Keep it simple, stupid

Researchers have found "snap judgment" or "thinking with your gut" more pleasurable. There's a simple explanation.

The journal Nature reports that making quick decisions feels better than making complex ones. This raises all sorts of questions about whether "blink" decisions, "snap judgments" or following the "wisdom of the crowd" are more genuine or better ways to make decisions.

A team of researchers at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, carried out a series of studies to distinguish between these ideas. In one experiment, university students read a list of features about four different cars, such as facts on their mileage and legroom, before deciding which car to pick.

The experiment was set so that some students were presented with a short list of features, making for a simple decision, while others faced a bafflingly long list of 12 competing characteristics. Some students were left to think about their decisions for a few minutes, whereas others were distracted by being asked to solve anagrams.

For the simple decisions, students made better choices when they thought consciously about the problem. But for the more complex choice, they did better after not thinking about it, Ap Dijksterhuis and his colleagues report in Science1. To carry this idea into the real world, the team also studied people who were shopping: either in an Amsterdam department store, where they bought straightforward clothes or kitchenware, or in IKEA, where they bought furniture, which one might expect to be a more complicated decision-making process. The team asked the shoppers whether they had thought hard about their purchase beforehand, and a few weeks later asked them whether they were happy with it.

Of course, all the time people are "not thinking about" a problem their brain is processing the data in the background. It's the natural way of dealing with large amounts of information, something we often forget in our multitasking-driven, decide-right-now world.

Yet this kind of research, which merely finds that it feels better to work less at a decision will be abused by folks eager to rationalize the offering of stupid decisions to the market when what the conversational market really demands is more information and more collective contemplation of complex decisions. It may even be the case that in the conversational market people will decide to buy less often—perish the thought!—and to spend more, but wisely, when they do buy, which suggests the more complex offerings will be better accepted than simple ones.

Nevertheless, we're going to hear this study echoed as proof that people like only simple decisions made without much thought, which thoroughly misunderstands how much information we want and are able to process given the time to deliberate.