We may not always make the right decisions, particularly when we're facing problems that require more thinking and knowledge, but psychologists have discovered that our brains are equally as good at determining the right amount of time and effort that is needed for an optimal decision on both hard and easy tasks.
We are constantly making decisions. What to eat for lunch, whether to walk through or around a puddle, what job to take and so on. However, psychologists have long debated on how good we are at making decisions.
"In the literature on human decision-making, there are two almost parallel stories," lead researcher Andreas Jarvstad of Cardiff University said in a statement. "One goes, 'humans are terrible at making choices.' The other goes, 'humans are close to being as good as they possibly can be.'"
There are two main types of decisions. The first is "low-level" perceptual choices, which involve fairly easy tasks like choosing where to put your feet, and the second is "high level" reasoning choices that require more thinking, like choosing where to invest your savings.
"Imagine you’re running up a really rocky path. For each step, you have to decide which stone to step on. Some stones will be poorer choices than other stones," Jarvstad said.
Past findings have suggested that while people are inherently good at making low-level perceptual choices, we are intrinsically inept at making decisions that require more analysis like choosing between financial options.
Instead of looking at how good and accurate people are at making the correct decision on both low- and high-level choices, Jarvstad and his colleagues wanted to set out to determine how good people make "time-on-task" decisions or how much time they should spend on the task at hand to get the best outcome.
Participants in the study were given a number of computer based tasks that involved either low-level (e.g. judging the direction of motion of a cloud of dots) or high-level (e.g. mental arithmetic) processing.
Participants earned a reward point for each correct answer and incurred a penalty each time they got a wrong answer. The points would later be traded in for money.
After participants went through some practice rounds, they were given a set amount of time to complete as many or few trials as they liked.
"Doing lots of trials very quickly might not be the best approach since the less time you spend on the task the greater the chance of an error. But spending a lot of time on very few trials might also be a bad idea since you limit the number of points you could possibly earn. The trick is finding the right balance between the two," Jarvstad said.
Researchers found that when it came to time management, the difference between higher and lower level tasks ceased to exist, and people were good at finding the right balance for both types of tasks.
"It didn’t seem to matter whether people were doing a low-level or a high-level task—they were equally good at deciding how much time to spend on these tasks," Jarvstad said.
In fact, participants generally ended up with nearly the same amount of money they would have earned if they had in fact made perfect decisions, and the findings were true for both low- as well as high-level tasks.
Jarvstad said that the latest findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggest that, contrary to past research, we really aren’t intrinsically bad at high-level decision making and intrinsically good at low-level decision making.