Wojciech Zajkowski, a postdoctoral researcher from Cardiff University, and two co-authors came to that conclusion after studying the way people make decisions. Their peer-reviewed paper was published online earlier this month.
From an initial survey of 723 people, they formed two groups of 60 respondents based on answers to questions that measure ‘action control’, one of the most important factors determining the effectiveness of decision-making and execution skills.
According to this classification, “action-oriented” people — those who find it easier to make and execute decisions — adapt more easily to time pressure or stress and are more likely to stick to their decisions. State-oriented people, on the other hand, find it more difficult to make decisions, are less flexible, are more likely to question the choices they have made, and are more likely to give up their efforts later.
In case you’re wondering, only a small part of a person’s action control is explained by personality factors such as extroversion or openness.
The participants had to go through a series of simple cognitive tasks and be compared based on a range of factors, such as how quickly they could acquire new information, how much information they needed to make a choice, and how confident they were in their decision. .
To Zajkowski’s surprise, there was no material difference when it came to the quality or accuracy of the decisions they made. State-oriented people were able to respond quickly and accurately to changing tasks and to absorb additional information.
However, there was an important difference between the groups: state-oriented people had the same confidence in their decisions. A second experiment, adding subjective tasks, confirmed the first finding.
The problem for the more deliberative, state-oriented among us is that low decision confidence can easily translate into discouragement, despair, or simply a low level of commitment to one’s choices. And for those longing for a career path, writing books, building businesses, or mending relationships, that steady dedication can be the single most important determinant of success.
Conventional thinking sees poor action control (or excessive state orientation) as a failure of executive skills and controls. Indeed, there is a growing focus on helping young people acquire better functions, such as initiating tasks and planning, which are crucial in life. But interestingly, Zajkowski says his research shows that it’s not the cognitive skills that matter so much, but the “metacognitive” skills — which he describes as “thinking about thinking.”
In a Zoom call from Tokyo, where he is doing postdoctoral research, Zajkowski says he is naturally state-oriented. “Being action-oriented is associated with better life outcomes, better well-being, and just being a little bit happier and a little bit more of a successful person.” But it’s not always more beneficial to be an action-oriented person, he adds.
The obvious example is those who make a bad decision but do little to question or reflect on their choices and their consequences. Action-oriented people can also be more prone to bias, so more easily manipulated or perhaps grabbed by charismatic figures.
“An obvious lesson from this is that either extreme is generally bad. There are many instances where consultation is very helpful. The problem becomes when it is excessive and then it becomes difficult to fulfill obligations,” he says.
Another lesson is that most people will thrive in an environment that plays to their strengths and helps some offset their biases, especially those who lean toward one end of the action-state spectrum. A state-oriented person can do better in an environment that imposes a little more structure and time pressure (she writes nervously, 30 minutes before deadline).
One question I can’t answer is how well we can really extrapolate from such experiments. Zajkowski is candid about the limitations of such experiments. The field known as “judgment and decision making” is rich and naturally includes the groundbreaking research that led to the Nobel Prizes for Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler and the hugely influential work in behavioral science such as Katy Milkman’s 2021 “How to Change” or Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s iconic 2009 book ‘Nudge’.
And yet most decision-making research — ending in if-then reports on how people who follow a particular strategy make better or worse decisions than those who follow an alternative approach — haven’t borne such fruit. In a poignantly candid article in Science Direct last year, two leading researchers, David Weiss and James Shanteau, argued that most of what’s been done in the field over the past half-century has made little sense.
The problem, they suggest, is an over-reliance on rigid models that aren’t replicated in the real world. “The easiest way to understand this unfortunate reality is to imagine how a JDM [judgment and decision-making] researcher would respond to a friend’s request for help making a difficult life decision. The advice is unlikely to be influenced by the work of the past 50 years,” they wrote.
Their advice to younger researchers was not to give up, but to “study real decisions.” One of the easiest decisions in psychology seems to be to study how we choose. For those of us looking for clues, Zajkowski’s work seems to suggest that we should worry less about the quality of our choices and focus more on trust and commitment.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion on healthcare and British politics. She was previously editor of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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