!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: The Disjunction Effect

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Disjunction Effect

For some time — ever since I first noticed him in the pages of the Washington Post about a year ago — Shankar Vedantam has been one of my favorite journalists.

I've written about Vedantam's articles on how partisans process information, and now I would like to call attention to the article of his that appeared on New Year's Day. In the article, Vedantam writes about the disjunction effect, a type of procrastination and, therefore, a prime topic for the day on which many people make resolutions for the coming year.

The disjunction effect is the odd phenomenon whereby people put off making a decision in order to allow time to get additional information, but the information in question is actually irrelevant to choosing wisely among the available options.

As an example, Vedantam cites an experiment conducted by Eldar Shafir at Stanford University. Shafir divided a group of students into three subgroups.
The students in one group were told they had just finished a difficult exam and had passed. In another group, all were told they had failed. Psychologists asked the students whether they wanted to go on a vacation. A little more than half the students in both groups said yes — for different reasons. The group that passed wanted to celebrate. The group that failed wanted to get away from it all.

Psychologists then painted an identical scenario to a third group, except that these students were told the results of their exam were not known. Fewer than one in three students said they were willing to buy the vacation tickets right away, even though a delay meant an increase in price and ultimately made no difference — equal numbers of students would go on the vacation whether they passed or failed.
Shafir's explanation for this irrational behavior:
People are uncomfortable focusing on just the act and outcome. They want a script and narrative of why they are doing something. It's different packing a suit whether you are going to a funeral or a wedding, even though it is the same suit and the same suitcase.
Vedantam notes:
The research underlines the importance of thinking about what information you need to make a decision, and not just seeking information in an open-ended manner. ... The alternative is not just paralysis but the risk of being misled and manipulated by information that does not matter.
As Shafir explains, the very act of waiting for information makes it seem that the information matters when it doesn't or, in less drastic cases, that the information is due more weight than a wise person would give it. As a result, the odds of making a biased decision go up.

The moral of the story for trainers: When helping people build their decision-making skills, include an exercise that illustrates the disjunction effect, and then talk about how to avoid it.