Decisions, decisions. The job as a manuscript editor at Your Favourite Weekly Etcetera largely consists of making decisions – whether to consider a manuscript for publication, or to send it on its way elsewhere. Because we receive a very large number of manuscripts, we have to make such decisions quickly. Hesitate, and we’d soon be buried by the backlog (notwithstanding inasmuch as which scientists generally prefer to have manuscripts rejected without review returned to them quickly, rather than having to wait a long time for the same unfruitful outcome.)
This creates a problem. For no matter how thoroughly we read each manuscript (and, yes, we do read them), and how much we discuss them with colleagues, we cannot possibly know everything there is to know about the background to the research; the context in which a given paper is written; the progress of the relevant discipline or sub-discipline; and so on and so forth. And because there are always more manuscripts coming down the pipe, there’s a trade off to be made between knowledge (never enough) and time (always limited.)
We can, however, come to a pretty fair opinion rather quickly, based on a mixture of experience (as editors, we follow the first rule of journalism, which is ‘read the papers’) and a generous helping of intuition. We know when something feels right or wrong, even if we’re hard put to it to put such a feeling into words. The Late John Maddox, the former Editor of Nature and a consummate newspaperman with a nose for a good story, once told me that he liked to run things ‘by the seat of his pants’. So, although we almost certainly publish manuscripts we probably shouldn’t, and reject manuscripts which, in hindsight, we should have grasped with both hands (Krebs’ description of the citric acid cycle being the most egregious example), I think we make the right decisions, almost all of the time.
I was expounding on this theme at an Institution of Higher Learning a few years back, after which my host told me about Gut Feelings: Short Cuts to Better Decision Making by psychologist Gert Gigerenzer, and later sent me a copy (thank you, Professor A. W. of Hatfield, I’ll return it soon, I promise.) This book legitimizes and systematizes that instinct – that gut feeling – we use to make decisions, showing how such seat-of-pants decisions might in many cases be at least as good, if not better, than decisions made with more data or the minutiae of expertise.
One example will do for all. In a test (Gigerenzer refers to many well-conducted experiments, by himself, his colleagues and others) a group of professional investors was invited to pick a portfolio of stocks, hold them for a few months, and calculate the return on their investment. At the same time, a group of laypeople – that is, people whose business lay outside financial services – was invited to do the same. At the end of the specified period, the returns were calculated, and – bingo – the portfolios compiled by seemingly ignorant members of the public had, in general, performed as well as or better than those carefully crafted by the professionals.
Beginner’s luck? Not quite – Gigerenzer’s interpretation is based on two things. The first is what he calls the ‘recognition heuristic‘. That is, people with no other information chose stocks based on familiarity. They selected those companies they were most likely to have heard of – high-street names, companies seen in advertising – a familiarity which correlates (in general) with solidity and success. The pundits, however, with their greater knowledge of the financial markets, might have chosen less well-known stocks, which tend to be riskier. Second, the pundits tend to fall into the trap of using past performance as a guide to the future. But as every gambler knows, the result of any particular throw of a die is not contingent on the throw before, and, in a system as complicated as the stock market, future performance is almost anyone’s guess, irrespective of prior performance or investor expertise. A small amount of knowledge is better than none at all, to be sure, but sometimes too much knowledge can be a hindrance to performance.
Related to the superabundance of data or knowledge, says Gigerenzer, is the phenomenon of consumer choice. In a world in which we are continually presented with a range or products and services, it might be a surprise to learn that there is, in fact, such a thing as too much choice. Presented with a range of widgets from which to choose, a bamboozled buyer might always worry that he or she has picked the least good of the items on offer (hint – always pick the second cheapest, provided that it’s a brand you recognize) and forever be unhappy. Buyers are, in fact, generally happier when constrained by a smaller choice. Consider: is your dining experience happier in a restaurant which offers a vast menu, or one offering a small number of dishes, perhaps even just one? If you are unsure of the answer, I contend that the greatest contribution made by the nation of France to world culture is indubitably the fixed-price lunch menu. No choice means no worries.
I am sure you’ll have your own experience of how debilitating choice can be. Here’s mine, forever etched on my memory. Some years ago I was living in Los Angeles (I taught a course in science publication at UCLA in the Winter Quarter of 1996) and went to the store to buy a carton of milk. Nothing could be simpler, you might imagine. Going to the store I had a clear picture of what I was looking for – a carton, about so big, with ‘MILK’ written in large letters, perhaps over a picture of a reassuringly smiley cow in a field. No such luck. When I got to the store I was faced with a barrage of choices, a veritable phalanx of possibility. Yes, there was milk: but that was just the start. You could have it full cream, half-and-half, low-fat, with (or without) added vitamin D, calcium, lactose, turpentine, otters’ toenails, or combinations of the above, not to mention all the non-dairy alternatives, each with its own sub-menu of sub-alternatives. After a few minutes I began to whimper. “I only wanted a pint of milk“, I whined (to myself, in small wobbly letters.) Eventually I found a carton of milk, paid, and slunk away, over-awed, and somehow dissatisfied with my lot.
There are many things one might say about Henry Ford, but everyone agrees that his slogan for the Model-T motor car was a master-stroke – you can have it any color you like, so long as it’s black. There is something to be said for simplicity.