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How to improve decision-making? Distraction.

It turns out that the conventional wisdom about applying pure logical reasoning to making important decisions is wrong. It turns out that people make better decisions when they pause for a bit and distract themselves before deciding.

Why? New science shows that while we are distracted from making a final decision on some issue — even though we are unaware of it — the part of the brain associated with decision-making is still mulling the problem over, as David Cresswell of Carnegie Mellon discovered with his colleagues (see Being distracted — multitasking — can lead to better decisions).


In a world where decision-making is rapidly being distributed, as workers become increasingly autonomous, we should work hard to base our thinking about how to make better decisions on science, and not folklore.

Cresswell thinks this is because your brain can process more factors when your conscious self isn’t involved:

Your conscious mind has a capacity constraint–it can only think about a couple of features at once. But your unconscious mind doesn’t have these capacity constraints. It can weigh all relevant information more effectively.

This suggests that we have untapped reservoirs of greater parallelism in our thinking than generally recognized. And, just as importantly, this is a critical argument in favor of multitasking, whose detractors are too quick to attack its hypothetical decrease in productivity based on artificial cases of switching from math problems to recollection of words. However, the enemies of multitasking pay no attention to factors like the quality of decisions being made, or networked productivity. When I am willing to exchange my personal throughput in order to help someone else make progress, the productivity of my network of connections — my set — increases, and then, exponentially, so does the social scene I am embedded in. And then, so does the world of scenes: which is what large businesses are.

In a world where decision-making is rapidly being distributed, as workers become increasingly autonomous, we should work hard to base our thinking about how to make better decisions on science, and not folklore.

How do we know that companies haven’t turned the corner on science-based management? When was the last time you were in a meeting making a decision, and the meeting leader recommended going for a walk in the woods, or listening to loud music, before making the decision? Yeah, I thought not.