Friday, February 17, 2006

Having trouble deciding? Don't think about it

People have a lot of strategies for deciding among complex options. There are the list-makers, the snap-deciders, and the procrastinators. A study coming out in Science this week suggests that a good strategy for complex decisions is essentially to sleep on it. It seems that you can only hold so much information in your conscious mind at once-- good enough for fairly simple situations-- but that your unconscious mind might be better at dealing with all those variables. Here is a block quote from the Science blurb:

To test the idea, Dijksterhuis and colleagues asked volunteers to read brief descriptions of four hypothetical cars and pick the one they'd like to buy after mulling it over for 4 minutes. The researchers made the decision far simpler than it is in real life by limiting the descriptions to just four attributes such as good gas mileage or poor legroom. One of the cars had more plusses than the others, and most participants chose this car. But when the researchers made the decision more complex by listing 12 attributes for each car, people identified the best car only about 25% of the time--no better than chance. The real surprise came when the researchers distracted the participants with anagram puzzles for 4 minutes before asking for their choices. More than half picked the best car. The counterintuitive conclusion, Dijksterhuis says, is that complex decisions are best made without conscious attention to the problem at hand.

The BBC writeup is here .
An older story, that in emotionally charged situations we tend to go with our gut, is here . Finally, Zack Lynch at Brainwaves ran a story about how the pleasure centers of the brain can override the decision-making process, and speculates about drugs which could improve snap decisions by traders by affecting this balance.

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