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Stop worrying about it: distraction fuels better decisions

Photo via Thinkstock.

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.