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Posts tagged ‘decision making’

Getting Mired In Trivial Choices: Why More Options Doesn’t Mean More Important

By now, our tendency to not decide optimally is well documented. When it comes to buying toothpaste or a new pair of jeans social science research has spoken: we’re not only irrational – we’re predictably irrational. What’s more is the fact that too much choice is actually harmful to our well-being. When there is an option for everything, we suffer.

Psychologists term this the paradox of choice, and it describes how we become less satisfied the more choices there are. Think about shopping for jeans. The more there are the more you expect to find a perfect fit. At the same time, it’s less likely that you pick correctly the larger the array. You walk out of the store less confident in your choice while worrying about the pairs that might have been better.

What’s interesting about the paradox of choice is that it doesn’t discriminate much. We struggle with important decisions like buying a new home, finding the right wife or husband, or picking health care plans. This is understandable. But the little things give us stress as well. Finding the perfect toothpaste can’t be that important, can it? The brain, in other words, doesn’t do a good job of realizing what’s at stake when we decide.

This poses a peculiar predicament for psychologists: why do our brains get so caught up in unimportant decisions? This brings me to a new paper (to be published in August) by Aner Sela and Jonah Berger. They ask: “Why do people get mired in seemingly trivial decisions? Why do we agonize over what toothbrush to buy, struggle with what sandwich to pick, and labor over which shade of white to paint the kitchen?”

Sela and Berger use the term “decision quicksand” to describe how we get sucked into unimportant decisions. Their key insight is that the brain conflates excess information with importance. This means that the more options there are, the more time and attention we give, even if we are just picking trivial items. Here are the scientists:

If people form inferences about decision importance from their own decision efforts, then not only might increased perceived importance lead people to spend more time deciding, but increased decision time might, in turn, validate and amplify these perceptions of importance, which might further increase deliberation time. Thus, one could imagine a recursive loop between deliberation time, difficulty, and perceived importance. Inferences from difficulty may not only impact immediate deliberation, but may kick off a quicksand cycle that leads people to spend more and more time on a decision that initially seemed rather unimportant. Quicksand sucks people in, but the worse it seems the more people struggle.

To demonstrate their point, Sela and Berger conducted a series of clever experiments. In one, they gave participants a selection of airline options. The scientists created two groups: the participants in the high-difficult condition were given the options in small, low contrast font; in the low-difficult condition, the participants were given the same options in a larger, high contrast font. The researchers found two things. The first, and less surprisingly discovery, was that participants in the high-difficulty condition spent more time deliberating the options. The more interesting finding is that this extra effort led to perceptions of increased importance. Moreover, the researchers found that this effect was pronounced when participants were told that the choice of flights was actually unimportant. In a world where there is an option for everything, it’s no wonder why we stress over the little things.

The good news is that many companies are beginning to recognize the implications of this cognitive misfiring. Several years ago Proctor & Gamble saw a 10 percent increase in sales when they reduced the number of Head and Shoulders variants from 26 to 15. They found similar results when they deployed the same strategies with Tide and Ivory soap. Likewise, The Golden Cat Corp. reported a 12 percent increase in sales when they eliminated 10 of its worst-selling kitty-litters. Even Wal-Mart is weighing in. Back in 2010 the retail giant dropped two of its five lines of peanut butter, which resulted in an increase in sales. “Folks can get overwhelmed with too much variety,” said Duncan MacNaughton, chief merchandising officer at Wal-Mart in Mississauga. “With too many choices, they actually don’t buy.”

These strategies couldn’t come soon enough. Over the last several years psychologists have documented the negative effects that come with choice overload. They use the term “Decision Fatigue” to describe this phenomenon. The problem is that deciding takes mental effort; it reduces willpower and encourages procrastination. When we are overwhelmed with choice we tend to be more irrational than normal. Here’s John Tierney, New York Times writer and co-author of Willpower with a brief synopsis of the idea:

There is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. When people fended off the temptation to scarf down M&M’s or freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, they were then less able to resist other temptations. When they forced themselves to remain stoic during a tearjerker movie, afterward they gave up more quickly on lab tasks requiring self-discipline, like working on a geometry puzzle or squeezing a hand-grip exerciser.

How do we remedy this first world problem? When it comes to important decisions, it’s probably a good thing to stress a little bit. But when there isn’t much on the line – what toothpaste to buy for example – remember that the stress you experience is likely a cognitive illusion. With this in mind, try to be less of a maximizer and more of a satisficer; trying to be optimal is nearly impossible – settle for what suffices.


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Why The Future of Neuroscience Will Be Emotionless

In Phaedrus, Plato likens the mind to a charioteer who commands two horses, one that is irrational and crazed and another that is noble and of good stock. The job of the charioteer is to control the horses to proceed towards Enlightenment and the truth.

Plato’s allegory sparked an idea that perpetuated throughout the next several millennia in western thought: emotion gets in the way of reason. This makes sense to us. When people act out-of-order, they’re irrational. No one was ever accused of being too reasonable. Around the 17th and 18th centuries, however, thinkers began to challenge this idea. David Hume turned the tables on Plato: reason, Hume said, was the slave of the passions. Psychological research of the last few decades not only confirms this view, some of it suggests that emotion is better at deciding.

We know a lot more about how the brain works compared to the ancient Greeks, but a decade into the 21st century researchers are still debating which of Plato’s horses is in control, and which one we should listen to.

A couple of recent studies are shedding new light on this age-old discourse. The first comes from Michael Pham and his team at Columbia Business School. The researchers asked participants to make predictions about eight different outcomes ranging from American Idol finalists, to the winners of the 2008 Democratic primary, to the winner of the BCS championship game. They also forecasted the Dow Jones average.

Pham created two groups. He told the first group to go with their guts and the second to think it through. The results were telling. In the American Idol results, for example, the first group correctly predicted the winner 41 percent of the time whereas the second group was only correct 24 percent of the time. The high-trust-in-feeling subjects even predicted the stock market better.

Pham and his team conclude the following:

Results from eight studies show that individuals who had higher trust in their feelings were better able to predict the outcome of a wide variety of future events than individuals who had lower trust in their feelings…. The fact that this phenomenon was observed in eight different studies and with a variety of prediction contexts suggests that this emotional oracle effect is a reliable and generalizable phenomenon. In addition, the fact that the phenomenon was observed both when people were experimentally induced to trust or not trust their feelings and when their chronic tendency to trust or not trust their feelings was simply measured suggests that the findings are not due to any peculiarity of the main manipulation.

Does this mean we should always trust our intuition? It depends. A recent study by Maarten Bos and his team identified an important nuance when it comes to trusting our feelings. They asked one hundred and fifty-six students to abstain from eating or drinking (sans water) for three hours before the study. When they arrived Bos divided his participants into two groups: one that consumed a sugary can of 7-Up and another that drank a sugar-free drink.

After waiting a few minutes to let the sugar reach the brain the students assessed four cars and four jobs, each with 12 key aspects that made them more or less appealing (Bos designed the study so an optimal choice was clear so he could measure of how well they decided). Next, half of the subjects in each group spent four minutes either thinking about the jobs and cars (the conscious thought condition) or watching a wildlife film (to prevent them from consciously thinking about the jobs and cars).

Here’s the BPS Research Digest on the results:

For the participants with low sugar, their ratings were more astute if they were in the unconscious thought condition, distracted by the second nature film. By contrast, the participants who’d had the benefit of the sugar hit showed more astute ratings if they were in the conscious thought condition and had had the chance to think deliberately for four minutes. ‘We found that when we have enough energy, conscious deliberation enables us to make good decisions,’ the researchers said. ‘The unconscious on the other hand seems to operate fine with low energy.’

So go with your gut if your energy is low. Otherwise, listen to your rational horse.

Here’s where things get difficult. By now the debate over the role reason and emotion play in decision-making is well documented. Psychologists have written thousands of papers on the subject. It shows in the popular literature as well. From Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, the lay audience knows about both the power of thinking without thinking and their predictable irrationalities.

But what exactly is being debated? What do psychologists mean when they talk about emotion and reason? Joseph LeDoux, author of popular neuroscience books including The Emotional Brain and The Synaptic Self, recently published a paper in the journal Neuron that flips the whole debate on its head. “There is little consensus about what emotion is and how it differs from other aspects of mind and behavior, in spite of discussion and debate that dates back to the earliest days in modern biology and psychology.” Yes, what we call emotion roughly correlates with certain parts of the brain, it is usually associated with activity in the amygdala and other systems. But we might be playing a language game, and neuroscientists are reaching a point where an understanding of the brain requires more sophisticated language.

As LeDoux sees it, “If we don’t have an agreed-upon definition of emotion that allows us to say what emotion is… how can we study emotion in animals or humans, and how can we make comparisons between species?” The short answer, according to the NYU professor, is “we fake it.”

With this in mind LeDoux introduces a new term to replace emotion: survival circuits. Here’s how he explains it:

The survival circuit concept provides a conceptualization of an important set of phenomena that are often studied under the rubric of emotion—those phenomena that reflect circuits and functions that are conserved across mammals. Included are circuits responsible for defense, energy/nutrition management, fluid balance, thermoregulation, and procreation, among others. With this approach, key phenomena relevant to the topic of emotion can be accounted for without assuming that the phenomena in question are fundamentally the same or even similar to the phenomena people refer to when they use emotion words to characterize subjective emotional feelings (like feeling afraid, angry, or sad). This approach shifts the focus away from questions about whether emotions that humans consciously experience (feel) are also present in other mammals, and toward questions about the extent to which circuits and corresponding functions that are relevant to the field of emotion and that are present in other mammals are also present in humans. And by reassembling ideas about emotion, motivation, reinforcement, and arousal in the context of survival circuits, hypotheses emerge about how organisms negotiate behavioral interactions with the environment in process of dealing with challenges and opportunities in daily life.

Needless to say, LeDoux’s paper changes things. Because emotion is an unworkable term for science, neuroscientists and psychologists will have to understand the brain on new terms. And when it comes to the reason-emotion debate – which of Plato’s horses we should trust – they will have to rethink certain assumptions and claims. The difficult part is that we humans, by our very nature, cannot help but resort to folk psychology to explain the brain. We deploy terms like soul, intellect, reason, intuition and emotion but these words describe very little. Can we understand the brain even though our words may never suffice? The future of cognitive science might depend on it.

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