Why You Decide the Way You Do

For executives, making good decisions is essential. New research offers insights into factors that can affect the decision-making process.

How do people process different inputs and make complicated decisions? Variations on this question have engaged researchers for many years, with broad implications for a variety of individuals. But the topic is of particular interest to business executives, who must frequently make decisions.

Researchers have long sought to shed light on the inner workings of the human brain and the way people make decisions. In recent years, curiosity about the decision-making process has heated up, attracting academics from fields as diverse as neuroscience, management, behavioral economics and psychology. Here are highlights of a handful of recent scholarly articles that offer intriguing insights into decision making from several disciplines.

1. The Advantage of Psychological Distance

Information overload is a fact of modern life, making many common decisions (such as choosing a cellphone plan) unbearably confusing. Although choice offers options to consumers, too many choices or too many features per choice can cause people to delay decisions or make less-than-optimal choices. Recent research into how individuals process information offers some promising suggestions for dealing with information overload. The key may involve “psychological distancing” — removing oneself from the morass of details surrounding a decision and considering the choices on a more abstract level.

As authors Jun Fukukura, Melissa J. Ferguson and Kentaro Fujita explain in their article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, such distancing (which can be either temporal or physical) can help people to filter out the less-vital details and enable them to focus on the gist of the matter. The authors tested several aspects of how psychological distance influences decision making. In one study, they asked some participants, who were students from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, to write about a car they would buy next year, and others to write about a car they would buy tomorrow. (A control group was not given a writing task.) Participants were then given information to read about 48 individual features (such as mileage, handling, year and trunk capacity) of four different cars — twelve features per car — and had only seven seconds to absorb each piece of information before the next piece appeared on a computer screen. Participants were then asked to choose the car they thought was best.