The more complex a decision we have to make, common sense would suggest, the more we ought to think about it. Be that buying a car, deciding on a career choice, or getting married, you surely don't want to make impulsive decisions. Well, not exactly, according to a recent study by Ap Dijksterhuis and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam (Science, vol. 311, p. 1005, 17 February 2006).
The Dutch researchers started with a fairly simple laboratory situation, in which they asked several subjects to pick among four cars to buy, based on only four attributes. After four minutes of pondering (I don't know why Dijksterhuis and collaborators picked four as a magic number, but that's another issue), most subjects chose the right car – i.e., the one that objectively scored better than the other ones on the four attributes considered.
Good, but things got interesting when the task was made more difficult by increasing the number of attributes to 12, still with four cars in the running. Now people picked the best car in about 25% of the cases, i.e., consistent with a random choice. And here comes the real twist: researchers posed the 12-attribute problem again, but this time they distracted the subjects during the four minutes of decision making: surprisingly, more than half picked the right car!
What are we to make of this? For someone writing a blog called “rationally speaking” it would seem that psychological research is dealing a blow to the whole idea that rational, conscious thinking is all that useful precisely in those areas where we think it ought to be: to tackle complex problems. Indeed, Dijksterhuis comments in Science that conscious thought can only handle so many things at one time, and that the evaluation of many factors may best be left to the unconscious processing of information.
Yet, not all is lost for the rational thinker. According to Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia commenting on the findings of the Dutch group, “What I think may be really critical is to engage in [conscious] reflection but not make a decision right away.” Indeed, Dijksterhuis himself says that whenever he is faced with an important decision, he does collect the relevant evidence and consciously thinks about it, but then postpones decision until his unconscious processing (also known as “intuition”) seems to reach an equilibrium. As he put it, “I sit on things and rely on my gut.” Of course, the question naturally arises of how to decide how long to sit on things, which of course often is a complex decision in itself, influenced by many factors...