Decisions, Decisions, Decisions: Important Decision? Take it Slowly

Korea-seoul-Namsan-slow sign.jpgThe idea that our decisions are strongly influenced by unconscious factors is very popular. (Malcolm Gladwell, I’m looking at you.)

We’re sometimes advised to go with our “gut feelings.” The implication is that decisions made in this way will be better – or at least not worse – than decisions that we spend more time on.

However the evidence is more complicated.

What Kind of Decision are you Making?

For relatively minor matters, going with your gut is likely to be fine. If you’re choosing between different colour Tshirts or scarves, for example, the first one that caught your eye is often the one you choose on longer reflection.

For decisions involving skilled assessment and expert knowledge, however, longer deliberation, within a structured framework, will yield better decisions.

In one study, experienced doctors were asked to assess twelve real-life cases, presented in a booklet. For four of the cases, the doctors was asked to read the cases and give an immediate diagnosis. For another four, they read a case, performed a task designed to distract them, then provided a diagnosis. For another four, the doctors were asked to read the cases and then to follow a structured procedure in which they analyzed the case, offered several hypotheses, and then made a diagnosis.

How did the quick diagnoses and the distracted diagnoses compare with the slow, deliberate diagnoses? Conscious deliberation resulted in a 50% gain in diagnostic accuracy.

I suspect – and I’ve seen evidence – that something similar is true of hiring decisions. Having a list of objective criteria and going through a standard procedure for each candidate results in better outcomes than having the hiring manager “go with her gut.”

And interestingly, old advice about not changing your answer in a multiple choice test turns out to be invalid. Changed answers are more likely to be correct.

Making it Relevant

Think about what kind of decision you’re making. If it is one where expert knowledge is relevant or analysis of evidence is required, then take it slow. If the decision has more to do with your feelings or preferences, going with your gut is fine.


Ben R. Newell and David R. Shanks, “Unconscious Influences on Decision Making: A Critical Review,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 2012.

About the image:  GPL,

Note: This is the third in an occasional series on the psychology (and philosophy) of decision making. I’m interested in this topic because, as a mediator, one of the things I do is to help people make good decisions (or at least, to understand the implications of their decisions).

Most of us make a huge number of decisions each day. A few are momentous; most seem trivial at the time. And yet trivial decisions, made over and over, can take on huge significance.