University of Saskatchewan

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Lila McCormick (left) tests fellow student Julia McCormick {Photo courtesy of James Zheng}
November 13, 2007

On second thought: U of S psychology student determines how to make the best possible decisions

November 13, 2007
Twentieth in Series
For The StarPhoenix
By Wendy Gillis

Think fast: Is it better to make decisions based on a gut feeling or to take some time to consider all the options?

University of Saskatchewan psychology student Lila McCormick suggests it’s better to think carefully about this question – and every other decision you’re facing – before you answer it.

McCormick has been awarded an undergraduate student research grant from NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) to find out how the average person can make the best possible decisions.

“One can assume there are certain conditions under which people make better decisions, be it thinking about the decision and weighing the pros and cons, or just going with your gut feeling,” she says.

During her undergraduate work, McCormick came across a Dutch study that found individuals make better decisions unconsciously or after a period of distraction, rather than carefully deliberating over a decision.

Surprised by these results, she decided to conduct her own experiments. With the help of supervisor Valerie Thompson, McCormick is challenging this research.

“I found the results [of the Dutch study] to be really counter-intuitive, so we’ve done some studies that will add some information to the debate about how to make the best decisions,” she says.

To pick apart the decision-making process, McCormick performed tests on more than 70 students and also incorporated results from other recent studies, for a total of more than 200 U of S students in the study.

She began her experiment by asking participants to make choices using three hypothetical situations: the purchase of a car, the rental of an apartment, and the selection of a roommate.

By providing information about the choices, such as the personality traits of the potential roommates, McCormick creates a bias so that there is a clear right or wrong choice.

She then asks the participants to make their choices under differing circumstances: right after they are given the information, after some time has gone by, or following a period of distraction in which they are given a task to complete such as an anagram test.

In analyzing the answers, McCormick looks at the participant’s ability to select the correct choice. She also asks the participants how they feel about their decisions, so that she can gauge their satisfaction under each decision-making circumstance.

After the completion of the study, McCormick found that individuals do make better choices after they have taken some time to think about their options, and the temptation to go by your gut feeling can sometimes lead you astray.

Because these findings directly oppose those of the Dutch study, another study will have to be conducted in order to determine which one is most accurate.

It’s the pursuit of helpful knowledge that continues to inspire McCormick in her research.

“I find it very interesting because it’s very applicable to the world, and I am interested in research that makes a difference in my life and in other people’s lives,” she says. “I think that knowing how to make the best possible decision affects people on a day-to-day basis.”

And recently, McCormick has had to practise what she preaches. Her academic success has meant she’s had to decide where to pursue her graduate studies, given that she’s been accepted in more than one place.

“There’s a joke around the office, because I’m supposed to be the decision-making expert, and I found it hard to decide,” she jokes.

Her paper will be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal this fall.


Wendy Gillis is a student intern with the U of S Research Communications office.

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