Web Exclusives:Meet the Profs

January 30, 2002:
Faculty Profile:
More isn't always better when it comes to making a decision
Eldar Shafir, professor of psychology, finds that information alone isn't always the key

People make decisions everyday. But many do not realize all of the factors that may impact their decisions.

Studies on nonconsequential reasoning and decision-making that psychology and Woodrow Wilson School professor Eldar Shafir has been working on for several years demonstrate that preference or information alone do not influence decisions. How and when information is garnered also plays a role in decision making.

Shafir's studies that involved medical professionals and students tested whether the subjects made different decisions when they pursued information than if they had received the same information from the start.

In one scenario, dialysis nurses were asked whether they would donate a kidney to a relative. More of the nurses were willing to donate when they first decided to be tested for compatibility than when they knew they were suitable from the start (65 percent vs. 44 percent).

As Shafir and his studies with medical professionals point out, "the pursuit of information can increase its salience and cause clinicians to assign more importance to the information than if the same information was immediately available. An awareness of this cognitive bias may lead to improved decision-making in difficult medical situations."

These situations flow through a person's every-day decision-making as well. Take a trip to the car dealer, for instance. A salesman can set up an apparent uncertainty — such as whether a car includes an attractive CD player — only to come back and resolve it with the excellent news that it does. His efforts may cause you to infer that this information is pertinent to the decision and may put you closer to driving away with a new car.

"Most of us go around thinking that the things we choose, the things we acquire from others, are the things we prefer. But we rarely think that what we choose could have been exactly the opposite if it was presented to us in another way. With a slight nuance, no matter how irrelevant, it could have gone the other way," says Shafir, who is teaching a freshman seminar this year, Decision-Making in the Context of Poverty, which applies some of his findings to people who are poor and their decisions.

Students examine the contrast between normative assumptions of rationality and the psychological mechanisms that guide behavior and produce systematic bias, particularly in the context of poverty.

By Argelio Dumenigo

You can reach Argelio at dumenigo@princeton.edu