By Jimmy Warden
Today’s decision-making challenges
For us to make a right decision, we need to consider what types of decisions should be made analytically and which should be made with intuition. Traditional perspectives on this state that we should make intuitive decisions about the small, everyday decisions (like Jif versus Skippy peanut butter), and we should make analytical decisions about big, potentially life-changing decisions (like large investments or career changes).
However, a study conducted by Ap Dijksterhuis at the University of Amsterdam showed that the opposite is true. For example, people who impulsively made small purchases (like groceries) reported lower levels of satisfaction, whereas those who planned out their grocery list were more satisfied (Gladwell, p.268). The second half of the study showed that people who purchased expensive furniture at IKEA claimed higher levels of purchase satisfaction when they went with their gut feeling, and the thinkers were much less satisfied (Gladwell, p.268).
How this works in real life
When we’re thrust into situations where we have to quickly pick a side in an argument or give a rating to something on a point scale, we can do this quite well, even if it’s something we don’t have expertise on. But when we need to give a detailed explanation about why we picked a certain side to an argument or gave the point rating we did when we were forced to thin-slice our decision, we have a hard time giving legitimate, well-thought out answers. This is due to our lack of deep knowledge and experience. We’re not an expert because we aren’t immersed in it everyday, and it’s most likely not our profession.
These ideas holds true when it’s an everyday decision that needs to be made, such as whether to choose Jif or Skippy Peanut Butter. We can weigh out the pros and cons of each brand by comparing their price per unit volume (aka more for your dollar), texture, overall taste, amount of added sugar, etcetera. This is conscious decision making at its finest, and we tend to make the right decision when we give ourselves enough time to think it through.
In situations when we don’t have much time to make a decision, we’re forced to use the only information we have available during rapid cognition, that which comes from our unconscious. These decisions are split-second and intuitive, based on our previous experiences, knowledge, and biases.
So in the case of Jif versus Skippy, we’re likely to thin-slice this decision when we’re in a time crunch, and when we’re asked why we chose Skippy over Jif, we might say something like: “I grew up on this stuff!” However, if we were able to take our time with the decision, we might choose Jif if the pros and cons list looks better for Jif than Skippy.
What this means for us
Everyone claims that they’re an expert these days, regardless of what they’re professing on. While it is crucial to have confidence in our ability, the tried and true measures of experts are those that have been immersed in their topics for years on end. They’ve run studies, they’ve analyzed the data, they’ve published their findings, and they’ve continued to refine everything that they’ve come across. So much so, that they’re able to profess on their topic or apply their learning to real-life situations unconsciously. Not only that, but they’ve also had many real-life experiences in their specific domain, so they can draw on that when they’re making their decisions both consciously or unconsciously.
This is the art of thin-slicing. To be able to thin-slice well, we must have a copious amount of knowledge and experience on a topic. Not only can we talk the talk, but we can walk the walk. This is why athletes can get upset at sports journalists who have not had the same level of intimacy with the sport and the competition and emotions that go with it. This is why film directors get upset at movie critics. Sure these analysts and critics have knowledge in their respective fields, but they haven’t been as closely connected to the experience of what it takes to be a professional athlete or be an award-winning director. If we truly want to be able to thin-slice like a master, the combination of knowledge and experience is essential.
By knowing when to think through a decision or go with our gut, we will be able to make better decisions, as long as we trust ourselves and try to do what’s right. Far too often people claim that their perspective is the best because of all the reading that they’ve done about the topic, or the sheer passion they have for it, but oftentimes this results in information or emotional overload. It creates tunnel vision and less openness to contradictory perspectives, despite factual evidence that may be presented.
If we want to try to do what is right and make more correct decisions, we need to think about the decision at hand. Is it a mundane decision? Is it something that I only know a little bit about? If we answer yes to both of those questions, a thoughtful decision may be in order. Is it a larger decision? Is it something that I know a lot about? If we answer yes to both of those questions, an intuitive decision is a better bet.
Should these formulas be followed verbatim? By no means is that the case. This is what makes decision-making so challenging. This is why we have such a hard time making decisions that matter such as career choices, where we want to live, which politician to vote for, and what clothing to wear in the morning. This is why if the decision is out of our domain, we should leave it to the experts and listen to more of what they have to say.
Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. Little, Brown and Company.