How much does having information help when making an important decision – when buying a house, choosing a partner or making a deal?
The hedgehog theory of behaviour helps us out. Archilocos, the ancient Greek poet, wrote a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.
Edward L. Walker, in his book Psychological Complexity and Preference : a hedgehog theory of behavior said that one thing explained all behaviour – subjective complexity determines preference.
Unpacking that statement – preference is the reaction we have – pleasure or pain. The zero point is where we feel neither pleasure nor pain, a neutral reaction.
So, what drives us in the direction of pleasure or pain?
If things are too simple, then they get boring and no fun. Imagine having to hole punch 5,000 sheets of paper and file them.
If things are too complex, it feels chaotic and turbulent and out of control. Imagine trying to rescue your daughter from the path of a tornado.
Daniel Levitin, in his book The Organized Mind, describes an experiment where participants had to play a strategy game where they received two,five, eight, ten, twelve, fifteen or twenty-five pieces of information in 30 minutes.
They performed best with around ten to twelve pieces of information – that was the optimal complexity level for the game.
In real life, the number ten is closer to the maximum we can operate at, and the level that is closer to the number of things we can effectively hold in our minds and process is five.
If we need to consider twenty factors when buying a house, the chances are that we’re going to find it very hard to make a good decision.
The same problem affects people in a world where online dating sites let people look at hundreds of possible partners.
When one has the whole world out there it makes it much harder to decide than when you met potential partners at the village dance.
All this, however, has to do with how much information is given to us.
Levitin points to research by Dan Ariely showing that we make better decisions when we can control what information we get.
So, for example, imagine we’re shopping for a new car,
If we get information on the things we care about – for example, whether it can hold four kids and two dogs, fits into the neighbourhood and comes in black – we’ll make a better decision than if the salesman harps on about engine capacity and trim options.
A very real problem – Levitin writes pointing to Kahneman and Tversky of Thinking Fast and Slow – is that we can’t ignore information once it’s in front of us. We’re burning brain fuel just looking at it.
In a nutshell, then, to make better decisions and feel good we should focus on the five or so pieces of information that are most important to us in a situation requiring an opinion or decision from us.
And then get on to the next thing.