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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How many times have you been presented with a decision and you've opted to sleep on it, sit on it, think it through, mull it over or any other [verb + preposition] combination?

I know I have. But the funny thing is I don't actually think about it. I don't know about other people but I find it really hard to sit down and weigh up the pros and cons in a situation like that. Often when I've chosen to wait it's because I need to go talk to someone about it, or to line up alternatives and contingencies. Here it makes perfec sense to wait - waiting, and the actions you subsequently engage in, allow you to make a more informed decision.

There are times, however, when we choose to wait knowing that waiting won't necessarily afford us new information. Experience tells us that its times like this we choose the fuzzy option of 'sleeping on it' in the hopes that it makes the decision making process easier.

I recently came across a paper entitled 'Reasonable Reasons for Waiting' by Tykocinski and Ruffle. Published in 2003 it's hardly new, but I found it fascinating all the same.

Their first study was a replication of work done by Bastardi and Shafir (1998; 2000) in which they presented students with either of the following scenarios

'You are considering registering for a course in your major that has very interesting subject matter and will not be offered again before you graduate. While the course is reputed to be taught by an excellent professor, you have just discovered that he will be on leave, and that a less popular professor will be teaching the course.' Do you a) decide to register for the course? b) Decide not to register for the course?

The second scenario varies only slightly. Instead of knowing that super-prof is on leave, you are told '...that he may be on leave. It will not be known until tomorrow if the regular professor will teach the course or if a less popular professor will'. They are offered a) and b) (as above), but also c) wait until tomorrow to decide.

If you choose to wait you are given additional information and find out that super-prof will be on leave.

81.82% of participants in the 'certain' condition chose to register immediately (with the remainder deciding not to register at all). In the 'uncertain' condition 3.57% chose not to register immediately, 48.21% registered immediately, and 48.21% chose to wait. Among those who chose to wait 21.47% registered, and 26.79% decided against it (values as percentage of whole sample).

That's a whole bunch of numbers. Here are the important ones:

Those who had all the information at hand immediately registered at a rate of 81.82%.

Those who had incomplete information immediately, but the same information after a delay, registered at a rate of 69.63%.

These differences are not significant at p<.05 (according to a chi-square analysis).

I guess it's reasonable to assume that those who chose to wait we're hoping that the delay would afford them new information. It's true, waiting did offer new information... but why bother? Over 80% of students accepted the offer as-is... and yet a similar proportion of students enrolled in the course whether they waited or not. Perhaps the rate would be higher if they found out that super-prof was going to take the course, but then the rates of enrollment would also increase in the certain condition, too.

Did waiting serve some rational and genuine information-gathering purpose? Or was it just a pointless form of procrastination?

Tykocinski and Ruffle (2003) introduced a third option: It was exactly like condition 1 complete with certain information, but they were offered a third option in addition to a) and b)... c) wait until tomorrow to decide about registering for the course.

70.37% signed up immediately. 12.96% immediately chose not to register. 16.67% chose to wait, and each and every one of them chose to register after a delay. Total registered: 87.04% (ns, compared to study 1).

Why wait? In this instance there was no possibility of further information... the delay does not appear to be rational.

So two more studies were run. One certain, the other uncertain, each with a) register right now, b) do not register at all, and c) wait one week (until the end of the registration period) to decide. In the uncertain condition the possibility exists that you may found out that the super-prof will be teaching the course.

In the uncertain condition 38.88% registered right away and 61.11% waited. After the delay the total number enrolled nearly doubled, to 66.66%.

In the certain condition more people decided to wait than did those who registered immediately! (52.73% vs. 45.45%, ns).

This tells us something important.

The more time offered to make the decision, the more likely we are take the time - even if waiting has no clear and rational value.

Unfortunately this is all paper and pencil self-report, so its kind of hard to know if this manifests exactly in real-life. Experience suggests it does, but we can't be certain.

The authors argue that in taking the time participants are reconciling their lack of confidence in making the decision. Its not that new information will arrive to change one's mind, it's that we feel the decision as-is is sub-optimal and that in taking time we rationalize it and increase in our confidence in it. They go on to use some clever methodologies to demonstrate that confidence does increase over time, and that it is a reasonable predictor of the final decision.

That's not particularly surprising, really. We've all taken time on a decision knowing that waiting doesn't necessarily have instrumental value, but do so anyway. What I found most surprising is that when the opportunity exists a large proportion of us choose to accept it.

This kind of puts my mind at ease. Like I said way back at the top of the page, I have trouble weighing up the pros and cons in such situations. The period of indecision is characterized by wishy-washy intuitions and feelings, and if the decision is demanding enough, gut pain... but hey, that's me. What have begun doing, and I can't recommend this approach highly enough, is to identify if waiting has instrumental value - that is, can I specifically identify what information (if any) may come about that will influence my decision, and in what manner.

In making decisions like this, as in science, one must be specific. If you can't say 'if x then y' - do the following:

Flip a coin.

Make a bet with yourself. Heads you do x, tails you do y. Flip the coin and monitor how you feel. If heads comes up and you feel a rush of relief, you know you ought to choose x. If tails comes up and you think 'oh, shit, really?', well, you know you should probably choose the alternative.

It takes a bit of practice, but works well. You need to commit 100% of yourself to the process too... not to the flip (necessarily), but to your introspective process following the flip. A decision that you might agonize over for a week can be condensed down into a few breathless moments. Hellish, but efficient. And super useful if you don't have a week but feel that it needs about that much time to be made effectively.

Furthermore, I feel a little validating in my process by knowing that a meaningful proportion of waiting is simply pointless. It seems (at least to me) that we hesitate (or procrastinate) to fill the time available to us.





Tykocinski, O., & Ruffle, B. (2003). Reasonable reasons for waiting Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 16 (2), 147-157 DOI: 10.1002/bdm.439

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Blog Comments

Guest Comment

Have you read "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell? Lots of entertaining arguments for why the decisions we make after consideration aren't any better than the ones we make on the spur of the moment.

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I have read Blink, actually. I remember walking up to the book when it first came out, reading the first few pages, and putting it back thinking 'that's quackery!'... I'm not sure what that says about me, in hindsight.

Then I saw the book on the shelves of some very smart people and gave it a second go. It is certainly interesting and provacative, and I'm willing to believe most of what's in it. It feels right... but it's kind of the opposite of this, right? Rather than making quick heuristic/expert judgements we tend to let these judgements expand to fill the time available...? It has been a while since I've read it, though...

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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I like the coin flip experiment. If I think about it, when taking a long time to make decisions, I rarely change my mind and usually just spend the time rationalizing why my intial gut feeling is correct.  The coin flip test may be a great way to cut out all of that wasted energy.


Guest Comment

Yes, I like the coin-flip experiment too. I accidentally discovered something similar as a teenager, when, after reading Luke Rhinehart's cult classic "The Diceman" I was inspired for a few months to make all my decisions by the roll of dice... I discovered (a) that I didn't much like doing that, because (b) I generally had very strong preferences for particular choices, even if I hadn't realised it. It is quite a good way of finding out what those preferences are.

I'm not quite sure how these authors interpreted their findings, but I think the basic finding is much in the same spirit as Blink - Gladwell acknowledges that we all want to take our time, and we all believe that's going to lead to better decisions, but he argues that we often have all the information we need to make good decisions in the first few seconds after being presented with the choice, and that it's often perfectly appropriate to make snap judgements.

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oohhh... I get it now. Yeah, I think the author would tend to agree with the assertions of Gladwell. The difference is that the authors argue (reasonably convincingly) that we often lack the confidence to make the decision (particularly sub-optimal decisions) despite having all the necessary information. Gladwell's examples usually involved experts who had the necessary confidence to make the decision quickely and so avoided all the umming-and-ahhing.

The alternative is that they just had a very low threshold for confidence, or a high tolderance for ambiguity. I think that applies to me... whereas my girlfriend can't choose a detergent in less than 4 minutes...

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Gladwell's Blink has the problem that he conflates different concepts into one

The rapid ("intuitional") decision making of the expert that has acquired that after internalizing knowledge vs the rapid decision making of a layperson for a day to day decision are discussed and mixed as if they were one thing.

It's a good read of a book but it's intelectually messy.

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