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See Inside April/May 2007

I Think, Therefore I Err?

Research explores when we can make a vital decision quickly and when we need to proceed more deliberately

IN GORDIUM in the fourth century B.C., an oxcart was roped to a pole with a complex knot, and it was said that the first person to untie it would become the king of Asia. Unfortunately, the knot proved impossible to untie. Legend has it that when confronted with this problem, rather than deliberating on how to untie the knot, Alexander simply took his sword and cut it in two—then went on to conquer Asia. Ever since, the notion of a “Gordian solution” has referred to the attractiveness of a simple answer to an otherwise intractable problem.

Among researchers in the psychology of decision making, however, such solutions have traditionally held little appeal. In particular, the “conflict model” of decision making proposed by psychologists Irving Janis and Leon Mann in their 1977 book, Decision Making (Free Press), argued that a complex decision-making process is essential to guarding individuals and groups from the perils of “groupthink.” Decisions made without thoroughly canvassing, surveying, weighing, examining and reexamining relevant information and options would be suboptimal and often disastrous. The Kennedy administration’s calamitous decision to invade the Bay of Pigs in 1961 is typically held up as an example of such perils, whereas its successful handling of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 is cited as an example of the advantages of careful deliberation.

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