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Say you have a decision to make, and there are many different factors involved. Perhaps you’ve been offered a new job that would require you to relocate. How would you go about making this decision?

The first thing you’d probably want is some time. You’d want time to think it all over and sift through the information at your disposal, consult with others, write up a pro and con list. You’d want time because it would improve your chances of making the right decision for yourself.

Intuitively we’re aware of the potential benefits of delaying a decision. We have popular idioms that advise this policy. ‘Let me sleep on it’, ‘give me time to think it over’, and ‘think before you speak’ reflect the need to stop and take a moment (or many) before acting. These longstanding words of wisdom advocate consideration over impulsivity, implying that successful outcomes in decision-making depend on delay.

Now, I’m always pleased when scientific research reinforces and clarifies such expressions. As popular phrases they’ve been knocking around our cultural consciousness for a long time. (And as a mouthy teenager I certainly heard the line ‘think before you speak’ more than a few times.) While the research may not be able to answer just how these expressions came into cultural existence, it’s exciting to have the findings explain why and how they are beneficial on neurological and cognitive levels.

A recent study conducted by Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) is shedding more light on the mechanics and benefits of delay when making decisions. Specifically, researchers have found that decision-making accuracy can be improved by delaying the onset of a decision by a fraction of a second (as little as 50 to 100 milliseconds).

As researcher Dr. Tobias Teichert explained, “decision-making isn’t always easy, and sometimes we make errors on seemingly trivial tasks, especially if multiple sources of information compete for our attention. We have identified a novel mechanism that is surprisingly effective at improving accuracy.”

And what is this novel mechanism? Doing nothing – just for a very brief time. Specifically, this means waiting a moment before even entering into the decision-making process. By postponing, the brain is allowed to focus attention on the most relevant factors and block out any pieces of irrelevant information, also known as distractors. We could say that the momentary delay lets the brain catch up with the situation. With more time at its disposal, the brain is found to be better at integrating many small pieces of sensory information surrounding the decision. The study found that if the decision making process begins while the brain is still processing distractors, more errors occur. In effect, the delay allows the brain to start out with better information when embarking on a decision.

In addition, the study also found that prolonging is not as effective as delaying. Prolonging means allowing more time to be in the actual decision-making process, whereas delaying means waiting before entering into the process.

However, this doesn’t mean that prolonging the time we take to make a decision isn’t helpful. Quite the opposite in fact, because in past studies, prolonging decision-making time was shown to improve accuracy. This is known as the ‘speed-accuracy trade-off’, largely because it takes a longer reaction time in order to be accurate. What the CUMC study does is demonstrate that now there’s an even more effective way to reduce errors: delay before deciding.

What I like most about the study is the discovery that research participants automatically employed a delay in the onset of decision-making during the experiments (by about 120 milliseconds) to improve accuracy. In other words, we seem to be naturally equipped to delay decision-making until the time is right. However,  it was observed that this technique occurred unconsciously in individuals.

This study has opened up new directions for future research, not just in decision-making accuracy, but also in impulsivity and cognitive functioning. And it got me thinking: for whatever reason, perhaps some people are not equipped with this cognitive function – can it be learned? Are there certain situations for everyone when this function is overridden, or turned off? Is there a difference in how we make longer term decisions, or decisions that hold more meaning? What would be the result if this cognitive mechanism were able to come under more conscious control – could we prolong the delay, and would this benefit us?

Is it possible to extrapolate the study’s findings into everyday life? I think so, to a degree. The researchers joked that this is the first study to justify procrastination, but I also see it further clarifying the difference between reacting and responding in life. In my view, reaction is an act made in resistance to another action or power. To react is to move quickly without thought; the term ‘knee-jerk reaction’ sums it up perfectly. It’s action on an immediate, spontaneous level, quicker than thought. It just happens, and we’re then left to deal with the consequences, whatever they may be.

Responding originates from the Latin word respondere, meaning ‘answer to,’ or ‘to pledge’. It’s closely related to the word responsible, which is being answerable to another for something. Respond also helps form correspond, which concerns communication and dialogue with another. I interpret response as the ability to give my reaction(s) some consideration and thought. It means I delay action for a moment in order to make my decision.

What I think the CUMC study has shown is that we have a natural neurological proclivity to delay decision-making in order to attempt giving a response instead of blind reaction in any given situation. The crucial link is awareness and mindfulness  – can we consciously apply a slight delay to all of our decision-making?

Ideally, scientific experiments and the everyday world should inform each other –a study isn’t much good to anyone if it cannot be used to improve life conditions in some way. I hope this new piece of research leads to further study on the science (and art!) of making decisions. Whether they be short term, fast paced decisions like those made in driving, or longer term decisions like that earlier hypothetical job offer, we can always use more insight into the process.


Original Columbia University Medical Center press release

Image: Norman Duenas, Hands of Time


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