Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Big complex decisions: careful rational process

with 2 comments

Just as we suspected: a big and complex decision can’t be decided by one’s gut—that is, not if you want a good decision with a good outcome. So, for example, making a gut decision to invade another country would not be wise or even smart.

So how do you make a good decisions. Russo and Schoemaker, in their books Decision Traps and Winning Decisions, offer a process, which is a big help: if you know the appropriate activity and goal at each stage of the process, you know what you’re doing and don’t find yourself going in circles, but rather have a definite direction. Decision Traps points out the most common errors at each stage of the (4-stage) process, along with the most common error before the process begins and the most common error after the process ends: 10 traps in all. Really, this book should be the basis for a required course in the tenth grade, before students start with the first big life decision: where (and whether) to go to college. Every student is going to be making big decisions, so every student should take the course and learn how to do it.

I in fact taught a training course based on Decision Traps. Fascinating. Winning Decisions I don’t know as well.

Here’s what brought it to mind:

Neither snap judgements nor sleeping on a problem are any better than conscious thinking for making complex decisions, according to new research. The finding debunks a controversial 2006 research result asserting that unconscious thought is superior for complex decisions, such as buying a house or car. If anything, the new study suggests that conscious thought leads to better choices.

Since its publication two years ago by a Dutch research team in the journal Science, the earlier finding had been used to encourage decision-makers to make “snap” decisions (for example, in the best-selling book Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell) or to leave complex choices to the powers of unconscious thought (“Sleep on it”, Dijksterhuis et al., Science, 2006).

But in the new study, to be published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, scientists ran four experiments in which participants were presented with complex decisions and asked to choose the best option immediately (“blink”), after a period of conscious deliberation (“think”), or after a period of distraction (“sleep on it”), which is claimed to encourage “unconscious thought processes”.

In all experiments, there was some evidence that conscious deliberation can lead to better choices and little evidence for superiority of choices made “unconsciously”. Faced with making decisions such as choosing a rental apartment and buying a car, most participants made choices predicted by their subjective preferences for certain attributes (for example, safety, security, colour or price), regardless of the mode of thinking employed.

Unconscious thought is claimed to be an active process during which information is organized, weighted, and integrated in an optimal fashion. Its benefits are argued to be strongest when a decision is complex – one with multiple options and attributes – because unconscious thought does not suffer from the capacity limitations that hobble conscious thought.

“Claims that we can make superior ‘snap’ decisions by trusting intuition or through the ‘power’ of unconscious thought have received a great deal of attention in the media,” says University of New South Wales psychologist, Dr Ben Newell, lead author of the new study.

Among the headlines that followed the 2006 research are these: “Dilemma? Don’t give it a thought,” The Times, 17-02-06; “Trust your gut instinct when those shopping decisions get tough, say scientists,” The Telegraph, UK, 17-02-06; “Big decision time? Best to sleep on it,” Reuters News, 16-02-06.

“At best, these sorts of headlines are misleading,” says Dr Newell. “At worst, they’re outright dangerous. In stark contrast to claims made by the Dutch research team and in the media, we found very little evidence of the superiority of unconscious thought for complex decisions.

“On the contrary, our research suggests that unconscious thought is more susceptible to irrelevant factors, such as how recently information has been seen rather than how important it is. If conscious thinkers are given adequate time to encode material, or are allowed to consult material while they deliberate, their choices are at least as good as those made ‘unconsciously’.”

Source: University of New South Wales

Written by LeisureGuy

11 August 2008 at 8:14 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

2 Responses

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  1. “So, for example, making a gut decision to invade another country would not be wise or even smart.”

    However a decision to invade a country to avoid a more dangerous, possibly inevitable future conflict might be a wise, deliberative, proactive, far-seeing choice — especially it the war liberated that country from a ruthless, viscious dictator ….

    How did the researchers determine what kinds of choices were “unconscious”? Wouldn’t those, by definition, be rather hard to identify. I mean if they’re truly unconscious … how is anybody going to know that they even exist?

    I named my dog “Molly,” by the way, and I acted unilaterally — and it turned out to be a great name for a great dog and I’m quite sure that the insight came to me quickly and brilliantly and was entirely unconscious — though I had slept on it, of course.

    This is really a great blog you’ve got here.


    23 August 2008 at 11:27 pm

  2. Well, in point of fact the invasion of Iraq did not work out well: the cost in lives and in money is unconscionable, and the net effect on terrorism was to greatly increase the number of terrorists who hate the US and provide them a training ground and enormous stores of munitions. In addition, our unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation left us without much to say when Russia invaded Georgia—though the GOP did say that in the 21st century sovereign nations did not invade other sovereign nations, apparently forgetting about the US invasion of Iraq. Moreover, the infrastructure of the country was destroyed to the extent that most Iraqi families still have no good access to clean drinking water—and don’t even mention electricity. That that “possibly inevitable future conflict”? There seems no reason to believe that Saddam Hussein had any grand plans against the US.

    From reading the report, I would say that the researchers looked at decisions made without a conscious process: that is, the person is conscious of the decision (“I’m buying that car”), but is not aware of any particular analysis: the car simply “appealed” to the buyer, who made the decsion without conscious deliberation.

    I don’t think naming one’s pet would count as a big, complex decision.

    Thank you for your kind comment about the blog.


    24 August 2008 at 7:34 am

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