Archive for March, 2008

Should we be non-judgemental?

Do we state our opinions, or do we stay non-judgemental? It often seems to be a fine line. Perhaps we think our friend spends too much money, so what do we say when this friend wants to buy a new car? Do we nod enthusiastically and discuss the best make and model? Or do we frown in disapproval and lecture them about debt? On the one hand, it is not our place to judge – just because we would spend less does not mean they are obliged to think likewise. Yet on the other hand, we feel responsible for our friend and we want to help them with our best advice. By staying silent are we offering our tacit approval, and perhaps compromising our principles?

Another example is people’s attitudes towards relationships. How much time should you spend with your boyfriend/girlfriend? Should you live together before marriage? Should you have sex before marriage? Which is more important: your partner or your career? People’s attitudes to these questions vary greatly, and we will likely end up in a conversation with someone who thinks very differently from us. How should we approach these situations? Do we state our opinions, or do we stay non-judgemental and try to view things from their perspective?

We must do both. We must reserve our judgement and understand that everyone sees things differently, yet we can do this while still stating our opinions. Some people state their opinions in a way that demands agreement, being critical, vocally disapproving, and highly judgemental. However, we can also state opinions, even forcefully so, without being judgemental. For example, I do not smoke, and I am not afraid to explain my reasons why. They include the obvious health risk, the financial cost, and the resulting unpleasantness to those around me. I will happily say all of this to a smoker, but I do not judge them because they smoke. After all, perhaps the enjoyment that they gain is worth the cost. Perhaps it improves their quality of life. I would rather live a short and enjoyable life than a long and miserable one, and from this perspective, some smokers may have made the right decision. This is no reason for me to stay silent – I think that my arguments against smoking are good ones and should be considered – but it is a good reason for me not to judge.

Hence, we must remember that what is right to us may not be right for another. We cannot judge what people should or should not do. In spite of this, we can still share our opinion and be forceful in doing so. Being non-judgemental does not mean staying silent about what we believe, it simply means acknowledging that others can believe differently. These differences are not a problem, they are something to celebrate. They expand our horizons and make life interesting. Being at peace with them is the key to harmonious relationships.

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Less thinking leads to better decisions…

How much thought should go into our decisions? How long should we wait? It is a commonly held belief that the more we think about something, the better our decision will get. Many of us will ponder a decision for hours or even days. However, as shown in research by Dijksterhuis et al, over-thinking a problem can actually result in a worse decision. This does not advocate a spur-of-the-moment impulse decision. Instead, the research advocates the process of unconscious thought: We give the problem time to be mulled over in the back of our mind, but we do not actively think about it. In situations involving complex decisions, unconscious thought is found to outperform its more logical and analytical counterpart.

The experiments performed by Dijksterhuis et al required subjects to make a decision, such as choosing which brand of an item to purchase, using either conscious thought or unconscious thought. For the conscious thought experiments, the subject simply pondered the choices for a certain amount of time and then made a decision. For the unconscious thought experiments, the subject instead gave his or her attention to a distracting and unrelated task for the same amount of time, and then made a decision based on “gut feel”. Subjects were later required to evaluate their overall satisfaction with the decisions. The results found that with simple decisions, subjects using conscious thought did better. However, for complex decisions, unconscious thought was more effective.

A simple decision is one such as choosing which toothpaste to buy. Here, conscious and analytical thought is appropriate. For example, to choose toothpaste, we may first pick out those that contain fluoride. Of these, we either keep or discard those that are whitening. Of the remaining options, we evaluate the prices, and choose the most cost-effective. The decision is simple, and conscious thought works well.

In contrast, a complex decision has many attributes. Suppose we are choosing an apartment. We must consider the location, the amount of room, the lighting, bench and cupboard space, as well as shower pressure, carpet, security, and of course cost. How can we evaluate all these things? Here, the research shows it is best not to try. By simply engaging our attention in a completely different task for a while, we allow our unconscious mind to process the information, and produce a “gut feel” for the best decision. Why is this better than conscious thought? The hypothesis is that complex decisions contain too much information for conscious thought to handle, and thus any choice based on conscious thought will only use a subset of the information. Unconscious thought, on the other hand, is very good at processing large amounts of information. The age-old advice of “sleep on it” contains much truth.

As a final note, the experiments involving complex decisions also included a third group that were required to make their decisions immediately. This group performed worse than the group using unconscious thought. Thus the time to mull it over is important. Impulse decisions are not the way to go.

The research has important implications for our lives. It tells us not to waste too much time going over the same points again and again in our heads. Instead, we bring the key issues to mind, and then relax and give ourselves some time to absorb it. Many of us do this already – we are often reluctant to rush into a decision before “sleeping on it” – however we also waste a lot of time agonizing over the pros and cons. Clearly some analytical thought is necessary. For starters, we must take the time to think through all the information we have. We may also put in our necessary conditions, such as a price cap on how much we can spend. However, when it comes to evaluating and weighing up all the information to make our final choice, unconscious thought has a lot to offer.

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