Paralysis of Analysis: Overthinking and Bad Decisions

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Choking isn’t just for golfers and free-throw shooters. A particular kind of “choking,” thinking about the process of doing something instead of just doing it, can affect us all even when performing such mundane tasks as choosing a good-tasting fruit jam.

In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer describes an experiment in which two groups subjects were asked to rate five brands of strawberry jam that had also been rated by taste experts. One group simply tasted and rated the jams. This group, perhaps surprisingly, rated the jams in a very similar order to the professionals – the correlation was .55, not bad at all for culinary novices. In short, the untrained consumers were able to differentiate between the various jam qualities simply by letting their taste buds guide them.

A second group of consumer subjects was also asked to rate the jams, but this time they were asked to explain their ratings and analyze their first impressions. This extra thought process, rather than helping the subjects, seemed to jumble their choices. They were no longer able to spot the tastiest jams, and their ratings correlated with the experts by a factor of .11, dramatically lower than the first group.

Since most of us aren’t professional food tasters, let’s look at a “buying” process that followed a similar pattern. Subjects were asked to make a choice from a group of posters that included reproductions of works by Van Gogh and Monet as well as cat pictures. The subjects could take their chosen poster home. The first group simply picked, and 95% chose one of the fine art posters.

The second group was asked to rate the posters, and answer a series of questions about why they preferred some posters over others. This group was almost evenly split between those who carried off a Van Gogh or Monet poster and those who chose cats.

Here’s the question: did the additional reflection lead to a better choice? Actually, the absolute reverse happened. When the groups were surveyed several weeks after they took home their posters, 75% of those who took a cat poster regretted their choice, while virtually none of the fine arts poster choosers did. The quick emotional choice proved to be far superior to the “reasoned” choice.

The Hard Sell Process

I don’t know if they still sell encyclopedias by home visits, but that’s a great example of how a valid first reaction can be suppressed by too much thought. If someone said, “Would you like to spend $500 on an encyclopedia?” you would likely dismiss the idea as ridiculous. Just about everyone would. Nevertheless, in the heydey of encyclopedias, after a lengthy sales session a surprising number of customers DID buy the costly books. While the salesperson would likely say he was merely pointing out features and benefits, what he was also doing was confusing our intuition that was saying, “Buying expensive books that won’t get used much is a terrible idea.”

No, your “gut” isn’t always right. But it may make better choices more often than we give it credit for.

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