Feelings Beat Thoughts For Fast Complex Decisions

Think or blink? The debate continues with new research on quick, emotion-based decision-making.

Think or blink? The debate continues with new research on quick, emotion-based decision-making.

We have to make a lot of complicated decisions in life. Some are made in a hurry and most involve situations in which we don’t have all the information.

Surgeons have to make split-second decisions in emergencies and fire-fighters have to decide which route is safest. Less dramatically we have to work out the right arguments at a business meeting, at home we have to negotiate over the weekend’s activities and in the store we have to calculate the best deals.

These are complex decisions in which time is short. So, should you go with your gut and be done with it or try to use what little time you have to reason it out?

A new study by Mikels et al. (2011) supports the power of gut instincts for quick decisions. Across multiple studies they gave people a series of complex decisions including choosing between cars, apartments, vacations, physicians and treatments.

Overall they found that compared with trying to work out the details, using the emotions led to much better outcomes. In one of the studies the number of participants getting the right answer went up from only 26% in the detail-focused condition to 68% in the feeling-focused condition.

This held for both objective and subjective aspects of a decision (this covers the car that’s objectively best overall and the best car taking into account your preferences).

For quick decisions, then, this looks like good evidence that you should focus on feelings rather than thoughts.

On the other hand, if you’ve got more time—more time than it takes to just understand the problem—then a detail-focused approach is likely to be better. In one of Mikels et al.’s studies, when participants we are given extra time to think, a focus on feelings was positively detrimental to decision quality. With time in hand, the smart money was on the thinker rather than the feeler.

Why is it that our feelings should be most effective in the moment? Mikels speculates that it’s because they are more hooked in to the mind’s automatic, unconscious processes. In a short space of time our unconscious can signal through our emotions the best course of action.

Of course the unconscious is far from infallible, indeed the power of the unconscious mind has been overblown by some popular accounts (see: Can the Unconscious Outperform the Conscious Mind). Still, gut instinct is a remarkably effective resource given the short space of time and complexity of decisions it faces.

Image credit: Julia Manzerova

Author: Dr Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004.

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