Nav: Home

How looking at the big picture can lead to better decisions

July 13, 2018

COLUMBUS, Ohio - New research suggests how distancing yourself from a decision may help you make the choice that produces the most benefit for you and others affected.

One key to maximizing benefits for everyone is realizing that occasionally the best decision will benefit you the most, said Paul Stillman, lead author of the study who did this work as a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at The Ohio State University.

"The most efficient decision is the one that is going to maximize the total pie - and that is true whether more goes to you or more goes to someone else," said Stillman, who is leaving Ohio State to take a similar position at Yale University. "Sometimes it makes the most sense to seem a bit selfish if that is going to maximize overall benefits."

To make a simple example, it might be more efficient for a software engineer to spend time developing new productivity software rather than fixing a friend's computer. Yes, the engineer may seem selfish by earning money and leaving his friend with a broken computer, but his choice creates more overall value for himself and the future users of his software.

In the study, Stillman and his colleagues found that people tended to make the most efficient decision - the one that resulted in the most overall value for the group - when they looked at the big picture, or saw the forest for the trees.

This "big picture" perspective is what psychologists call "high-level construal" and involves creating psychological distance from the decision. The distance may be time - for example, when you're planning an event for a year from now. Or it may be distant because it involves people who are far away, or because you're considering a hypothetical, rather than real, situation, Stillman said.

"High-level construal allows you to step back and see the consequences of your decision and to see more clearly the best way to allocate resources," he said.

The study appears in the July 2018 issue of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

In one experiment, the researchers had 106 students complete a task that prompted them to think in a big-picture way or in a more immediate, present-day way. Participants were presented with the goal of improving health and were asked to generate a list of what goals this could help them achieve, such as "longer life." This puts them in a big-picture frame of mind.

Others were told to come up with a list of how to achieve the goal of improved health, such as "exercise." This put them in a present-day frame of mind.

All participants then played an economic game in which they had to make nine decisions about how to share money between themselves and four other people. They were told that the others wouldn't know who made the decision, and none of the participants could share the money.

For half the participants, maximizing benefits always meant favoring others. For example, for every $1 they gave to themselves in the game, each of the other four people would lose $9. The situation was reversed for the other half of participants - maximizing benefits always meant favoring themselves.

Findings showed that participants who had been prompted to think big picture (high-level construal) were more likely than others to make decisions that would maximize the total value - whether they were the ones who benefited the most or whether the others did.

A second study was similar, but in this case the researchers used a different method to create psychological distance in some of the participants. Half the participants were told that the rewards would be distributed a year from now (which would prompt big-picture thinking) and the other half were told they would be distributed tomorrow (less big-picture thinking).

As in the first study, those participants prompted to think big picture were more likely to choose to maximize total value for the group, whether it benefited them the most or not.

Two other experiments confirmed these findings using different scenarios.

Overall, Stillman said, the results show a way to minimize waste and inefficiencies when making decisions and to maximize net gain for everyone.

"When you create some psychological distance from your decision, you tend to see things more in line with long-term goals, and you can see beyond the immediate considerations of the here and now," he said.
-end-
Other co-authors of the study are Kentaro Fujita, associate professor of psychology at Ohio State; Oliver Sheldon of Rutgers University; and Yaacov Trope of New York University.

The work was funded in part by the National Science Foundation and the Templeton Foundation.

Contact: Paul Stillman, paul.e.stillman@gmail.com

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, 614-292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu

Ohio State University

Related Decisions Articles:

How neurons use crowdsourcing to make decisions
When many individual neurons collect data, how do they reach a unanimous decision?
Diverse populations make rational collective decisions
Yes/no binary decisions by individual ants can lead to a rational decision as a collective when the individuals have differing preferences to the subject, according to research recently published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
Understanding decisions: The power of combining psychology and economics
A new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows how collaborations between psychologists and economists lead to better understanding of such decisions than either discipline can on its own.
Trading changes how brain processes selling decisions
Experience in trading changes how the human brain evaluates the sale of goods, muting an economic bias known as the endowment effect in which people demand a higher price to sell a good than they're willing to pay for it.
Modelling how the brain makes complex decisions
Researchers have built the first biologically realistic mathematical model of how the brain plans and learns when faced with a complex decision-making process.
Focus on treatment decisions: Doctor and patient should decide together
This edition of Deutsches Ärzteblatt International, which focuses on patient involvement, contains two original articles investigating the following questions: do patients benefit from shared decision making?
Surprise: Your visual cortex is making decisions
The part of the brain responsible for seeing is more powerful than previously believed.
Guam research reveals complications of conservation decisions
A Guam native insect impacts a native tree, posing a conundrum for conservationists.
Researchers determine how groups make decisions
Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have developed a model that explains how groups make collective decisions when no single member of the group has access to all possible information or the ability to make and communicate a final decision.
Physicians should help families with decisions about end-of-life care
About 20 percent of Americans spend time in an intensive care unit around the time of their death, and most deaths follow a decision to limit life-sustaining therapies.

Related Decisions Reading:

The Decision Book: Fifty Models for Strategic Thinking (Fully Revised Edition)
by Mikael Krogerus (Author), Roman Tschäppeler (Author), Jenny Piening (Translator)

Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions
by John S. Hammond (Author), Ralph L. Keeney (Author), Howard Raiffa (Author)

The Decision Book: 50 Models for Strategic Thinking
by Mikael Krogerus (Author), Roman Tschäppeler (Author), Philip Earnhart (Illustrator), Jenny Piening (Illustrator)

Knock Knock Make a Decision Pad
by Knock Knock (Author)

The Ambition Decisions: What Women Know About Work, Family, and the Path to Building a Life
by Hana Schank (Author), Elizabeth Wallace (Author)

What's Your Decision?: How to Make Choices with Confidence and Clarity: An Ignatian Approach to Decision Making
by J. Michael Sparough SJ (Author), Jim Manney (Author), Tim Hipskind SJ (Author)

The Power of Decision: A Step-by-Step Program to Overcome Indecision and Live Without Failure Forever (Tarcher Master Mind Editions)
by Raymond Charles Barker (Author)

Decisions
by Stephanie D Holloman (Author)

Decisions
by Jr Ralph M Edgerson (Author), Dawn R Blanchard (Editor), Gerald Johnson (Editor)

The Seven Decisions: Understanding the Keys to Personal Success
by Andy Andrews (Author)

Best Science Podcasts 2018

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2018. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Why We Hate
From bullying to hate crimes, cruelty is all around us. So what makes us hate? And is it learned or innate? This hour, TED speakers explore the causes and consequences of hate — and how we can fight it. Guests include reformed white nationalist Christian Picciolini, CNN commentator Sally Kohn, podcast host Dylan Marron, and writer Anand Giridharadas.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#482 Body Builders
This week we explore how science and technology can help us walk when we've lost our legs, see when we've gone blind, explore unfriendly environments, and maybe even make our bodies better, stronger, and faster than ever before. We speak to Adam Piore, author of the book "The Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human", about the increasingly amazing ways bioengineering is being used to reverse engineer, rebuild, and augment human beings. And we speak with Ken Thomas, spacesuit engineer and author of the book "The Journey to Moonwalking: The People That Enabled Footprints on the Moon" about...