Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Decision Making

I recently read a fascinating scientific paper by Anthony Bastardi and Eldar Shafir titled On the Pursuit and Misuse of Useless Information. The paper's thesis is that decision makers often delay decisions to pursue additional noninstrumental information - information that a priori will not affect the decision at hand - yet then proceed to make use of the information, thus making it instrumental, once it is obtained.

The key issue for executives and venture capitalists is the following: one needs to determine what information may prove critical to the decision at hand, and, therefore is worth waiting for, and what information is unlikely to affect (and thus need not delay) the decision at hand. The authors note that "people often arrive at a decision problem not with well-established preferences and clearly ranked preferences, but rather with the need to determine their preference as a result of having to decide, and they often look for additional information in hopes that it may facilitate the choice."

The venture capital process is a class example of this phenomena.

Investors often do not have a priori preferences with respect to an investment decision and need to determine their preference to fund a company and do indeed, as all entrepreneurs know well, seek additional information with which to make their decision. The central issue is clearly identify which information is instrumental, "information that can alter what decision is made," versus which information is noninstrumental, "information which will not impact the decision at hand if it were available."

Given people like to obtain information and base their decisions on compelling reasons for one option versus another, research finds that, given the option, people will wait for noninstrumental information. Worse yet, once the noninstrumental information is gathered, people alter their choice based on this noninstrumental information. The cost is not only delayed decision making but also poor decision making as noninstrumental information impacts the final choice.

The key take-away is that all of us, when making a decision, need to carefully think through what we absolutely need to know in order to make a good decision, rather than delaying decision making and leaning on the crutch of more time to gather non-essiential data that may contribute to a poorer decision.

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