I have a hunch, but I’m just working out when to use it

The Boston Globe has an interesting piece on differing decision-making styles and how cognitive science is increasingly recognising the role of emotion in making choices.

It’s shoehorned into a slightly dubious Obama vs McCain premise, but it covers the important relationship between more conscious reflective forms of problem analysis, and more intuitive forms of approach.

Some of the most interesting research in this area has looked at how these systems interfere with each other.

One of my favourite studies used the Iowa Gambling Task, a card game where participants pick from four decks of cards that can either give them wins and losses. There are various version but a common variant is where two decks give a slight overall gain, while the other two give a slight overall loss.

It’s really hard to work out rationally, because there are just too many numbers to keep in your head, but after a while people tend to get an intuitive grasp of which are the best decks to stick with.

One particular study [full text], led by psychologist Cathryn Evans, found that people with a university education actually did worse on this task than people without one, presumably because they tended to over-apply futile rationalist strategies.

In terms of discussing the problem and ways of tackling it, a classic study by Jonathan Schooler found that getting people to talking about their problem-solving strategy actually made people worse at solving problems, particularly for ‘insight problems‘ where the solution lies in your ability to reframe the whole scenario – often in a counter-intuitive way.

Of course, some problems need a measured, thoughtful, analytical approach, whereas in some situations this interferes with the outcome. However, these are largely findings from lab tasks designed to isolate these types of problems whereas in the real world, problems come as a chaotic mix of both elements.

Knowing which strategy to apply is key, but then again, solving this problem is often equally as complex as solving the problem itself.

Link to Boston Globe article ‘The next decider’.

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