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.

Yet examination of these historical events by Peter Suedfeld, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, and Roderick Kramer, a psychologist at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, found little difference in the two decision-making processes; both crises required and received complex consideration, and Kennedy just got it right the second time.

Snap Decisions

In general, however, organizational and political science offer little evidence that complex decisions fare better than simpler ones. In fact, a growing body of work suggests that in many situations simple “snap” decisions will be routinely superior to more complex ones—an idea that gained widespread public appeal with Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Blink (Little, Brown, 2005).

A February 2006 Science article by Ap Dijksterhuis of the University of Amsterdam and his colleagues, “On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-without-Attention Effect,” runs very much in the spirit of Gladwell’s influential text. Its core argument is that to be effective, conscious (deliberative) decision making requires cognitive resources. Because increasingly complex decisions place increasing strain on those resources, the quality of our decisions declines as their complexity increases. In short, complex decisions overrun our cognitive powers. On the other hand, unconscious decision making (what the authors refer to as “deliberation without attention,” akin to “sleeping on it”) requires no cognitive resources, so task complexity does not degrade its effectiveness. The seemingly counterintuitive conclusion is that although conscious thought enhances simple decisions, the opposite holds for more complex decisions. As Alexander showed, it sometimes pays not to think too hard about a complex problem.

Dijksterhuis and his co-workers report four simple but elegant studies supporting this argument. In one, participants assessed the quality of four hypothetical cars by considering either four attributes (a simple task) or 12 attributes (a complex task). Among participants who considered four attributes, those who were allowed to engage in undistracted deliberative thought did better at discriminating between the best and worst cars than those who were distracted and hence unable to deliberate. The opposite pattern emerged when people considered 12 criteria. In this case, conscious deliberation led to inferior discrimination and poor decisions.

In another study Dijksterhuis and his colleagues surveyed shoppers emerging from either the Dutch department store Bijenkorf (which sells “simple” products, such as clothes) or IKEA (which sells more “complex” ones, such as furniture). Compared with those who said they had deliberated long and hard, shoppers who bought with little conscious deliberation felt less happy with their simple purchases at Bijenkorf but happier with the complex purchases at IKEA. Deliberation without attention actually produced better results as the decisions became more complex. Choose your socks carefully—but don’t sweat the details about the couch.

From there, however, the researchers take a big leap. They write:

There is no reason to assume that the deliberation-without-attention effect does not generalize to other types of choices—political, managerial or otherwise. In such cases, it should benefit the individual to think consciously about simple matters and to delegate thinking about more complex matters to the unconscious.

This radical inference flies in the face of received political and managerial theory (recall, for instance, Janis and Mann’s warnings about groupthink). It doubtless gives succor to would-be Alexanders in politics and management. Indeed, one suspects that many of our political leaders already embrace this wisdom. Who needs the United Nations? Who needs parliamentary process? Who needs democracy? As President George W. Bush put it on June 4, 2003, after having invaded Iraq, “I’m... not very analytical. You know, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about myself, about why I do things.”

Still, it is here, in the realms of society and its governance, that the more problematic implications of deliberation without attention begin to surface. Variables that can be neatly circumscribed in decisions about shopping lose clarity in a world of group dynamics, social interaction, history and politics. Two pertinent questions arise. First, what counts as a complex decision? And second, what counts as a good outcome? Someone shopping for socks or a car may be able to answer these questions straightforwardly. But in the wider world, what constitutes a complex decision or a good outcome is in no sense “given,” and a great deal of political energy must be dedicated to defining (and redefining) precisely these things.

Yet social psychology suggests that when it comes to decisions affecting groups, the deliberative process itself greatly increases the outcome’s viability. New York University psychologist Tom Tyler’s studies of criminal justice show that people value not so much the legal system’s outcomes as the opportunity to see justice being done. And as social psychology pioneer Kurt Lewin (1890–1947) noted, a “good” decision that nobody respects is actually bad. His classic studies of decision making showed that participating in deliberative processes makes people more likely to abide by the results.

Less Is Less

These are only a few of the reasons why a belief that “less is more” can be dangerous when applied to big decisions. Evidence suggests that for every intuitive manager there is an autocratic tyrant. And for every Alexander who takes the path of nondeliberation to glory, there is a Bush or two who takes it (and us) to somewhere far more problematic.

The issue here is that when political decision makers err, the fault typically lies less in their psychology or decision-making style than in their politics—and, more particularly, in the relation between their politics and ours.

Like Gladwell’s book, the Science paper by Dijksterhuis and his collaborators is invaluable in pointing out the limitations of the conventional wisdom that decision quality rises with decision-making complexity. But the sting in the tail is that this work still tempts us to believe that decision quality is simply a question of psychology (in this case, one of matching cognitive load to cognitive resources) rather than also a question of politics, ideology and group membership. Avoiding such social considerations in a quest for general appeal can take us away from enlightenment rather than toward it. Think about it.