Saturday, July 08, 2006

Our Guts May Know More Than We Think

I am a frustrated car-nut. In fact, I like anything that moves: planes, trains and automobiles. An old wooden boats...with motors or sails. I am frustrated because (a) I am not rich and (b) I am regular churchgoer. The first is important, because as my poor old 1968 MG Midget will witness to, it takes cash to make an old car new--and time. Which leads to the churchgoer part: most gatherings for car nuts happen on Sunday. When most people who like things that are shiny, move, make noise and blink are at swap meets, car shows, road races and rallies, I am in church. I am not whining. It just is.

Anyway, I was catching up on my car reading and I ran across this piece in the July, 2006 issue of Road & Track. Dennis Simanaitis writes in his "Tech Tidbits" column about a study in the February 17, 2006 issue of "Science." The article is called "Tough Decision? Don't Sweat It!" The study showed that too much contemplation can get in the way of good decision making. This is especially true when the decision is a complex one.

Simanaitis writes that the researchers (Ap Dijksterhuis, Maarten W. Bos, Loran F. Nordgren, and Rick B. van Baaren of the University of Amsterdam) found that "Conscious best directed to simple things like 'which socks shall I buy?' But a decision that requires evalutating many factor--choosing a car, for instance--is better handled by the subsconcious."

In dealing with "buyer's remorse" the researchers found that when choosing a car from a group of four cars (where, unknown to the subjects, one was rigged to be the 'ringer') subjects who used simpler criteria found the ringer very quickly. Volunteers who had more complex criteria, found the ringer on 25% of the time--no better than chance.

When the second experiment was re-run, the subjects were deliberately distracted so that they had to make the same decision more quickly. This time they picked the ringer more than half the time.

They asked buyers in a department store and also IKEA about how much time they spent thinking about a purchase, and, weeks later, how happy they were with their decision. Folks at the department store making relatively simple decisions and who spent more time deliberating were more pleased later on. But for the IKEA shoppers who were making more complex and expensive decsions, the opposite was true. Simanaitis says, "Those who reported less deliberation turned out to be happier."

He concludes: "Faced with a complex decision, researchers conclude, an optimal strategy seems to be to collect relevant information, give these facts good attention at first, and then sit on things to let one's subsconscious do the hard work."

Our guts may know more than we think.

The researchers did not look at large groups, only individuals and, perhaps, couples. But from where I sit, their research jives with ancient wisdom and the practice of some religious communities: talk, contemplate, pray about it, rinse, repeat, until consensus is reached. In other words, forcing big decisions tends to predict a bad outcome--or at least a complex outcome that does not feel good. Good decision making of complex questions might require fewer, not more, deciding factors.

In a group, part of the job may be to clear away distracting or irrelevant facts and to simplify the factors in a decision as much as possible.

As an old mechanic used to tell me when I was learning about fixing cars: don't worry the problem so much, you'll break it. I think Jesus had something to say about this, too, when he talked of lillies and sparrows and worry.

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