Does self awareness make for quicker decisions?


How easy is it to make decisions wearing one of these?

In a rather cute bit of research by Takashi Nakao at Nagoya University, Japan (and a whole host of researchers at Hiroshima University), students were prompted with random pairings of job titles and asked to choose which occupation they thought they could do better. The researchers then used EEG to measure the students’ brain activity in certain areas that are associated with conflict in relation to decisions.

In the first study they demonstrated that the amount of activity recorded was related to the difficulty of choosing between the options. There was more activity (more conflict) as well as a slower reaction time when students were choosing between two options that they found equally attractive.

Nakao, T., Mitsumoto, M., Nashiwa, H., Takamura, M., Tokunaga, S., Miyatani, M., Ohira, H., Katayama, K., Okamoto, A., & Watanabe, Y. (2010). Self-Knowledge Reduces Conflict by Biasing One of Plural Possible Answers Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36 (4), 455-469 DOI: 10.1177/0146167210363403

In the next experiment they attempted to stimulate the students’ self-awareness by asking them to decide whether various random adjectives described them or not. They then ran the occupation choosing test again.

The students whose self-awareness had been raised showed significantly less conflict and made faster choices than the control groups. This was especially true when the adjectives that the students identified with (or rejected) were more clearly linked to one of the occupations.

So what?

At first glance, this does not appear to be all that surprising. A lot of our work as careers consultants and advisers involves helping clients to increase their self-awareness in order to assist in their decision making. But why is it necessary? Surely, if the students were able to recognise whether the adjectives were appropriate to them or not, they were already self-aware. Lack of self-awareness should mean that they were completely unable to decide whether the adjective applied to them.

I suspect that what the experimenters were doing was making the students’ self-awareness more concrete and giving them explicit measures to use in their evaluations.

Often, people’s self-awareness is quite vaguely expressed; for example, ‘I’m not really into office work.’ This kind of vague generalisation isn’t a particularly useful way of expressing things when it comes to evaluating different career options. Perhaps the adjectives exercise gave the students a more useful vocabulary or set of labels that they could use when comparing the occupations. I spend a lot of my time with clients trying to help them develop a more explicit and useful set of dimensions against which they can measure their options. I like to see it as helping them to devise their own personalised matching systems.

Does quicker mean better?

In my very first post I talked about some fascinating research which showed that forcing people give reasons for their decisions can sometimes lead them to make poor decisions they later regret. I suspect one of the reasons for this phenomenon is that the factors underlying complex decisions are not always in our conscious awareness and, even if they are, we don’t find it easy to articulate them. So, when forced to explain, we are pushed in the direction of decisions we can explain more easily.

The authors of the self-awareness research don’t say anything about the quality of the decisions made by the students — just that prompting self-awareness seemed to reduce the conflict and so make decisions easier. Decisions that are easy to make and easy to explain could be dangerous.

Priming and labelling

In another earlier post (Can you disagree with yourself? the last five paragraphs), I wrote about another experiment in which different aspects of people’s self-awareness or sense of identity was stimulated (or primed) and this led them to make very different decisions. Self-awareness is a slippery subject because the self is not necessarily fixed — it often depends on the context in which you are thinking about yourself. And it can be manipulated.

One of the other influencing techniques borrowed from Richard Cialdini that I talk about in my Influencing Skills sessions is labelling. In this technique you ascribe a positive attribute to someone and then you link that attribute to something you want that person to do for you. For example, ‘As someone who is really creative I think you are just the right person for this new project.‘ I wonder how much of the quick decision making in this research was as a result of the students labelling themselves with desirable adjectives and then choosing the occupation which had the strongest link to that quality.

  • How do you try to develop client’s self awareness?
  • To what extent do you give clients the vocabulary and concepts they need to make good decisions?
  • Could you be encouraging clients to make poor decisions by forcing them to explain something they don’t have the words for?
  • How often are you guilty of priming and labelling?


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  1. #1 by Liz Wilkinson on 22 April 2010 - 17:07

    The priming and labelling really rang a chord. And I think I’ve used most it with clients who seem to me to be far too hard on themselves, to impart (if that’s possible) some positive thinking and confidence. But of course, that is such a subjective view. So guilty, definitely.

    • #2 by David Winter on 23 April 2010 - 08:49

      That sounds like nice priming and labelling. It is important to remember that these things can be used positively. Could you give any examples?

      It is unlikely that we would engage in negative or biased priming on purpose. However, we might do it unconsciously. For example, when we paraphrase something that the client has said in our own words, we could be forcing them along one particular path of thinking about themselves.

      This is a particular danger if, as I often am, you are trying to help the client to develop a more sophisticated vocabulary for describing and analysing themselves and their options. There’s a danger that you could take a vaguely formed concept from the client and transform it into something which is clearer and sharper but which, possibly, misses out something of what the client originally had in mind.

      I constantly need to remind myself to keep checking everything with the client. Is this the best way to describe what you mean? Can you think of a better word? Is there anything more about this idea that we haven’t explored?

      I’m attracted to the idea of the Clean Language approach because it tries to avoid introducing the adviser’s own interpretations. Instead it relies on eliciting more information about the client’s own metaphorical frameworks (in a similar idea to Personal Construct Theory).

      However, the hole in this approach is that some clients don’t have vocabulary or set of metaphors that are sufficiently well developed to enable them to think about (or at least articulate) their situations and their needs in a sufficiently complex way. I believe that, if necessary, it is part of my job to help them develop a more useful language so that they can address their own situation with a better set of tools. If I don’t do it, they’ll get it from somewhere else anyway. And at least I’m aware of the dangers.

  2. #3 by James Flitcroft on 29 April 2010 - 13:10

    For me decision making and therefore self assessment and self awareness are the key skills that I try to develop with people.
    I am often in the position of dealing with a high volume of people with relatively limited time and resources. Having read your post I think that it is vital that all of us involved in the process of developing these skills in others are mindful of any negative impacts that can arise from forcing the issue with regards to self asessment. By this I mean allowing ourselves and the client to go for a quick fix – pinning on a square label which will lead them to a square hole. This may as you say lead to missing the complexities of an individuals initial free forming thoughts or else at worse completely mis-direct their self assement.

    • #4 by David Winter on 29 April 2010 - 17:06

      Thanks James

      You’re right. Workload pressures, time constraints, budgetary priorities (and sometimes, client expectations) do push us in the direction of short-cuts and quick fix solutions. And that’s really dangerous when we are dealing with something as complex as a career decision.

      How do you resist that pressure? Got any tips?

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