Paralysis of Analysis: Overthinking and Bad Decisions



Choking isn’t just for golfers and free-throw shooters. A particular kind of “choking,” thinking about the process of doing something instead of just doing it, can affect us all even when performing such mundane tasks as choosing a good-tasting fruit jam.

In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer describes an experiment in which two groups subjects were asked to rate five brands of strawberry jam that had also been rated by taste experts. One group simply tasted and rated the jams. This group, perhaps surprisingly, rated the jams in a very similar order to the professionals – the correlation was .55, not bad at all for culinary novices. In short, the untrained consumers were able to differentiate between the various jam qualities simply by letting their taste buds guide them.

A second group of consumer subjects was also asked to rate the jams, but this time they were asked to explain their ratings and analyze their first impressions. This extra thought process, rather than helping the subjects, seemed to jumble their choices. They were no longer able to spot the tastiest jams, and their ratings correlated with the experts by a factor of .11, dramatically lower than the first group.

Since most of us aren’t professional food tasters, let’s look at a “buying” process that followed a similar pattern. Subjects were asked to make a choice from a group of posters that included reproductions of works by Van Gogh and Monet as well as cat pictures. The subjects could take their chosen poster home. The first group simply picked, and 95% chose one of the fine art posters.

The second group was asked to rate the posters, and answer a series of questions about why they preferred some posters over others. This group was almost evenly split between those who carried off a Van Gogh or Monet poster and those who chose cats.

Here’s the question: did the additional reflection lead to a better choice? Actually, the absolute reverse happened. When the groups were surveyed several weeks after they took home their posters, 75% of those who took a cat poster regretted their choice, while virtually none of the fine arts poster choosers did. The quick emotional choice proved to be far superior to the “reasoned” choice.

The Hard Sell Process

I don’t know if they still sell encyclopedias by home visits, but that’s a great example of how a valid first reaction can be suppressed by too much thought. If someone said, “Would you like to spend $500 on an encyclopedia?” you would likely dismiss the idea as ridiculous. Just about everyone would. Nevertheless, in the heydey of encyclopedias, after a lengthy sales session a surprising number of customers DID buy the costly books. While the salesperson would likely say he was merely pointing out features and benefits, what he was also doing was confusing our intuition that was saying, “Buying expensive books that won’t get used much is a terrible idea.”

No, your “gut” isn’t always right. But it may make better choices more often than we give it credit for.

  1. Gerry Riskin says

    I was tracking with you until your encyclopedia illustration – was that from the book or your own addition? I ask because there is no foundation for it. An encyclopedia was extremely valuable pre-internet and while I don’t have stats at my fingertips I’ll bet students with home access had an advantage in school… the presumption that it was a dumb idea that just had to be confused out of us, I take exception to. I think it was a great idea that the representative needed to help us understand.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    That example was all mine, Gerry. I don’t dispute that an encyclopedia was useful in its day, but the techniques used to sell them were more or less identical to other in-home hard sells, like costly cookware sets and multi-function vacuum cleaners. All of these were useful, but may not have been very cost-effective and often saddled the consumer with a resource destined to be underutilized.

    Feel free to replace “encyclopedia” with “expensive cookware” in the example. Or “timeshare condo.” Thanks for stopping by!


  3. Todd I. Stark says

    I admire the passion but I am uncomfortable with the message and from my own experience and understanding of the extant research, I suspect that this is a somewhat misleading interpretation of Lehrer as well.

    “No your gut isn’t always right, but …” is inadequate as a disclaimer because in some situations our gut is consistently the very problem. I would say it was more realistic and definitely more useful to assume that half the time we reflect when we should trust an instinct, and half the time we let our instincts mislead us when we should learn better thinking skills. Using the right tool for the job and knowing which is the right tool is a far wiser message than “rely on your gut more.”

    Jonah’s books and overall viewpoint are actually rather nuanced in my opinion and nicely balanced regarding the research. He understands not just the “thin-slicing” data that puts a positive slant on gut responses in some situations but he also discusses the dark side of gut instincts, such as the large heuristics and biases literature which tells us relatively unequivocally that our gut is particularly bad at making money decisions, estimating statistical likelihoods in certain forms, and other things that weren’t direct biological imperatives throughout our species’ history.

    This excellent article on PsyBlog helps debunk the myth that reflection leads to poorer decisions as a rule and gives a more balanced scientific perspective:

    The book “Snap Judgement” by David Adler on behavioral economics makes the point in greater detail with regard to monetary decisions but also illustrates it in other important areas of life decision making as well.

    Don’t encourage people to stop thinking, encourage them to learn to use the right tool in each situation. It just doesn’t seem to be true, when you look at the data, that we should all be relying more on instincts rather than learning to think better and select the right tools.

  4. Roger Dooley says

    Thanks for the link, Todd. I’d never encourage people to stop thinking – I just find it fascinating that in some cases, thinking seems to lead to worse decisions. Furthermore, I’d say that some sales efforts exploit that weakness by deliberately flooding the customer with information to overcome the initial inclination to say “no.”

    I think this is pretty much the same debate that goes on when you talk about Gladwell’s Blink. In some situations thin-slicing works, in others it doesn’t do as well. As evidence of my willingness to accept that, I’ll offer my Bad Intuition post from a year ago. 🙂


  5. Denise Lee Yohn says

    hey roger — your post has implications for conducting consumer research — we’ve known for years about respondent bias and other effects on survey participants — lehrer’s research would suggest that asking research respondents to think critically about their response to stimuli changes their response — thus, a caution to researchers who employ methods involving self-reporting — probably best to combine with observation and other research techniques. a thought…

  6. Roger Dooley says

    Sort of the Heisenberg (or Yohn?) Uncertainty Principle of market research, I guess. 🙂

    I’ve always been more than a bit suspicious of self-reporting other than on very factual items.

    Thanks for sharing that, Denise.


  7. Karen says

    Yes I think choice is good when buying products but too much choice is overwhelming. In Internet Marketing we know all too well about information overload. 🙂

    ~ Karen ~

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