How looking at the big picture can lead to better decisions

July 13, 2018 by Jeff Grabmeier, The Ohio State University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

New research suggests how distancing yourself from a decision may help you make the choice that produces the most benefit for you and others affected.

One key to maximizing benefits for everyone is realizing that occasionally the best will benefit you the most, said Paul Stillman, lead author of the study who did this work as a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at The Ohio State University.

"The most efficient decision is the one that is going to maximize the total pie—and that is true whether more goes to you or more goes to someone else," said Stillman, who is leaving Ohio State to take a similar position at Yale University. "Sometimes it makes the most sense to seem a bit selfish if that is going to maximize overall benefits."

To make a simple example, it might be more efficient for a software engineer to spend time developing new productivity software rather than fixing a friend's computer. Yes, the engineer may seem selfish by earning money and leaving his friend with a broken computer, but his choice creates more overall value for himself and the future users of his software.

In the study, Stillman and his colleagues found that people tended to make the most efficient decision—the one that resulted in the most overall value for the group—when they looked at the big picture, or saw the forest for the trees.

This "big picture" perspective is what psychologists call "high-level construal" and involves creating psychological distance from the decision. The distance may be time—for example, when you're planning an event for a year from now. Or it may be distant because it involves people who are far away, or because you're considering a hypothetical, rather than real, situation, Stillman said.

"High-level construal allows you to step back and see the consequences of your decision and to see more clearly the best way to allocate resources," he said.

The study appears in the July 2018 issue of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

In one experiment, the researchers had 106 students complete a task that prompted them to think in a big-picture way or in a more immediate, present-day way. Participants were presented with the goal of improving health and were asked to generate a list of what goals this could help them achieve, such as "longer life." This puts them in a big-picture frame of mind.

Others were told to come up with a list of how to achieve the goal of improved health, such as "exercise." This put them in a present-day frame of mind.

All then played an economic game in which they had to make nine decisions about how to share money between themselves and four other people. They were told that the others wouldn't know who made the decision, and none of the participants could share the money.

For half the participants, maximizing benefits always meant favoring others. For example, for every $1 they gave to themselves in the game, each of the other four people would lose $9. The situation was reversed for the other half of participants—maximizing benefits always meant favoring themselves.

Findings showed that participants who had been prompted to think big picture (high-level construal) were more likely than others to make decisions that would maximize the total value—whether they were the ones who benefited the most or whether the others did.

A second study was similar, but in this case the researchers used a different method to create psychological distance in some of the participants. Half the participants were told that the rewards would be distributed a year from now (which would prompt big-picture thinking) and the other half were told they would be distributed tomorrow (less big-picture thinking).

As in the first study, those participants prompted to think big picture were more likely to choose to maximize total value for the group, whether it benefited them the most or not.

Two other experiments confirmed these findings using different scenarios.

Overall, Stillman said, the results show a way to minimize waste and inefficiencies when making decisions and to maximize net gain for everyone.

"When you create some from your decision, you tend to see things more in line with long-term goals, and you can see beyond the immediate considerations of the here and now," he said.

Explore further: Your hands may reveal the struggle to maintain self-control

More information: Paul E. Stillman et al, From "me" to "we": The role of construal level in promoting maximized joint outcomes, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2018.05.004

Related Stories

Your hands may reveal the struggle to maintain self-control

July 6, 2017
It takes just a few seconds to choose a cookie over an apple and wreck your diet for the day.

People make different moral choices in imagined versus real-life situations

May 16, 2018
Researchers often use hypothetical scenarios to understand how people grapple with moral quandaries, but experimental results suggest that these scenarios may not always reflect real-life behavior. The findings, published ...

In making decisions, are you an ant or a grasshopper?

July 20, 2017
In one of Aesop's famous fables, we are introduced to the grasshopper and the ant, whose decisions about how to spend their time affect their lives and future. The jovial grasshopper has a blast all summer singing and playing, ...

How past intentions influence generosity toward the future

January 17, 2018
Over time, it really is the thought that counts – provided we know what that thought was, suggests new research from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

Mouse tracking may reveal ability to resist temptation

July 7, 2017
The devil on your right shoulder is telling you, "Go ahead, grab that candy bar! You know you want it!"

Recommended for you

A bad mood may help your brain with everyday tasks

July 18, 2018
New research found that being in a bad mood can help some people's executive functioning, such as their ability to focus attention, manage time and prioritize tasks. The same study found that a good mood has a negative effect ...

Depression-induced inflammation during pregnancy may impact newborns

July 18, 2018
The physiological impacts of depression on pregnant mothers may affect babies while in the womb and lead to changes in the behaviour and biology of newborns, finds new King's College London research.

Depression during pregnancy rises in a generation

July 18, 2018
Anxiety and depressive symptoms during pregnancy have risen by 51 per cent within a generation according to findings from a major study by the University of Bristol published last week [Friday 13 July].

Forty percent of people have a fictional first memory, says study

July 17, 2018
Researchers have conducted one of the largest surveys of people's first memories, finding that nearly 40 per cent of people had a first memory which is fictional.

Researchers explore how information enters our brains

July 17, 2018
Think you're totally in control of your thoughts? Maybe not as much as you think, according to a new San Francisco State University study that examines how thoughts that lead to actions enter our consciousness.

Celebrating positives improves classroom behavior and mental health

July 17, 2018
Training teachers to focus their attention on positive conduct and to avoid jumping to correct minor disruption improves child behaviour, concentration and mental health.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.