Monday, September 24, 2012

Conscious deliberation or going by the gut?

In a think piece in the Boston Globe during the last election season, Jonah Lehrer summarized a lot of information being developed in the psychological literature on decision making. He notes that recent Republican presidents -- Reagan and Bush -- have tended to emphasize a "going with the gut" instinctive approach, while recent Democratic presidents -- Carter, Clinton (and now Obama) -- have tended to emphasize a more cerebral style. Both styles in their pure state are flawed. Intuition can be accurate, but can lead to really bad decisions. It is also prone to a number of unconscious biases. The analytic style can lead to losing site of important information or indecisiveness.

Lehrer suggests that decision problems with a limited number of variables are best suited for deliberative processes, while more complex problems often benefit from the processing powers of the unconscious. He suggests that the best decision making comes not just from the application of one or the other of these styles, but from an examination of the process itself in order to draw appropriately on both styles.

A president benefits from surrounding himself by a number of advisers with differing points of view, and encouraging open and frank discussion of the issues. Those advisers can also be helpful in offering comments on the decision process.

I rather like the idea of a deliberative process involving advisers, followed by a time to let the ideas percolate in the unconscious, before coming to a decision.

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