A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests our careful, well-thought out decisions are influenced by the environment.

Researchers from the University of Cincinnati set out to discover what environmental factors inform a more responsible decision-making process, and what factors deter someone from careful deliberation. "The basic idea we were examining is that there are causal relationships in our environment," said the study’s lead researcher Ryan Rahinel, an assistant professor of marketing at University of Cincinnati, in a press release. "When we make people aware of this, it makes people think more about their decisions."

For the study, researchers recruited 94 college students to participate in sentence completion tasks involving 16 sets of five different words. The students were split into two groups, where one group was given 15 minutes to formulate a sentence using unstructured words, like "chaotic, random, chance, and haphazard," and the second group was given words like "systematic, pattern, and order." When given a choice of activities afterward, such as check email or do school work, students in the structured second group thought more about their decision than students in the unstructured group.

That's not all. Researchers conducted a second experiment in which a new group of 92 college students (also split into two groups) read a story about trees. One group's story explained trees grow in a patterned and orderly way, while the second group's story said trees grow with a lack of structure and patterns based on a haphazard formation. Rahinel added that in both stories the tree growth was described as beautiful, so neither description depicted the trees as "unflattering."

After the students read their assigned stories, they were asked to choose a small gift out of six options, such as a keychain, voice recorder, FM tuner pen, quick-release keychain, voice recorder pen, super-bright chip light, or a multi-tool kit; then, they were asked how much thought they put into their selection. The result showed students who read the story about trees growing in a systematic pattern put more thought into their gift than the group that read about trees growing in a randomized pattern.

"So why does this happen? The idea is that when a world is structured according to relationships, we can exploit these relationships through careful thought to make better decisions, almost in the same way that one tries to strategize in games based on its rules," Rahinel explained. "When the world is random, there's no point in thinking about things because random things are going to happen — it's not like what you do is going to make any difference toward better or worse outcomes."

These findings suggest an unstructured environment can alter the way a person makes decisions. It seems chaotic, unstructured environments breed less thoughtful decision-making, which only compound a person's problems.

Rahinel and his research team want to dive deeper into this area of research in order to better understand how a person’s environment enables certain aspects of their life, and how to alter the structure for the better.

Source: Rahinel R, Amaral NB, Clarkson JJ, and Kay AC. On incidental catalysts of elaboration: Reminders of environmental structure promote effortful thought. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2016.