Stop worrying about it: distraction fuels better decisions

This is how I feel when I have to make a deci­sion. Photo via Thinkstock.

I’m pretty much the world’s worst deci­sion maker. This is espe­cially true at restau­rants. The other day I made the waiter save me for last and then, after six other orders, I still needed him to walk me through the menu like a pri­vate tutor. I was vaguely pleased with my final choice, but I prob­ably wouldn’t have been if the S.O. hadn’t ordered the same thing, because invari­ably I want what he has instead.

Well, it turns out there’s hope for me yet. I just read an article from psy­chology research sci­en­tist Ajay Sat­pute, of Northeastern’s Affec­tive Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­tory, that pointed out an inter­esting nuance of decision-​​making that I’ll need to keep in mind for future food ordering adven­tures. The fact has been shown sev­eral times before: We tend to make better deci­sions when we’re dis­tracted. That is, if I read over the menu, taking in my var­ious options from enchi­ladas to bur­ritos, and then look up, con­verse with friends for a little while, for­get­ting entirely that I’ll soon need to choose, I may do a better job than if I choose on the spot or sit there cal­cu­lating my options until the waiter comes by (which is exactly what I do).

The new find­ings, which Sat­pute worked on in col­lab­o­ra­tion with David Creswell and James K. Bursley of Carnegie Mellon Uni­ver­sity, add brain-​​imaging data to this puz­zling fea­ture of human cognition.

We hypoth­e­sized that if some­thing extra or ‘uncon­scious thought-​​like’ activity is hap­pening during dis­trac­tion, this should show up in brain activity,” said Satpute.

To test their hypoth­esis, the team asked 33 adults to choose the best item among a series of four items after being pre­sented with 12 attrib­utes (like price and quality) for each one. There were three series, one included cars, another apart­ments, and one mas­sage chairs (who knew there could be a bad deci­sion when it came to mas­sage chairs?).

One of the items in each list had eight pos­i­tive and four neg­a­tive attrib­utes (this would be the best choice), another had four pos­i­tives and eight neg­a­tives (worst choice), and two had six of each (neu­tral). Each attribute was dis­played on a screen for just under two seconds.

After this ini­tial “getting-​​to-​​know-​​your-​​options” phase (akin to reading the restau­rant menu), par­tic­i­pants were asked to either make an imme­diate deci­sion, to delib­er­ately ponder their options for two min­utes, or to think about some­thing else entirely for two min­utes. These last two groups were hooked up to fMRI machines throughout the process, which pro­vides quan­ti­ta­tive elec­trical data about the brain that can be trans­lated into a visual image. The imme­diate deci­sion group had their brains image imme­di­ately prior to or fol­lowing the decision.

To achieve optimum dis­trac­tion in that last sce­nario, the par­tic­i­pants had to undergo what sounds to me like a very stressful if mean­ing­less game called a “2-​​back test”: They were shown a series of num­bers and had to press a button when the cur­rent number matched the one pre­sented two digits prior. Ouch. Who could delib­erate over bur­ritos and enchi­ladas while having to do that sort of thing? Cer­tainly not me.

But, as expected from the pre­vious research, people chose the best item when they were dis­tracted for those two min­utes. What was going on their brains during those two min­utes of uncon­scious thought? Did it look any dif­ferent than that of the conscious-​​thought group?

Yes, it did! “We found that a set of brain regions was more active during this period, and that their acti­va­tion cor­re­lated with making more optimal choices,” said Satpute.

To ensure that these dif­ferent regions weren’t just due to engaging in a dif­ferent kind of task, they also pre­formed an “inde­pen­dent 2-​​back test” where the par­tic­i­pants had to play the same pesky number game but not right after being pre­sented with a bunch of info about cars they’d soon have to decide between. They sub­tracted the brain activity that showed up in this con­trol exper­i­ment from the activity they saw during the real deal. It was this remaining data they found so interesting.

But, I asked Sat­pute, how can you be sure they weren’t thinking about some other deci­sion that you don’t even know about during the con­trol test? Well.…they don’t. “It could be the case that people are engaged in uncon­scious thought even during the inde­pen­dent 2-​​back task,” Sat­pute ceded. “But if it was the same kind of uncon­scious thought processes at work, then we prob­ably shouldn’t have observed this dif­fer­ence in brain activation.”

But what does it all mean? Why in the world should we be better at making deci­sions when we’re dis­tracted than when we take the time to sit down and really think about our options? This com­pletely flies in the face of every­thing I know about restau­rant ordering…but then, I’m hor­rible at restau­rant ordering.

To be sure, uncon­scious thought may help in some sit­u­a­tions whereas more con­scious forms of thought are helpful in others,” said Sat­pute. I sug­gested that it could have some­thing to do with our ancient need to mul­ti­task: Stay here and keep eating this delightful elk car­cass or run from that lion that’s coming my way? I think I’ll run.

This could have some­thing to do with it, Sat­pute said, but he had a brainier expla­na­tion of his own: “It could be about which memory sys­tems are more or less relied on when making com­plex judg­ments, how these sys­tems relate or com­pete for expres­sion, and how they relate to con­scious­ness.” That’s pretty deep.

While Sat­pute and his col­lab­o­ra­tors keep thinking on it, I will be con­tent to start for­get­ting about my big com­plex enchi­lada deci­sions and see if it helps. I’ll let you know.