Decision makers want information…or do they?

Joe Friday - Dragnet 'Just the facts, ma'am'

Just the facts, ma'am.

In a paper soon to be published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Reeshad Dalal and Silvia Bonaccio tried to examine what decision makers want from people who give them advice.

See this post on the BPS Research Digest for a quick summary of the article.

The conclusion they came to was that people making decisions often prefer ‘the provision of information about alternatives’ to other types of advice or assistance.

How did they test this?

Apparently, many researchers just interpret advice to mean offering an opinion or recommendation. Dalal and Bonaccio expand this to include:

  1. Recommending for (or against) an option
  2. Providing information about options
  3. Advising on the decision making process
  4. Empathising with the decision maker

(I wonder why they missed out ‘Advising how to obtain better information’, but we’ll let that pass.)

They tested preferences by presenting a scenario, such as choosing between rival job offers. (They acknowledge that this scenario method has limitations because the participants weren’t making real decisions.) After this they gave alternative adviser responses such as:

  1. I think you should pick C
  2. Company B has flexible working hours; I know because I have worked there
  3. There’s a bunch of different ways you could go about making this decision; for example, doing a list of pros and cons could be helpful
  4. I understand that this is a really tough decision for you; choosing a job is a very stressful decision

How they might have confused things

I don’t think response 2 is simple information provision; it’s an implied recommendation with a justification and a personal testimony. There’s a lot more in it than any of the other options. No wonder people prefered it. Also, because the particpants weren’t really making the decision, they didn’t have to evaluate the personal relevance of the information provided. They might not care about flexible working in a real situation, it may have nothing to do with the criteria they considered important.

The authors tried to get round this by mixing in more general descriptions of advice given, such as:

  1. Your friend specifically recommends (recommends against) a particular job offer.
  2. Your friend specifically provides new information or facts about one or more of the job offers.
  3. Your friend specifically suggests ways to go about making the decision.
  4. Your friend specifically empathises with you.

Again, option 2 is given a bit of a boost. Notice the inclusion of the word ‘new’. Why didn’t option 3 say ‘Your friend suggests a method for making your decision that you hadn’t thought of’?

Advice which adds to the client’s existing knowledge or know-how is likely to be more valuable. That’s why giving good advice involves exploring the information a client already has and what they have already tried to do before adding your contribution.

Does it matter?

OK, so the methodology may have been a bit dodgy, but I suspect that, even with better methods, the results would have been similar. Information feels like it ought to be useful. Facts are concrete. They are easy to understand. Getting to grips with new decision making methods takes more effort. The adviser needs to do more work to make the usefulness obvious.

A while ago I had a client who was on a teacher training course and not enjoying it. She asked me for information about alternative careers with a teaching qualification. All my efforts to encourage her to think about how she was making her decisions were met with resistance — she wanted the information. So I gave her a list. Then I asked her to talk about how she was going to use the information in the list. In the resulting discussion we were able to explore her pattern of impulsive decision making in the past and develop a more systematic way of researching and evaluating her options. In the end, she could see the point of my initial enquiries and appreciated the decision making advice, but she obviously wanted the security blanket of the information first before she could engage with the advice.

  • Have you had clients who needed to have information before they were receptive to more complex advice?
  • What other methods have you used to give clients what they actually need rather than what they think they want?
Dalal, R., & Bonaccio, S. (2010). What types of advice do decision-makers prefer? Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2009.11.007

Related post: In the right zone


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  1. #1 by Ghislaine on 30 March 2010 - 10:55

    I suspect some people can’t think about how they made their decisions in the past, and they need to be actively making, or exploring, decisions *now* to be able to see how they are doing it. But of course, this may be relating to a specific set of people who do make decisions impulsively and so never think about why they make them. In your experience, is it a certain ‘type’ of person that needs the info before they can think about which would be right?
    I work with researchers and I try to get them to think about decision-making by using the analogy of them planning their research – they wouldn’t plan experiments/new projects without weighing up options etc. It’s amazing how few of them would ever have approached anything out of work with the same rigour they do their research… So maybe people prefer the provision of info about alternatives because it kicks off their own decision-making process rather than having to do it in the abstract?

    • #2 by David Winter on 30 March 2010 - 16:28

      I think you are right that people approach decision-making in different ways. This might be partly down to their personality or their previous experience in making decisions. (I think I’m working up to a detailed post about decision making – in the meantime you might want to check out the Taking Decisions section of our sort_it online career development tool.)

      In MBTI terms, I sometimes find that people with a Sensing preference feel more comfortable starting with facts (knowledge) and then building up to process and concepts. But I don’t like to make any presuppositions about people. I tend to try things out and watch carefully for the response I get back.

      As you say, it’s interesting how people can compartmentalise their thinking. I’m often trying to encourage clients to realise that many of the skills and approaches that would help them to manage their careers more effectively are ones that they are already using in their work. I guess it’s not so surprising; for most people career management is an intermittent activity so you don’t think about it as much as something you do every day. Still, if everyone were able to do that, we’d be out of a job!

  1. Link: If asked for advice, get your Wikipedia on and start spewing info, not orders

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