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Decision-Making: Deliberation Without Attention

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“Every thought on the wire leads to a fall.” – Philippe Petit, High Wire Aerialist

People feel much more responsible for their actions than their inactions. Joseph Hallinan says in his book ‘Errornomics – Why We Make Mistakes’ that at the moment you think you’re making a decision, it only seems so. It’s really long after the real decision was actually made.

This is an extract from my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’.

Most days are made up of a series of decisions. Some are like which of three cereals should you have for breakfast or which task to start next. Some decisions might be about buying a house or signing a contract to undergo elective surgery. Maybe you agonise over every decision or just the big ones or none at all? The rest you just go with your gut feeling. Sometimes you’ll regret the decisions you make, or choose not to make, and sometimes you won’t. What’s the smartest way to make decisions or help others make them? It depends on the complexity of the decision.

Ap Dijksterhuis out of the University of Amsterdam conducted several studies on just this subject. However, like many of the researchers I’ve read for this book, they used sentences like, “Because of the low processing capacity of consciousness, conscious thought was hypothesized to be maladaptive when making complex decisions.” And they’re right but wordy. In my words, it’s hard to think about a bunch of complicated things at once.

You might like to imagine you’re a rational, logical person who’ll weigh up the pro’s and cons of each decision you make, especially the big ones, and make the best decision you can with the information you have. But what Dijksterhuis proved was quite different. He studied consumers and shoppers in lab conditions and in actual sales situations – during and after. The ‘after’ is especially important, as that is when the true quality and impact of a decision hit home.

All participants were facing a purchase decision of varying sizes. Half were interrupted and distracted during their decision-making process. All were subsequently followed up on how they felt about their decision post-purchase. The thinking was that the distraction allowed the unconscious mind, which can handle lots of complexity at once, to process the decision. It hooks into the brains emotional centres. This is where ‘gut feelings’ may come from. Plus emotional responses to the decision choices are pre-rehearsed and emotional responses to each assessed by your brain with you not consciously aware of them.

His findings were that “simple choices (such as between different towels or different sets of oven mitts) indeed produce better results after conscious thought, but that choices in complex matters (such as between different houses or different cars) should be left to unconscious thought. Named the ‘deliberation-without-attention’ hypothesis, it was confirmed in four studies.”

Conscious thought focuses attention on whatever factors manage to squeeze themselves into our limited conscious mind at the time. That distorts perception and can over-inflate the relative importance of certain factors.

Researcher Loren Nordgren joked about Rene Descartes’ famous quote, “I think therefore I am.” That was all well and good but was he always happy with the shoes he chose to buy? Over-thinking doesn’t make for good decisions when it’s not a simple decision.

I’m not suggesting that lack of attention is a good thing. Otherwise we may as well put teenagers in charge of all the important decisions. Most can usually (always) be relied upon to provide the ‘without attention’ component! No, it has to be a bit more structured than that.

Both studies look at what might be called intentional self distraction. They contrasted three approaches to decision-making: make an instant choice, long list of pro’s and cons, briefly distracting the conscious mind. The latter was the most effective and, down the road a bit, evoked the least regret.

If you just skim read Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’, you might assume that instant decisions are often best. But on closer examination, I reckon Gladwell agrees with Dijksterhuis. Both reject the supposedly time-tested tradition of logically weighing up over a period of intense concentration a list of pro’s and cons. It takes ages and delivers a poorer result.

My shorthand version of a useful process is:

1. Introduce the problem and range of solution options

2. Carry out a pre-set 3 minute distraction activity.

3. Return to the problem and / or the options. Make your choice.

4. Live with it.

So, what?

I had it drummed into me and I subsequently preached to those I trained about the commonsense of structured event interviewing as a tool for recruiting. I was schooled on the value of decision matrix spreadsheets when evaluating complex contract tender responses. Does this research mean those formal processes have no value? No. Recruiting and big contracts are expensive and the consequences of mistakes are significant. At the very least, you may need to retrospectively justify your decision. (ie Cover your butt.) I think the lesson of deliberation-without-attention is that it pays to try both approaches. If they don’t match, you might need to do some more research and ask some more questions.

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Making Decisions

decisions

My latest podcast, this one on making decisions.

 

 

 

 

 

How Can You Help Your People Make Better Decisions?

You don't need to carbo-load to make better decisions, try distraction to leverage the power of your much wiser unconscious self.

You don't need to carbo-load to make better decisions, try distraction to leverage the power of your much wiser unconscious self.

This study by Ap Dijksterhuis and Teun Meurs out of the University of Amsterdam cleverly reveals how thinking too much and poring for ages over the logical list of pro’s and cons you’ve made about that big decision you have to make can actually cause a much lower quality outcome. (Which is bad if you’re choosing a new toaster but terrible if it’s a new car, employee or husband / wife.) This particular study focuses on creativity and originality but Dijksterhuis has another study more specifically about making decisions – examining the ‘deliberation without attention’ hypothesis.

I’m not suggesting that lack of attention is a good thing. Otherwise we may as well put teenagers in charge of all the important decisions. Most can usually (always) be relied upon to provide the ‘without attention’ component! No, it has to be a bit more structured than that.

Both studies look at what might be called intentional self distraction. They contrasted three approaches to decision-making: make an instant choice, long list of pro’s and cons, briefly distracting the conscious mind. The latter was the most effective and , down the road a bit, evoked the least regret.

If you just skim read Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’, you might assume that instant decisions are often best. But on closer examination, I reckon Gladwell agrees with Dijksterhuis. Both reject the supposedly time-tested tradition of logically weighing up over a period of intense concentration a list of pro’s and cons. It takes ages and delivers a poorer result.

My shorthand version of a useful process is:
1. Introduce the problem and range of solution options if they exist yet
2. Carry out a pre-set 3 minute distraction activity*.
3. Return to the problem and / or the options. Make your choice.
4. Live with it.

* By distraction activity, they’re not talking about painting the beach house or enlisting in the foreign legion (although if that whole husband / wife thing didn’t work out, it’s always an option.) No, it’s something simple. Their test involved having subjects follow a dot on a screen for three minutes. Thus they had to focus and actively concentrate on something unrelated to the problem for only a short period but nonetheless long enough to get the loud conscious mind to shut the hell up for while. I’ve started testing one that doesn’t need any capital investment in screens which seems like a hassle in the real world outside university studies. Try counting to 100 three numbers at a time, reversing the order of every second set of three numbers. Even the instructions are quite distracting! It’s simple really though but it does clear the mind of anything else, especially that pesky problem. 1,2,3,6,5,4,7,8,9,12,11,10 etc. (Don’t write them down. You’re supposed to to do it in your head. That’s the point – distracting focus.)

Despite the best efforts of everyone I know to recommend i-Phone game apps to me, I have only one – Word Warp. Six random letters appear and I need to make as many words out of those six letters as I can in six minutes, scoring points, but I lose out entirely and revert to zero if I fail to make at least one six letter word in that two minutes. There is, of course, a ticking clock in the background that cranks it up in the last ten seconds. I’ll play the game on flights when the person next to me I’ve been chatting to decides to fake sleep. Sometimes I’ll get interrupted during a two minute spell to reject the offer of airline food. I’m always astonished at my much improved performance upon my return to the game. Our much smarter unconscious selves get into gear once they’re allowed to, thanks to the distraction.

We can’t have a flight attendant distracting us all the time, at just the right moment to allow our minds to process decisions, utilising deliberation without attention. (Except JetStar, I think they’ll do that.) We need to manage our decision processes at work and those of our people to, not just allow, but insist upon, a managed period of controlled distraction. You’re paying the wages of their unconscious minds; they may as well get put to work too.

In case you’re wondering (and we should spend a lot of our time wondering, don’t you think…) what the pasta image has to do with anything, here’s what. The creativity study tested the subjects by getting them to think up names to for new types of pasta. If it ended in the letter ‘i’, suggestions were deemed to be uncreative. I have a similar rule when it comes to attending operas – I’ll only attend an opera whose composer has a surname ending in a vowel, and sometimes Tchaikovsky .

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