Thursday, February 16, 2006

Following Your Gut

The Business of Life has a great post about the differences between how people make difficult life decisions and simpler decisions. She quotes from a study summary (the report itself is behind a subscription wall):
"However, as the decisions become complex (more expensive items with many characteristics, such as cars), better decisions and happier ones come from not attending to the choices but allowing one's unconscious to sift through the many permutations for the optimal combination."
This Boston Globe article fleshes out some of the ideas in the paper:
"The results, Dijksterhuis said, underscored flaws in conscious decision-making. A person can pay attention to only a limited amount of information at once, which can lead people to focus on just a few factors and lose the bigger picture. The unconscious is better, he said, at integrating large amounts of information.

Another flaw, he said, is what he called a 'weighing problem.' The conscious mind can weigh some factors too heavily, and discount others that are important.

For example, when people buy a house, they tend to put too much emphasis on its size, and not enough on their commute every day, he said. When working through a decision consciously, the mind has a tendency to focus on factors that are easy to articulate -- like the number of square feet -- at the expense of other factors that are hard to put into words."
This is fascinating lifestylism stuff. I might add my own theory to the discussion: most of us just don't have good skills or tools to help us make these more complex, holistic lifestyle decisions. I don't think it has much to do with how our brains are wired -- with better tools, I think complex decision-making that takes the big-picture (aligning with values, cascading effects throughout your life) view can be learned.


Sophie said...

Thanks Jeremy, for sharing this cool research finding on the importance of sub/unconscious decision-making for "the big ones."

Over the years I've encouraged people to weigh out the value of the various factors when deciding on a new career, and then suggested putting it all away and getting an intuitive feel for the overall hit. I appreciate some empirical validation for a process that many people seemed tantalized by, but were tentative about embracing! Who knows, it might actually tell you what you need to know (and/or already know)!

Jeremy said...

No problem...I was just passing along what Jill had found. Cool stuff, eh?

shamash said...

This discussion reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink: the Power of Thinking Without Thinking". Have you read it?

The book jacket reads, ""A snap judgement made very quickly... can actually be far more effective than one made deliberately and cautiously."

My best decisions haven't been always logicial or necessarily wise; they've been made "in the blink of an eye."

Jeremy said...

No, haven't read Blink -- did you? The early reviews didn't sound too promising, so I skipped it, despite having enjoying The Tipping Point.

From my understanding of this study, it was making an attempt to describe and compare how people currently tend to make different kinds of decisions...but some of the commentary afterward seemed to be assuming that it was trying to tell us that we should be making complex decisions on a whim...or at using it to justify our past impulse decisions.

I see it more as an indication that there's a need for people to learn how to make difficult decisions more effectively. The subconscious should probably still play a role, but I think better tools would make it less important.

shamash said...

Yes, I've read "Blink" (as well as "The Tipping Point.")

It's a hot book here in SE Asia, and last time I was in Bangkok, it was on the "featured display" table of all the English bookstores. Everyone, it seems, is reading it: on beaches, on trains, and at the airport.

For me, the book simply confirmed what I already know: it's best to go with your gut. My parents have a phrase they often use: "I just didn't feel a peace about it."

It's that "knowing" when you meet someone: you can tell they are lying, or telling the truth. And there's no way to put a finger on why you know. You just do.

As to life decisions, for me it's been a combination of logical, practical reasons, and that "feeling a peace about it." When signing contracts for jobs in countries I've never visited, sometimes "going with the gut" is all you have. :-)

Jeremy said...

"As to life decisions, for me it's been a combination of logical, practical reasons, and that 'feeling a peace about it.'"

That's well said. One of the obvservations that triggered this whole lifestylism exploration was the sense that we seem to have a hard time seeing how the different parts interact to make up our whole lives. There's something inherently difficult about considering and managing all the variables involved in a big decision and seeing how it cascades through all areas of our lives. At some point, I think we sort of give up trying to rationalize it and say we're following our gut feeling instead...but the rationalizing process is what helps form those gut feelings.

And it sounds like you've often made the decision to just do it, rather than rationalizing yourself out of pursuing interesting and transformative life changes. I had an influential teacher who often said, "when in doubt, do". Of course the disclaimer was that you shouldn't do things that contradicted your values...but overall it's a recipe for an active, engaged, rich life. It's almost always easier to not do things outside of your normal patterns.

There seems to be something about this idea of opportunity -- when we spend too much time and energy trying to figure out the best approach, we miss opportunities. Maybe "following your gut" is sort of shorthand for "when it doubt, do" or even "take advantage of opportunities that arise".