Friday, February 17, 2006

"Psychologist questions merit of serious thought"

The headline is misleading, but it's great Friday blog-fodder. Psychologists ask: at what point does conscious thought become detrimental to problem-solving? When is it better to...stop thinking? In the Guardian:
"Tough problems best left to the unconscious mind"

Here's a suggestion for the next time you need to make a complicated decision: stop thinking. According to a new study, thinking too hard about a problem leads to poor choices - difficult decisions are best handled by our unconscious minds. While most people are happy to buy a new set of towels without much thought, they are unlikely to buy a new car or house without some serious thought. But Ap Dijksterhuis, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, argues that we might be getting these methods of decision-making the wrong way around...

He asked volunteers to pick their favourite car from a list of four based on a set of four attributes including fuel consumption and passenger leg room. He gave them four minutes to think about their decision and most people chose the car with the most plus points. When Dr Dijksterhuis made the experiment more complex - 12 attributes rather than four - people could only identify the best car a quarter of the time. This result was no better than choosing at random.

However, when the researchers distracted the participants after showing them the cars (by giving them puzzles to do before asking participants to make their choices), more than half picked the best car. "Conscious thinkers were better able to make the best choice among simple products, whereas unconscious thinkers were better able to make the best choice among complex products," wrote Dr Dijksterhuis in a paper, published today in Science.

(Er, weren't the distracted participants making the "best" choices? Is distraction a good thing?)

The problem with thinking about things consciously is that you can only focus on a few things at once. In the face of a complex decision this can lead to giving certain factors undue importance. Thinking about something several times is also likely to produce slightly different evaluations, highlighting inconsistencies...

He added that unconscious thinking does not seem to suffer the capacity limit: "It has been shown that during unconscious thought large amounts of information can be integrated into a evaluative summary judgment."

Jonathan Schooler of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver told Science that, while the new study builds on evidence that too much reflection is detrimental in some situations, he is not yet ready to dispense with conscious thought when it comes to complex decisions. "What I think may be really critical is to engage in [conscious] reflection but not make a decision right away," he said.

Dr Dijksterhuis said that when an important decision comes up he gathers together the relevant facts and gives it all of his attention at first. Then, he told Science: "I sit on things and rely on my gut."
We aren't told enough about this research to evaluate it. I know lots of people who stop thinking about things. I can't say that I'm always impressed with the results...

But I won't think about this too seriously, right now. I'll just sit on it for awhile...


Blogger Joel said...

Am I allowed to think about this?

12:47 AM  
Anonymous Moonbeam said...

My joke is that I do my best thinking while playing computer puzzle games. A part of my mind focuses intently on matching the pretty bright sparkly colors and the rest of it is free to think deep thoughts and come to profound conclusions (profound to me, anyway, heh). That's the hypothesis I came up with after I realized how many inspirations I'd had while playing Jewel Quest, but then I've also come up with some good stuff while doing actual directed thinking, so I don't know how sound the idea really is.

It's only true of philosophical and spiritual type stuff anyway. As far as concrete decisions like houses and cars and bills (which I'm not good at, so I prefer to play video games and think deep spiritual thoughts), I do my best thinking in conversation with close friends/parents/husband.

Great, great, great blog.

7:49 AM  
Blogger Raine said...

I can see the validity of that in some cases. Not all of course but one in particular comes to mind. I have a friend who is so busy overthinking a simple situation that the person finds they cant act. In this particular situation I think it might be better if that person were to quit thinking altogether and just get on with it. but of course that cant apply in every case. Its good food for though LOLOL

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope this doesn't mean that Bush has good thing going; I mean, most of his decision making seems to be "knee-jerk" (oh oh, I mean "intuitive"!

11:27 AM  
Anonymous Allison said...

Annonymous...I had a great train of thought going, then you just had to go make me laugh! Damn you!

The gist of it: I agree with the article, as long as it's not taken to extremes. For me, I have found myself in many cases a bit flummoxed on the answer to a problem (work, personal, whatever), and by stepping away from the problem and doing something else (or literally sleeping on it, even), the answer just comes to me.

Over time, I've learned to trust my mind to help me figure puzzles out. That was the easy part. More difficult was developing the patience to just let go for a bit. Perhaps this is where the Christian idea of "giving it up to God" comes from -- the person sleeps on it, then credits God for the answer's arrival. Hmmm.

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article. It reminds me of the advice I've always heard about changing answers on a multiple choice test. How many times have I marked an answered, thought some more about it, then changed it to the wrong answer.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Professor Batty said...

...sounds a lot like Flippism to me...

6:47 AM  
Blogger Greg P said...

I think if you reframe this, it is more apparent that this is research designed to demonstrate the obvious in a nonobvious way.

If you present people with a larger more complex data set, they can be expected to have more difficulty.

The way most of us decide things is first of all by culling the choices by eliminating ones which are less important.

Wildebeest survive by presenting predators with an overwhelming data set. Their predators succeed by culling down to the weak and infirm.

6:56 AM  
Blogger Fallen Angels said...

I think this makes sense in some areas. I know that when I was having trouble with math homework a couple semesters ago, if I just put my pencil down and went for a walk, watched some tv, read a non-school book, etc...I suddenly understood my homework and was able to go back and finish it.


9:39 AM  
Blogger BiPolar Guy said...

The Buddhist monks have been saying this for years

9:59 AM  
Blogger firedawg said...

There is the old saying that it is better to your excercise your body but let your mind run free. The gist was that the more you concentrate the worse your memory and problem solving skills. "Forget your locker combo.... relax and it will come... try and concentrate and you will push it out of your mind". Got a big problem to solve.... like which new job or the best way to resolve an issue. Review the facts and tell yourself you want an answer ... let's say by the fifteenth. Then forget about it. According to those who believe in Conceptual Gestalt your mind will work on its own and come up with the best answer on the due date.

2:09 PM  

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