Blog by Rapid Results facilitator Terry Williams

“Every thought on the wire leads to a fall.” Philippe Petit, High Wire Aerialist.

People feel much more responsible for their actions than their inactions. Joseph Hallinan says in his book, Errornomics – Why We Make Mistakes that at the moment you think you’re making a decision, it only seems so. The point in time that you think that you’re making a conscious and deliberate decision is an illusion. In reality, your subconscious has chosen for you much earlier.

“Every thought on the wire leads to a fall.” Philippe Petit, High Wire Aerialist

“Every thought on the wire leads to a fall.” Philippe Petit, High Wire Aerialist

In writing this book, I got to a point where I had a proofreading deadline. I received the manuscript by email about 4.00pm on a Friday with a deadline of the following Monday morning. It was going to be a full-on weekend. At 4:37pm my laptop died. I had known that it was on its last legs and had been researching a new one. It’s not a massive purchase these days but it’s an important one that could annoy me and cost me if I chose poorly. I’d even scribbled up a little grid on paper showing dozens of various models comparing what I thought were their critical specifications. I had definitely decided that I would buy a new laptop but I hadn’t decided when or which one. The ‘when’ had now been decided for me and I had 23 minutes to decide the ‘which’.

I decided in a heartbeat and have had zero regrets. My subconscious mind had been processing for a while. I made a good decision and, more importantly, I felt good about it. More about regret minimisation later.

Most days are made up of a series of decisions, like which of three cereals you should have for breakfast or which task should you start next. Some decisions might be whether to buy a house or signing a contract to undergo elective surgery. Maybe you agonise over every decision or just the big ones or none at all? The rest you just go with your gut feeling. Sometimes you’ll regret the decisions you make, or choose not to make. What’s the smartest way to make decisions or help others make them? It depends on the complexity of the decision.

Ap Dijksterhuis, out of the University of Amsterdam, conducted several studies on just this subject. However, like many of the researchers I’ve read, they’ve used sentences like, “Because of the low processing capacity of consciousness, conscious thought was hypothesized to be maladaptive when making complex decisions”. And they’re right but wordy. In my words, it’s hard to think about a bunch of complicated things at once.

You might like to imagine you’re a rational, logical person who’ll weigh up the pros and cons of each decision, especially the big ones, and make the best decision you can with the information you have. But what Dijksterhuis found was quite different. He studied consumers and shoppers in lab conditions and in actual sales situations – during and after. The ‘after’ is especially important, as that is when the true quality and impact of a decision hit home.

All participants were facing a purchase decision of varying sizes. Half were interrupted and distracted during their decision-making process. All were subsequently followed up on how they felt about their decision post-purchase. The thinking was that the distraction allowed the unconscious mind, which can handle lots of complexity at once, to process the decision. It hooks into the brain’s emotional centres. This is where ‘gut feelings’ may come from. Plus emotional responses to the choices are pre-rehearsed and emotional responses to each decision are assessed by your brain with you not consciously aware of them.

His findings were that, “simple choices (such as between different towels or different sets of oven mitts) indeed produce better results after conscious thought, but that choices in complex matters (such as between different houses or different cars) should be left to unconscious thought. Named the ‘deliberation-without-attention’ hypothesis, it was confirmed in four studies”.

Conscious thought focuses attention on whatever factors manage to squeeze themselves into our limited conscious mind at the time. That distorts perception and can over-inflate the relative importance of certain factors.

Researcher Loren Nordgren joked about Rene Descartes’ famous quote, “I think therefore I am.” That was all well and good but was he always happy with the shoes he chose to buy? Over-thinking doesn’t make for good decisions when it’s not a simple decision.

I’m not suggesting that lack of attention is a good thing. Otherwise we may as well put teenagers in charge of all the important decisions. Most can usually (always) be relied upon to provide the ‘without attention’ component! No, it has to be a bit more structured than that.

Both studies look at what might be called intentional self-distraction. They contrasted three approaches to decision-making: make an instant choice, long list of pros and cons, briefly distracting the conscious mind. The latter was the most effective and, down the road a bit, evoked the least regret.

If you just skim read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, you might assume that instant decisions are often the best. But on closer examination, I reckon Gladwell agrees with Dijksterhuis. Both reject the supposedly time-tested tradition of logically weighing up, over a period of intense concentration, a list of pros and cons. It takes ages and delivers a poorer result.

My shorthand version of a useful process is:
1. Introduce the problem and range of solution options.
2. Carry out a pre-set 3 minute distraction activity.
3. Return to the problem and / or the options. Make your choice.
4. Live with it.

So, what?
I had it drummed into me, and I subsequently preached to those I trained, the common sense of structured event interviewing as a tool for recruiting. I was schooled on the value of decision matrix spreadsheets when evaluating complex contract tender responses. Does this research mean those formal processes have no value? No. Recruiting and big contracts are expensive and the consequences of mistakes are significant. At the very least, you may need to retrospectively justify your decision (i.e. cover your butt). I think the lesson of deliberation-without-attention is that it pays to try both approaches. If they don’t match, you might need to do some more research and ask some more questions.

About Terry: When he’s not training or writing on leadership, he’s sometimes performing stand-up comedy. He has a solo show in the NZ International Comedy Festival May 12-16 8:45pm at Q Theatre in Auckland.
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