Many of our readers will probably remember that when, at secondary school, we started writing small essays, the teacher would tell us that if we were going to discuss a proposal, we should divide a sheet of paper into two columns, writing over the one Pro and over the other Con. Then, we would put short points for or against the measure. This would help us find where the balance lies.In this way, though the weight of reasons would not have the precision of algebraic quantities, yet we would consider them separately and comparatively, so that we would judge better and be less liable to make a rash decision.
Over 180 years ago Charles Darwin – one of the greatest intellects of the modern era – was faced with a momentous decision. If one goes to see his journal at Cambridge University Library, he will find a page with two columns headed “Marry” and “Not Marry” separated by the statement, “This is the question”. Below each were various pros, such as companionship in old age, and cons, such as disruption to his work, which entered into Darwin’s cost-benefit analysis of taking the plunge. His conclusion was that the pros outweighed the cons.
Charles and his cousin Emma Wedgwood tied the knot on 29th January 1839, had 10 children, and were married for over 40 years. So, at least in terms of family and longevity, getting married appeared to have been a good decision.
Which approach to decision-making?
When faced with a difficult decision, we should carefully consider the evidence before us, weigh things up, and try to settle on the best course of action. Indeed, the essence of what that other scientist, inventor, and statesman Benjamin Franklin called his “moral” or “prudential algebra” is found in many of the formal descriptive and prescriptive approaches to decision-making. His advice to rely on explicit, conscious thinking resonates with me: there is no free lunch when it comes to tricky decisions; you have to do the thinking. The alternative, delegating decisions to the unconscious, is misguided.
And yet a persistent popular idea of how the brain and mind work is the notion that we should rely on our gut reaction (blink, or not think) or that we should delegate cognitive activity to an unconscious part of our brain and take a break (sleep on it). A common argument for “going with your gut” or “sleeping on it” is the claim that, if we keep ruminating on a decision, we might end up in a kind of analysis paralysis. The implication is that our conscious brain has capacity limitations: it can only hold in mind the magic number of seven (plus or minus two) pieces of information at a time, and thus is hopelessly hobbled when it comes to complex decisions.
In 2000, psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper from Columbia and Stanford University published a study about jams. On a regular day at a local food market, people would find a display table with 24 different kinds of jams. Then on another day, at that same food market, people were given only six different types of jam choices. Guess which display table led to more sales? Iyengar and Lepper found that while the big display table generated more interest, people were far less likely to purchase a jar of jam than in the case of the smaller display (about ten times less likely). The study showed that, while choice seems appealing at first sight, choice overload generates the wrong results. Choice paralyses the consumer.
The reason I have quoted this experiment is that there is this idea that “too much thinking is bad”, which then leads to the notion that relying on the unconscious mind is best, without always properly considering the evidence. This conclusion may be fine as far as it goes, but it leaves us in limbo in two important ways: we still don’t know which choices require additional reasoned thought, and, even more frustrating, it tells us nothing about where our initial reactions come from.
History is replete with instances of dramatic insights or great works of music and literature simply popping into people’s minds. Who doesn’t know of that “eureka” moment when the Ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes leapt from his bathtub, elated by his discovery of buoyancy, or that apple hitting Isaac Newton on the head, sparking the English physicist’s Law of gravity? Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the celebrated English poet, apparently wrote his best-known poem, ‘Kubla Khan’, while asleep. The melody for ‘Yesterday’, perhaps the Beatles’ most famous song, came to Paul McCartney in a dream.
Such accounts appear to fly in the face of the claim that important decisions require long and arduous analysis. In my days as a strategic planner at Air Malta or when we were studying which aircraft it would be best to purchase, we did a lot of this. After all, buying an Airbus A320 costing no less than $30 million was not like buying a jar of jam. We did a lot of scenario-planning, involving looking at three possible futures: we would build one model where the market was buoyant, one where it would get worse, and one where it would stagnate. And then we would look at the financial results to see which one yielded the best financial results. The scenario-building extended looking at other alternative results, testing for changes in fuel prices, in passenger fares, etc. Since this game could be played over and over, it allowed us and other decision-makers to “rewind the tape”, exploring many facets of the “decision tree”.
Who makes the best decisions?
Quite often, we are challenged to question who makes the best decision: the sleepers, the thinkers, or the blinkers? The answer might come as a surprise. Studies find that, regardless of the mode of thought — conscious, unconscious, or immediate — the majority of participants chose the option predicted by summing up their subjective importance ratings. Perhaps the powers of the unconscious are revealed not when our thinking per se is curtailed but when the evidence we have before us is scant and impoverished. Only then do the processes at the bottom of the iceberg come into their own.
“Thin slicing”, proposed by social psychologist Nalini Ambady (and popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in ‘Blink’), captures the idea that very brief observations of behaviour can give rise to surprisingly accurate inferences. Albert Einstein once noted that “intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience”.
We live in a vibrant, complex, and transient world where we constantly face a barrage of information competing for our attention. For example, our eyes take in over one megabyte of data every second. That is equivalent to reading 500 pages of information or an entire encyclopedia every minute. Just one whiff of a familiar smell can trigger a memory from childhood in less than a millisecond, and our skin contains up to four million receptors that provide us with important information about temperature, pressure, texture, and pain.
Now imagine the Minister of Finance drawing up the country’s Budget. He has at his disposal millions of megabytes in data about the world economy, the Maltese economy, finances, inflation, trade data, balance of payments, wages, investment, productivity, etc. What does it all mean? How will it change over the next 12 months or so? What might happen to derail his best plans? What are different people expecting? What do his colleagues want for their own ministries? What might the Opposition, the employers’ associations, businesspersons, workers, pensioners, and the European Commission expect? Is this the right Budget with an election round the corner? What might his significant others tell him about their own daily experiences which throw a light on the common person’s views?
The upshot of all his toiling is then contained in a 28,000-word speech which he carries in his famous red briefcase. That colour is already fraught with deep meaning and contradiction: red is normally associated with danger (could there be new taxes?), but it could also convey a feeling of excitement (at good things to come). It is also associated with warnings, like the red light at a traffic signal (could he be considering a stop to more foreign workers?). It can also signify energy (how many new projects is he likely to announce?) and, on a more personal level, a Minister of Finance might like the colour for the fact that it symbolises power and dominance.
Main photo: Pixabay