For Many Decisions, Just Go With the Flow

Letting your mind wander to a choice that you feel drawn to — rather than laboriously weighing all the options — is more than ample for many decisions.

When you have a decision to make, you may assume that you should focus rationally on the choices and select the best one. Legal and economic decision-making theory generally argues for carefully considering each option and then picking the one that delivers the highest expected value.

The advantage of this approach is that the decision will reflect your intentions, and you will be less likely to have post-decision remorse — or so the theory goes.

But new research suggests that people who make decisions more spontaneously — by allowing their thoughts to wander until they arrive at a choice that they feel drawn to — can be as satisfied with their decisions as those who choose more deliberately.

In “Unexpected Benefits of Deciding by Mind Wandering,” in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers Colleen E. Giblin (Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University), Carey K. Morewedge (now at Boston University School of Management) and Michael I. Norton (Harvard Business School) describe research they conducted that included comparing the satisfaction levels of a set of study participants who were instructed to use deliberate choice to select one of five art posters, versus another set of participants who were instructed to let their minds wander until the poster they felt most drawn to randomly came to mind. As a point of comparison, the researchers also included a group of participants who had posters randomly assigned to them.

It turned out that those who chose posters using mind wandering generally liked and valued their selections as much as those who deliberated over their choices in a more controlled way.

Perhaps not surprisingly, both groups of participants who got to choose their own posters were generally more satisfied than those who had posters randomly assigned to them.

The authors concede that mind wandering is probably not suited for making weighty decisions, such as whether to convict a defendant in a trial or to go ahead with a medical procedure. But for minor, day-to-day decisions (for example, whether to take this flight or that flight, or try this jam or that one), mind wandering may be a less onerous way to sort through the options than careful deliberation — and chances are you’ll be just as satisfied with the outcome.

==

This research is one of six scholarly articles into decision making highlighted in the Winter 2015 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. Read more in “Why You Decide the Way You Do,” by Bruce Posner.