About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Complex decision? Don't think about it!

The more complex a decision we have to make, common sense would suggest, the more we ought to think about it. Be that buying a car, deciding on a career choice, or getting married, you surely don't want to make impulsive decisions. Well, not exactly, according to a recent study by Ap Dijksterhuis and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam (Science, vol. 311, p. 1005, 17 February 2006).

The Dutch researchers started with a fairly simple laboratory situation, in which they asked several subjects to pick among four cars to buy, based on only four attributes. After four minutes of pondering (I don't know why Dijksterhuis and collaborators picked four as a magic number, but that's another issue), most subjects chose the right car – i.e., the one that objectively scored better than the other ones on the four attributes considered.

Good, but things got interesting when the task was made more difficult by increasing the number of attributes to 12, still with four cars in the running. Now people picked the best car in about 25% of the cases, i.e., consistent with a random choice. And here comes the real twist: researchers posed the 12-attribute problem again, but this time they distracted the subjects during the four minutes of decision making: surprisingly, more than half picked the right car!

What are we to make of this? For someone writing a blog called “rationally speaking” it would seem that psychological research is dealing a blow to the whole idea that rational, conscious thinking is all that useful precisely in those areas where we think it ought to be: to tackle complex problems. Indeed, Dijksterhuis comments in Science that conscious thought can only handle so many things at one time, and that the evaluation of many factors may best be left to the unconscious processing of information.

Yet, not all is lost for the rational thinker. According to Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia commenting on the findings of the Dutch group, “What I think may be really critical is to engage in [conscious] reflection but not make a decision right away.” Indeed, Dijksterhuis himself says that whenever he is faced with an important decision, he does collect the relevant evidence and consciously thinks about it, but then postpones decision until his unconscious processing (also known as “intuition”) seems to reach an equilibrium. As he put it, “I sit on things and rely on my gut.” Of course, the question naturally arises of how to decide how long to sit on things, which of course often is a complex decision in itself, influenced by many factors...


  1. I am sorry to post this comment here from a previous blog (one you wrote about hurricane Katrina being caused by global warming) I am not some conservitive that thinks global warming is some farce and need not be researched. But I am tired of people blaming every natural disaster on Global warming. Major hurricanes hit back in the 1600s. Guess what, they just said "Fuck that was one hell of a storm" Not "was that from global warming?" Blaming humans for hurricane katrina because of global warming with no evidence that global warming actually caused the hurricane is no better than blaming humans bad behavior and saying it was Gods wrath. Show me of evidence that global warming caused the hurricane. Every Ice age was preceeded by global warming. I believe people that blame the hurricane on God or global warming, do it for the same reason. The need to place blame on human action or each other. Natural disasters have been with man since the dawn of time. They are nobodys fault. We might as well send a virgin to the top of the global warming volcano and throw her in to please the global warming Gods. I don't deny global warming exsist. Are humans responsible? I still haven't seen evidence that is undenyable. The earth has heated up and gone through Ice ages a few times. I'm sure if we could we would blame the past global warmings on us, but since we wern't there for all of them we will have to say the dinosaurs must have used too much hair spray.
    Sorry I am so late in the game. Just found your blog and was reading through previous posts. Very good blog though. Some good open minded thought, Impressive. Keep up the good work !

  2. Regarding Dijksterhuis's comment that the conscious mind may be able to handle so many things at once: this parallels a concept I've elsewhere heard called the Crow Epistemology. This refers to some cognitive psychology experiments from the '50s and '60s testing the cognitive capacity of humans (and crows) which showed that there are definite limits (and they're smaller than you'd think) on the number of distinct units one can keep track of without "dropping the ball" so to speak. This can be observed in everything from how accurately you can instantaneously identify groups of things (i.e. how many marbles in my hand), to how many conceptual points you can hold in your head while reading a paper. (Writers who routinely "blow my crow" qualify as highly inconsiderate and ineffective writers in my book). The principle of unit-economy follows from such observations, and is a handy rule of thumb for everything from writing intelligibly to setting realistic expectations for oneself.

  3. Jim Fisher,

    As far as I know, no recent publication on scientific journals claimed a hurricane was CAUSED by global warming (although Massimo did write it like that in the post I believe you refer to). What they did say is that the average STRENGTH of hurricanes is going up as ocean surface temperatures climb. Now if they are right or wrong about that too, I'm no meteorologist / climatologist to judge and don't remember the details of the top of my head anyway. But if you want I can dig up what was the issue of Science (or Nature, I can't recall since I always read both) had the articles about this. It wasn't long ago.

    Now on to the "unconscious thinking" thing, it does make a lot of sense, and it's the kind of thing people always say. I myself always do this, specially when stuck with a programming problem. Just go to sleep, pick up some musical instrument, "forget" about the problem. Usually a few candidate solutions to the problems will pop up in the morning while I'm waking up, or while showering before going to sleep, driving, stuff like that. Another anedotical thing I noticed is that programs I write quickly, or spur of the moment ideas of analyses, have a better change of working right away than stuff I mill over for a while, which ends up needing more adjustments.

    Whatever, as long as it works.


  4. I wonder if intuition isn't just what we get when knowledge and experience get so ingrained in us that it becomes second nature. Having been in the military I can tell you that this is how soldiers train. They do things enough times that they can accomplish a task without really thinking about it. It's the same way in some types of civillian jobs (trust me.)

    I wonder if that plays a factor in this study. Does anyone know how the sample was chosen? Are we talking mostly seasond drivers or a more random sample?


  5. Based on a large amount of neurobiological research, the effects of emotional trauma (especially previous loss experiences) on the level of the brain are being increasingly appreciated in the medical and psychological professions. Anatomically speaking, the neo-cortex (the outermost layer of the brain) is the most recent addition in the course of the brain’s evolution: it is in charge of the capacity for thinking, reflection and compassion and is also informed through emotional input from the heart as described above.
    The hippocampus, a structure within the thinking part of the brain, functions like a decoding device for information processing. Under traumatic stress, large amounts of adrenaline and cortisol, two major stress hormones, are released by the adrenal glands, and these actually damage the hippocampus. As a result, the hippocampus is bypassed and incoming traumatic information is stored in the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the center of the more primitive, sensory, emotional part of the brain, the limbic system. This information is often encoded in shattered and fragmented components without context. Such fragments of information can escape from the amygdala into the conscious, neocortical sections of the brain, resulting in what Titchener (1986) refers to as a "leakage of anxiety".
    Under normal circumstances, the prefrontal cortex in the anatomically youngest section of the brain provides corrective responses to any anxious impulses from the amygdala region. Hence the prefrontal lobe of the neo-cortex is also referred to as the ‘Emotional Manager’. In the case of an irrational overreaction, additional information is required from the ‘Emotional Manager’ by way of a rational evaluation, thus providing the impulse-control to the situation.
    One corrective intervention aims at ‘reeducating the emotional circuitry’ through a process of frequently building in new information from the prefrontal lobe. The effects of this process of ‘desensitization’ can be demonstrated with the assistance of positron emission tomogram (PET) imaging. This reprogramming of the emotional memory patterns through the formation of new pathways enables a more balanced, rational stimulus response.
    The stronger a person’s traumatic memory-imprints from a previous emotionally traumatic experience in the amygdala region are, the more they are going to determine the person’s automatic, reflex-like response to an even remotely similar experience in the present. This can result in a physiological panic-reaction even if the present situation is completely innocuous in comparison to the one experienced originally. When the limbic system reacts to traumatic memories without any effective, rational neo-cortical input the situation typically results in poor impulse control; this phenomenon is also referred to as "emotional hijacking".
    In the case of traumatization, the neo-cortex aims to suppress the traumatic experiences through shutting the gates to the limbic system to avoid emotional overload. This happens in an attempt to secure the capacity for thinking and functioning, which could otherwise be impaired by the traumatizing experiences. According to Candice Pert, who is known for her biochemical research on the links between consciousness, mind, and body, the imprints from experienced trauma tend to stay ingrained on the cellular level in brain and body, and are often referred to as "the issues in the tissues". As a result, powerful feelings and physical sensations can be experienced, triggered off in an individual by unlikely situations, often without any immediately traceable origin.

  6. I don't know very much about how the brain works but I'm wondering about this study. The way I envision it our conscious brain can handle the listing and classification of attributes having to do with a decision but for these attributes to have meaning, to have value, the unconscious has to kick in - to provide the framwork of experience and emotion so that some attributes become 'good' and others 'bad' (or worse).

    In this view I would say that the subjects who weren't dsitracted simply didn't have enough time for their unconscious to process the thoughts of the conscious - a classic case of "thinking too much" (something I suspect I suffer from).

    Thus, in this view all decisions are actually made with feedback from the unconscious - but people vary in their genetics, conditioning and circumstances such that the unconscious doesn't always have adequate time and / or interaction with the conscious.

    1. I am answering the same problem in a repeat of this blog 6 years later, and yours is the best answer, although there is a good reference to 2 books later. The only correction is that the subsconscious would underlie the conscious and build to it, and descend from it, in cycles. Given the time frame for this experiment, ascending and descending are both relevant to a supportive process that would get clogged, as you say, by too much thinking across cycles. Braess' Paradox may be relevant here, and to the general issue of thinking too much.

  7. I think we are thus far missing what obviously saves "rational thinking" in light of this study.

    The study provided the subjects with all relevant facts.

    Most people don't bother to gather these data on their own. They make the decision intuitivley without the facts. So reading a lot and gathering a lot of facts can be good. Those who depend on intuition with the facts are not going to be providing their intuition with a hell of a lot to work on. Perhaps we should then sleep on these facts rather than overthinking them.


  8. Recently I retired, and wanting to make the best decision possible, I did a lot of analysis and ran different scenarios in my head (and on paper). In short I agonised. But I was never sure if I had it right. There were too many factors, and I ended up just leaving it till the time got closer, hoping things would get clearer, which they did. I ended up going the first minute possible.

    I wonder about the role of emotional investment, say, in buying your first house, or something like that. If you're not emotionally prepared, what is the use of all the information gathering.

    Then too there is the question of sequence. I was involved in union politics for a while, and got some very strong guidance from an area rep who really knew what he was doing. Basically he said that you should break down a complex task, and attack only the parts that demand a decision and can be acted on. Then wait. And set the rest aside. If you like your mental health... I have used this advice many times since, to good effect.

    My final thought, kind of pessimistic, I guess. How good are we at rational planning? It seems we react to situations and muddle through, but usually without a hell of a lot of foresight. I sometimes wonder if the whole planet might end up as a giant Easter Island, made unusable by foolish inhabitants who cannot see past their noses.

    Well. I certainly did ramble. Your indulgence...

  9. It seems to me that the distinction needs to be made between "rational" and "deliberate."

    We know a whole lot more than we can remember at any given time (Quick, name the seven dwarves) Our decisions need to involve all of our knowledge, so it doeswn't make sense to believe that we will be fully conscious of the factors that define our choices. I am currently reading Antonio Damasio's book Descartes' Error, about how emotions are vital to behavior and thinking that promotes our overall welfare.

    Isn't that what rationality really is, enlightened self interest?

  10. I just love it when people blend thoughts from one thread into an entirely different thread, apologizing for the intrusion, etc. Have I just done that now, myself?


    About this phenomenon of 'intuition', or whatever you want to call it - I would like to draw your attention to two books - the first, only a year old - called "Blink, the power of thinking without thinking" by Malcolm Gladwell. The concept being referred to as intuition or snap judgment is called "Thin Slicing", and in fact it is not what you think it is - it is not a snap judgment but rather a complex 'subconscious' quick assessment based on previous experiences. The more similar previous experiences, the more accurate the 'thin slicing'. Read "Blink" if this interests you.

    Second book - 'The Illusion of Conscious Will' by Wegner. Yes - available at Amazon or B&N or Borders. In a nutshell, Wegner examines the concept of 'free will' or the impact of what appears as conscious decision making. 'Illusion' reads like a academic text book - probably because it is mostly that. Blink reads so easily that once you start, it will be difficult to put down. Malcolm Gladwell is a writer's writer. While you're at it, read his seminla work - The Tipping Point - how little things can make a big difference.

  11. More on the topic of choice:


  12. I'm reading a good book by Robert Pirsig in which he talks about the odd problem in science of how one selects facts that are worth pursuing, and also how hypotheses are selected for testing. Apparently Poincaré dealt with this issue in his work with mathematics.

    The problem is that for any given observation there is a near-infinite number of hypotheses. We tend to narrow down the field not with rational thought and our conscious mind, but with some sort of subconscious process that suggests which are most probable a priori...

  13. PS -This causes some people to get disturbed because the inevitable outcome of this line of thought is that all rational thought is based on a foundation of irrationality.


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