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Bigger picture thinking really does make for better decisions

According to a new study from Ohio State University, putting some distance between yourself and a decision can help you make the most beneficial choice for everyone involved. The right decision will sometimes benefit you more than others, which may seem selfish, yet it can maximize the reward for others as well.

“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 study lead author Paul Stillman. “Sometimes it makes the most sense to seem a bit selfish if that is going to maximize overall benefits.”

For example, a software engineer may choose to spend time developing new software over fixing a friend’s computer. It may seem selfish that the engineer is leaving his friend with a broken computer while earning money instead, but this choice creates more value for himself and the people who will use his software in the future.

Through a series of experiments, the researchers found that people usually made the most efficient decision when they looked at the whole situation and not just the details, which is often referred to as looking at the forest and not just the trees.

This perspective of looking at the bigger picture is what psychologists call “high-level construal” and involves creating psychological distance from the decision.

“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,” explained Stillman.

For their investigation, 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.

One group was tasked with creating a list of long-term goals that could help them improve their health – which made them look at the bigger picture – while the other group was tasked with making a list of daily health goals.

Next, both groups of participants played an economic game in which they had to make nine decisions about how to share money between themselves and four other people.

The game revealed that individuals who had been looking at the bigger picture in the previous task were much more likely to make decisions that would maximize the total value, whether the choices benefited themselves or others the most. Several other experiments confirmed these findings.

According to Stillman, the results of this study show a way to maximize the net gain for everyone, while minimizing waste and inefficiencies.

“When you create some psychological distance 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,” said Stillman.

The research is published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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