?


pseudosanity
Posted 21 March 2006 at 09:22 am

I think most people are smarter than They think and can make any decision without thinking too much about it. After making a small decision, They overscrutinize their decision (which probably didn't matter in the first place), and pessimistically conclude that they made they wrong choice. In larger decisions there is less They can do to change their choice so They are more willing to overlook petty details.


RichVR
Posted 21 March 2006 at 09:25 am

Grendel said: "How did the goose get in the kayak?"

It climbed up the racket-bracket.


elcman
Posted 21 March 2006 at 11:19 am

This works on so many levels even beyond decision making.

Sleeping on it always seems to be the key to learning something intense and logical. In the case of mathematics, I struggled with regurgitating the information that I learned on the same day. If I had a chance to peruse it without doing much of the actual calculations, I would find that I had a much clearer understanding of it when I approached it the next day. It did require me to invest a lot of time absorbing the information even if I didn't understand it.

The same thing also applies to gaming. If I play a game that I get frustrated with... I can usually pick it up the next day after getting a good amount of sleep and do it without a second thought. This whole principle is incredible and I've seen it in every situation where I've had to learn something more complex.

Great article!


another viewpoint
Posted 21 March 2006 at 12:11 pm

pseudosanity said: "I think most people are smarter than They think and can make any decision without thinking too much about it. After making a small decision, They overscrutinize their decision (which probably didn't matter in the first place), and pessimistically conclude that they made they wrong choice. In larger decisions there is less They can do to change their choice so They are more willing to overlook petty details."

...or they log onto eBay to see if they could have gotten a better deal.


rhea_sun
Posted 21 March 2006 at 01:04 pm

I have a friend who agonizes over every decision; from when to take the bus, to who to buy a cell phone from, to what type of MP3 player to purchase, or where to live, where to go to school etc. And so far has had problems every time with the final decision and often has to change or is unhappy with the outcome. even the simplest decisions are a major concern and take days, weeks and months to decide upon. I hope that when a quick decision is made, it's for the better.


Quagmire
Posted 22 March 2006 at 09:23 am

I think companies take advantage of option paralisis to sell products, by including a greater number of features. When I went shopping for a dishwasher I asked an employee to explain the difference between two models from the same company. I was looking for practical differences, like "this one will save you money by using less energy" or "this one is 30% faster" or anything, really.

What did he do? Count the buttons on both models and concluded the one with more buttons (and higher price, of course) is better. So I'm not sure what my point is exactly, but people are avoiding the thought that goes into research and comparison by just guaging the "flash" of the product, and how many buttons it has.


orc_jr
Posted 22 March 2006 at 12:47 pm

Grendel said: "How did the goose get in the kayak?"

RichVR said: "It climbed up the racket-bracket."

true, the racket-bracket did play an integral part in the insertion process, but one must not underestimate the importance of a properly calibrated myoelectric propulsion hyper-matrix.. now that was a highly deliberated purchase.. stupid ungrateful goose


paalexan
Posted 09 May 2006 at 07:08 pm

Is satisfaction a good measure of a "good decision"?

More information means a higher chance of making the wrong choice; knowing you might have made the wrong choice means you're more likely to feel uncomfortable with your decision.

Ignorance is bliss.


Hayley
Posted 15 May 2006 at 07:42 pm

So...we should never know anything about our decisions? Just do quick-draw decisions on everything? More time-efficient in the short-term, granted, but I don't know how well that would work.... It would, however, be more fun, undoubtedly.


Stead311
Posted 22 May 2006 at 02:11 pm

It makes sense that you have a "gut feeling" for a reason. So when it comes to things that are leisure like, things you want, i.e. house, car, etc... just go with the flow.


teresa green
Posted 22 May 2006 at 04:37 pm

what the fuck are you all talking about you deranged pack of wankas a goose where did you pull that shit from i think somebody burnt a weed plantation right near your house.

And also to answer "paalexans" comment paalexan says:
Is satisfaction a good measure of a "good decision"?
I bet you are a forty year old crack whore.


david_42
Posted 02 June 2006 at 10:01 am

I've developed a simple approach which uses both analysis and gut-reaction. I use analysis mainly to reduce the field of choices to a managable level and make the final selection on gut-feeling. Sometimes, the analysis is nothing more than identifying reasons to reject choices. Others, I will have a list of requirements which must be met. If either method eliminates all otions, I obviously don't need that item. No matter how much I might want it.


ieatlettuce
Posted 14 June 2007 at 11:53 pm

Hmm... I think it's safe to say that Teresa's decision about what to post was not highly deliberated.


Beautiful Confusion
Posted 20 August 2007 at 02:57 pm

When I was younger my sister and I used to pretend that we were psychic by laying out some playing cards and trying to turn over the one that we had chosen prior to shuffling. Oddly enough if I just went with my first instinct and chose the first card that made an impression on me I would most of the time be right. The second that I thought too hard about it and tried to insert a method of choosing I wouldn't be able to find the card until I had given up and turned them all over.


Former-Marine
Posted 27 October 2007 at 11:38 pm

Oorah! This reminds me of the joke, where a guy who wanted to find a wife, gave three woman US$ 5,000.00 to spend on anything they wanted. The 1st woman bought stuff for herself (so that she could look good for him). The 2nd woman bought stuff for him (to show her appreciation). The 3rd woman took a cruise and spent all the money having a great time. Which one did the guy marry? The one with the largest breasts. It would be a wonderful world if all decisions were THAT easy!


lizdini
Posted 12 March 2008 at 09:51 pm

I agonized over taking a new job. The new job payed better, had a better location & seemed to have an easier work load. My mind said it was the best choice. My gut told me that I should stay where I was. I took the job and try as I might I was miserable there. So, the moral is I learned to trust my gut (and not burn bridges, since they let me back to my old job)


END OF COMMENTS
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