Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Distance Increases the Use of Statistics in Decisions

Distance affects your appreciation for the basis of other people's decisions.

There is a real tension in decision making between using a broad sample of information and focusing on a compelling individual case.  Recruiters will get a lot of information about job candidates before scheduling an interview, but then will give a lot of weight to the interview itself in making a final decision.  Politicians may have a lot of statistics to support a particular policy, but they are often driven to act by a specific event.

 Presumably, a decision based on a lot of evidence is better than one that is based only on a specific case.  An interesting paper in the June, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Erin Burgoon, Marlone Henderson, and Cheryl Wakslak examined how we evaluate other people’s decisions that are based either on statistics or specific cases.

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 These researchers argued that the distance between you and the decision maker would influence your preference for the kind of decision that person has made.  Research on construal level theory by Yaacov Trope, Nira Liberman and their colleagues suggests that people think about situations more specifically when they are mentally close to that situation than when they are mentally far from it.  Thinking about a decision specifically can lead to a preference for using information about a particular case over using general statistical information.  So, if you hear about a person who has made a decision using specific case information, you are probably happier with that decision if that person is close by than if they are far away.

 One study in this paper was run two weeks after the shooting in Arizona that injured US Representative Gabrielle Giffords.  Participants read that their representative in Congress was supporting legislation to limit the size of the ammunition magazines in automatic weapons.  They read an interview that supported this legislation.  The interview focused either on statistics about gun violence or specifically on the shooting in Arizona.  Some participants were told that the interview took place nearby in that representative’s local office, while others were told that the interview was given in far-away Washington, DC.  After reading the interview, participants expressed their level of support for their member of Congress.

 Participants who read that the interview was held nearby showed equal levels of support regardless of whether the legislation was being supported based on statistics or based on the specific shooting.  Those who read that the interview was held in Washington DC expressed a higher level of support for the Representative when the interview focused on statistics than when it focused on the specific case. 

 This finding demonstrates that distance from the decision maker affects people’s beliefs about how that person should make a decision.  Another study in this series related this finding more specifically to construal level theory.

 Research on construal level theory finds that you can induce a mindset to think about situations specifically or abstractly.  For example, if you ask people to talk about how to accomplish a goal, they think more specifically afterward than if you ask them to talk about why they should accomplish that goal.  Talking about how to do something focuses people on more specific details than talking about why to do something, and that influence carries over to other tasks people are performing.

 In one study, participants were first asked to give feedback to the superintendant of a local school district.  They picked an issue of their choice and talked either about how or why the superintendant should make a change. 

 Then, they read that the superintendant was going to make a change to a school lunch program.  They were told that 85% of parents who were surveyed supported the change, but that one irate parent left a long voicemail message opposing the program.  (Another group of participants read the opposite that 85% of parents opposed the program and one vocal parent supported it.)  Some people read that the superintendant made a decision based on the consensus of the parents, while others read that the superintendant made a decision based on the argument made by the vocal parent.  Then, people expressed their support for the superintendant.

 Overall, participants felt that the superintendent made a better decision when the decision was based on the consensus of the parents than when it was based on a specific individual. However, if the participants had previously focused on “how” to accomplish a goal, they were more supportive when the superintendant decided based on the specific individual than if the participants had previously focused on “why” to accomplish a goal.  So, a mindset that gets people to think specifically increases their appreciation for choices made based on specific information. 

 All things being equal, it is better to take a lot of data into account when making a choice than to focus on a particular representative case.  To help yourself appreciate decisions based on data, try to give yourself some mental distance from the choice being made.  That distance will help you to focus on a broader context in which a decision is being made.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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