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 .