How To Make the Big Decisions in Life

Thursday, July 19, 2007

By Wray Herbert

Every autumn, the members of my extended family compete in an NFL football pool. It started modestly years ago, as a paper-and-pencil affair for my three sons and me, but now nieces andcousins and in-laws all over the country participate via Internet. It’s great fun.

I’m not all that good at it. I don’t follow the game that closely anymore, and I am competing against some true students of the game, including a sports writer. But I don’t embarrass myself either, and I’ll even win the week every so often. My method? Pure hunch. (That and blinkered loyalty to my hometown Redskins, of course.)

By hunch, I don’t mean my sister’s method, which is choosing her favorite uniforms and cities she’d like to visit someday. That’s bush league. No, this is higher order cognition, something to do with gauzy glimpses of the past and a sense of comfort. I’d call it a gut feeling, except it definitely feels like it’s in my head.

Well, it turns out it is in my head, and psychologists even have a jargony name for it: recognition heuristic. I had to look heuristic up. It’s a kind of algorithm for the brain’s neural network, a simple, fast formula for a particular kind of decision making. With the football pool, for example, you could choose winners deliberately, weighing each team’s off-season trades, performances against other teams, factoring in injuries from the past week, the weather in Minneapolis, and so forth. My brother-in-law actually does that. But you could also ignore all that information and pick the team that resonates in your neurons, the one you recognize with a sensation of sureness. That’s what a lot of people do, including me, and not just for football. Psychologists have studied it, and it’s not a bad system on balance. Indeed, we have to rely on such "unconscious intelligence" just to get through the day. Most decisions have lots of variables, and we just don’t have time to calculate them all.

People use a variety of heuristics to negotiate life. Another common one, described by psychologists Peter Todd and Gerd Gigerenzer in the June issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, is the so-called “default heuristic,” which basically says: If there is a default position, don’t question it. Consider the fact that only 28 percent of Americans are potential organ donors, compared to 99.9 percent of the French. Why would this be? Do the French have a particular character trait that predisposes them to give? Is their moral training superior? Perhaps there is an altruism gene that runs in the population? Todd and Gigerenzer think the answer is much simpler, and lies not in the mind but in the world: In most U.S. states, the default position is no-donation; you must actively choose to be a donor by signing something. In France it’s the opposite. And because it’s easier for the brain to default than not, we rarely stop to weigh the choices. We have other decisions to make.

While such rules are efficient and pretty accurate, people must intuit where a particular rule is an appropriate and valid fit with whatever life is dealing us at the moment. And people do use heuristics inappropriately sometimes, and thus make mistakes. Consider what the psychologists call the “take-the-best” heuristic. This life rule is a fast and frugal heuristic that relies on a single reason for a complex decision—say choosing a romantic partner. When you are in take-the-best decision-making mode, you search through the available cues in order, one at a time, but you stop searching as soon as you have enough information to make a rational choice. To use Todd and Gigerenzer's language, you are "satisficing," satisfying enough to suffice.

When you are picking a partner, there are a few resume details that are extremely important, followed by some more that are less important but still worth thinking about, and then a lot that are relatively unimportant. So: Intelligent? Check. Sexy? Check. Funny? Check. Successful? Check. That seems like enough to go on. You rarely get far enough down the list to weigh the unimportant things. If you do, best guess is you’re single. Then again, something you’re not weighing now may seem a lot more important later on. Kind? Oops. Didn’t check that. And that’s a big oops, because this ain’t no weekend football pool.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit "We're Only Human . . ." at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 3:24 PM


At 3:50 PM , Blogger Meegs said...

I love stories about us... :-)

At 4:37 PM , Blogger Susie said...

Me too. And I hope that I had all the important and unimportant boxes checked.

At 8:14 PM , Blogger jennifergosk said...

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