Complex Decision To Make? Go With the Gut

Over the last couple of years a number of researchers have upended conventional wisdom by finding that complex decisions, for instance, those having lots of variables, are better “made” through our emotional system. This flies in the face of the commonly held belief that complexity is best handled by our rational side.

[div class=attrib]Jonah Lehrer over at the Frontal Cortex brings us up to date on current thinking.[end-div]

We live in a world filled with difficult decisions. In fact, we’ve managed to turn even trivial choices – say, picking a toothpaste – into a tortured mental task, as the typical supermarket has more than 200 different dental cleaning options. Should I choose a toothpaste based on fluoride content? Do I need a whitener in my toothpaste? Is Crest different than Colgate? The end result is that the banal selection becomes cognitively demanding, as I have to assess dozens of alternatives and take an array of variables into account. And it’s not just toothpaste: The same thing has happened to nearly every consumption decision, from bottled water to blue jeans to stocks. There are no simple choices left – capitalism makes everything complicated.

How should we make all these hard choices? How does one navigate a world of seemingly infinite alternatives? For thousands of years, the answer has seemed obvious: when faced with a difficult dilemma, we should carefully assess our options and spend a few moments consciously deliberating the information. Then, we should choose the toothpaste that best fits our preferences. This is how we maximize utility and get the most bang for the buck. We are rational agents – we should make decisions in a rational manner.

But what if rationality backfires? What if we make better decisions when we trust our gut instincts? While there is an extensive literature on the potential wisdom of human emotion, it’s only in the last few years that researchers have demonstrated that the emotional system (aka Type 1 thinking) might excel at complex decisions, or those involving lots of variables. If true, this would suggest that the unconscious is better suited for difficult cognitive tasks than the conscious brain, that the very thought process we’ve long disregarded as irrational and impulsive might actually be “smarter” than reasoned deliberation. This is largely because the unconscious is able to handle a surfeit of information, digesting the facts without getting overwhelmed. (Human reason, in contrast, has a very strict bottleneck and can only process about four bits of data at any given moment.) When confused in the toothpaste aisle, bewildered by all the different options, we should go with the product that feels the best.

The most widely cited demonstration of this theory is a 2006 Science paper led by Ap Dijksterhuis. (I wrote about the research in How We Decide.) The experiment went like this: Dijksterhuis got together a group of Dutch car shoppers and gave them descriptions of four different used cars. Each of the cars was rated in four different categories, for a total of sixteen pieces of information. Car number 1, for example, was described as getting good mileage, but had a shoddy transmission and poor sound system. Car number 2 handled poorly, but had lots of legroom. Dijksterhuis designed the experiment so that one car was objectively ideal, with “predominantly positive aspects”. After showing people these car ratings, Dijksterhuis then gave them a few minutes to consciously contemplate their decision. In this “easy” situation, more than fifty percent of the subjects ended up choosing the best car.

[div class=attrib]Read more of the article and Ap Dijksterhuis’ classic experiment here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of CustomerSpeak.[end-div]