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Big Decision: Head or Gut? Hmm ...

This week's paper is

On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect

by Ap Dijksterhuis, Maarten W. Bos, Loran F. Nordgren and Rick B. van Baaren
Department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam Science, 17 February 2006.

The Decider
Should a Decider be deliberative or ... what?


by David Dobbs, Editor, Mind Matters

One of the many pleasures of reading Patrick O'Brian's splendid Aubrey-Maturin novels, in which the Royal Navy's Captain Jack Aubrey and surgeon, naturalist, and spy Stephen Maturin navigate challenges nautical, military, medical, musical and philosophical during the Napoleonic era, is witnessing Captain Aubrey's nearly flawless decisiveness. (At sea, anyway; on land he is one long blunder.) Whether the question regards putting on more sail, engaging a seemingly superior foe, or forestalling mutiny, Aubrey -- Lucky Jack, to his friends -- seems to always make the right call. It was not until I read the paper under review here, however, that I recognized what may be Lucky Jack's greatest gift in the decisions department: Aubrey possesses an uncanny instinct for knowing when he can make a vital decision quickly, with little or no thought, and when he needs to proceed more deliberatively. This question -- to deliberate or not to deliberate -- is explored is the study taken up this week, On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect. Our reviewers, psychologist Alex Haslam and economist George Loewenstein, offer decisive opinions about the paper's strengths and weaknesses, and their deliberations illuminate both the possibilities and the difficulties of the fast-growing discipline of decision science. Whom you most agree with is something you'll have to decide -- once, that is, you've decided how much to think about it. Jump aboard. And please feel free to chime in at the comments section. Jack would.


I Think, Therefore I Err?

by Alex Haslam

In Gordium in the 4th century B.C., an oxcart was roped to a pole with a complex knot, and it was said that the first person to untie it would become the king of Asia. Unfortunately, the knot proved impossible to untie. Legend has it that when confronted with this problem, rather than deliberate on how to untie the knot, Alexander simply took his sword and cut it in two -- then went on to conquer Asia. Ever since, the notion of a "Gordian solution" has referred to the attractiveness of a simple answer to an otherwise intractable problem. Among researchers in the psychology of decision-making, however, such solutions have traditionally held little appeal. In particular, the "conflict model" of decision-making proposed by psychologists Irving Janis and Leon Mann in their 1977 book Decision Making argued that a complex decision-making process is essential to guard individuals and groups from the perils of "groupthink." Decisions made without thoroughly canvassing, surveying, weighing, examining and reexamining relevant information and options would be suboptimal and often disastrous. The Kennedy administration's calamitous decision to invade the Bay of Pigs in 1961 is typically held up as an example of such perils, whereas its successful handling of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 is cited as an example of the advantages of careful deliberation. Unfortunately, examination of these historical events by researchers like psychologist Peter Suedfeld and Rod Kramer found little difference in the complexity of the decision-making processes surrounding them; both crises required and received complex consideration, and Kennedy just got it right the second time. In general, however, organizational and political science offers little evidence that complex decisions fare better than simpler ones. In fact, a growing body of work in social cognition suggests that in many situations simple "snap" decisions will be routinely superior to more complex ones -- an idea that gained widespread public appeal with the publication of Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling book Blink. The recent Science article by Ap Dijksterhuis and colleagues, "On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect," runs very much in the spirit of Gladwell’s influential text. Its core argument is that in order to be effective, conscious (deliberative) decision-making requires cognitive resources, and that because increasingly complex decisions place increasing strain on those resources, the quality of our decisions declines as their complexity increases. In short, complex decisions overrun our cognitive powers. On the other hand (this argument holds), unconscious decision-making (what the authors refer to as "deliberation without attention," akin to "sleeping on it") requires no cognitive resources, so task complexity doesn't degrade its effectiveness. The seemingly counterintuitive conclusion is that although simple decisions are enhanced by conscious thought, the opposite holds for more complex decisions. As Alexander showed, it sometimes pays not to think too hard about a complex problem. Dijksterhuis and colleagues report four simple but elegant studies supporting this argument. In one, participants assessed the quality of four hypothetical cars by considering either four attributes (a simple task) or twelve attributes (a complex task). Among participants who considered four attributes, those who were allowed to engage in undistracted deliberative thought did better at discriminating between the best and worst cars than those who were distracted and hence unable to deliberate. The opposite pattern emerged when people considered twelve criteria. Here, conscious deliberation led to inferior discrimination and poor decisions. In another study Dijksterhuis and colleagues surveyed shoppers emerging from either the Dutch department store Bijenkorf (which sells "simple" products; for example, clothes) or IKEA (which sells more "complex" ones, such as furniture). How did simple decision-making strategies fare in those venues? Compared with shoppers who said they had deliberated long and hard, shoppers who bought with little conscious deliberation felt less happy with their simple purchases at Bijenkorf but more happy with the complex purchases made at IKEA. Deliberation-without-attention actually produced better results as the decisions became more complex. Choose your socks carefully -- but don't sweat the details about the couch. From there, however, the researchers take a big leap. They write:
There is no reason to assume that the deliberation-without-attention effect does not generalize to other types of choices -- political, managerial or otherwise. In such cases, it should benefit the individual to think consciously about simple matters and to delegate thinking about more complex matters to the unconscious.
This radical inference flies in the face of received political and managerial theory (for instance, after Janis and Mann's warnings about groupthink). It doubtless gives succor to would-be Alexanders in politics and management who are fed up with interminable committees, intractable negotiations and the increasingly onerous task of information management. Indeed, one suspects that many of our political leaders already embrace this wisdom. Who needs the United Nations? Who needs parliamentary process? Who needs democracy? As George Bush put it on June 1, 2003, after having invaded Iraq, "I'm ... not very analytical. You know, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about myself, about why I do things." Yet it is here, in the realms of society and its governance, that the more problematic implications of deliberation-without-attention begin to surface. Variables that can be neatly circumscribed in decisions about shopping lose clarity in a world of group dynamics, social interaction, history and politics. Two pertinent questions arise. First, what counts as a complex decision? And second, what counts as a good outcome? Someone shopping for socks or a car may be able to answer these questions straightforwardly. But in the wider world, what constitutes a complex decision or a good outcome is in no sense "given," and a great deal of political energy must be dedicated to defining (and redefining) precisely these things. Yet social psychology suggests that when it comes to decisions affecting groups, the deliberative process itself greatly increases the outcome's viability. NYU psychologist Tom Tyler's studies of criminal justice show that people value not so much the legal system's outcomes as the opportunity to see justice being done. And as social psychology pioneer Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) noted, a "good" decision that nobody respects is actually bad. His classic studies of decision-making showed that participating in deliberative processes makes people more likely to abide by the results. These are only a few of the reasons why a belief that "less is more" can be dangerous when applied to big decisions. Evidence suggests that for every intuitive manager there is an autocratic tyrant. And for every Alexander who takes the path of nondeliberation to glory, there is a Bush or two who takes it (and us) to somewhere far more problematic. The issue here is that when political decision-makers err, the fault typically lies less in their psychology or decision-making style than in their politics -- and, more particularly, in the relationship between their politics and ours. Like Gladwell's book, this paper by Dijksterhuis and colleagues is invaluable in pointing out the limitations of the conventional wisdom that decision quality rises with decision-making complexity. But the sting in the tail is that this work still tempts us to believe that decision quality is simply a question of psychology (in this case, one of matching cognitive load to cognitive resources) rather than also a question of politics, ideology and group membership. Avoiding such social considerations in a quest for general appeal can take us away from enlightenment rather than towards it. Think about it.

Alex Haslam is a professor of social psychology at the University of Exeter, where he investigates leadership, social judgment and prejudice and research methodology.


Conscious Decisions: Not Yet Proven Obsolete

by George Loewenstein
To conclude from their studies, as Dijksterhuis and colleagues do in "On Making the Right Choice," that "choices in complex matters ... should be left to unconscious thought," is to treat an "existence proof" -- a demonstration that it is possible to identify a situation in which conscious deliberation may be counterproductive -- as a demonstration of a universal principle. It is a long stretch from the observation that some complex decisions can best be made on gut-feel to the conclusion that we should make most or all such choices that way. Certainly, all decision-making, and in fact virtually all cognitive processing, involves some unconscious thought, and some research has shown that blocking access to emotional, or gut, reactions can degrade decision quality. However, it goes a step too far to argue that it's best to make most complicated decisions on the basis of unconscious deliberation. We evolved our deliberative capacity precisely because it helped us manage complexity. It seems unlikely that we'll gain by suppressing these capabilities in exactly the circumstances that spurred their evolution. Plenty of research bears out this notion. For example, research on strategic behavior in economic games has identified a wide range of situations in which thinking one step ahead of an opponent provides a decisive advantage. Research on behavior in markets shows that failing to think carefully about other participants' likely actions leads to adverse consequences, such as the "winner's curse" (the tendency for auction winners to pay too much). Research on the effects of alcohol contradicts the idea that unconscious deliberation leads to superior decisions. Likewise, research on self-control has identified a number of situations in which explicit deliberation (combined with the mobilization of willpower) leads to decisions that serve better over the long run. And an enormous body of research documents the superiority of systematic decision rules over clinical judgment for a wide range of judgments and decisions. On the anecdotal side, the disastrous decisions of the current U.S. president, who prides himself on "shooting from the hip" and judging what is "in the heart" of other foreign leaders based purely on feelings, provides a vivid if unscientific counterexample to the idea that complex decisions are best made in "mindless" fashion. How prevalent are situations in which purely unconscious deliberation produces better outcomes than does conscious deliberation? To claim that one way of thinking is better than another, one would need to take a representative sample of activities and determine the average performance of different thinking modes in that sample. However, currently there is no established methodology for sampling situations or activities, and it is unlikely that such a methodology will arise in the near future. I would venture that such situations are rare. The experimental setup in the first two studies cited by Dijksterhuis and colleagues, in which subjects were sequentially exposed to large volumes of information about hypothetical automobiles with unfamiliar fictitious names and then asked to evaluate the automobiles, for instance, seems to be more about memory than decision-making; the quality of those decisions hinged mainly on how well subjects remembered the information they were barraged with. Meanwhile, for most complex and important decisions, including buying a car, one usually has considerable information at hand and/or in memory when deciding. Admittedly there may come a moment when, after agonizing for hours, you turn to your spouse and you both simultaneously blurt out, "It's the Audi." But a tremendous amount of conscious information gathering and deliberation goes into making such a nondeliberative moment productive. Ultimately, I'm not convinced the deliberation-without-attention effect applies even to choosing a car. Finally, although the third and fourth studies cited by Dijksterhuis examined real decisions, it is difficult (as the authors acknowledge) to confidently draw causal conclusions because the subjects' awareness of their levels of deliberation could not be experimentally manipulated. It is possible that the subjects who reported deliberating little about a complex choice expressed satisfaction with that choice not because deliberation backfires but because a pre-existing expertise in the domain of choice led to both less deliberation and greater satisfaction. As a resident of Pittsburgh, for example, if I were asked to choose a restaurant for an evening in Pittsburgh or Birmingham, I could probably deliberate less about where to eat in Pittsburgh and still end up happier with my choice. Surprising findings, such as those reported in this paper, can certainly be illuminating. The discovery that conscious deliberation may sometimes decrease the quality of choice could, if validated by further research, shed important light on the psychological processes underlying decision-making. However, the conclusion that complex decisions are best made without explicit deliberation seems premature, at best. We can only hope that our future leaders deliberate consciously about pros and cons and potential pitfalls when making the decision whether to take military action against a foreign country.

George Loewenstein is Herman A. Simon Professor of Economics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, where he studies how psychological factors affect economic decisions and processes.
-- Edited by David Dobbs at 12/26/2007 8:01 AM

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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