Mitchell: It's Better to Think Than Blink, Especially for Lawyers

November 5, 2010

The emerging notion that intuition is a better decision-making process than rational thought is overblown, and lawyers especially should recognize the value of second-guessing initial assumptions, Professor Greg Mitchell said last week.

Greg Mitchell
Greg Mitchell

Mitchell, the Mortimer M. Caplin Professor of Law and an expert in law and psychology, delivered his chair lecture, "In Defense of Thinking," in Caplin Pavilion on Oct. 27.

In it, he took aim at what he described as an increasingly widespread belief in the psychological community and the popular culture that the unconscious mind is a superior tool when it comes to tackling tough decisions or problems.

"There is this notion that the unconscious can be very smart and the conscious is not very smart, and that we should be trusting our unconscious more and more," Mitchell said."I want to push back against that today. I think that the detriments of conscious deliberation are being oversold and the benefits are being undersold."

Mitchell described what he considers emerging "anti-thinking memes" in the popular culture, including the 2005 book "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" by Malcolm Gladwell. The book and the psychological research it's built upon endorse the idea that the best way to reach a decision is to gather information and go with what instinctually feels right, Mitchell said.

A related idea promoted by other researchers is that having too many potential options for a problem leads to a sort of decision-making paralysis, which Mitchell called the "too-many-choices meme."

"Of course that's contrary to the basic notions of many economists. More information, more choice, that's a good thing, right?" he said.

Mitchell also described what he called the "self-correction-is-hard" meme, which asserts that most people are not very good at thinking rationally and lack the self-awareness or motivation to overcome their own biases.

Many of the people popularizing these avenues of psychological research aren't paying enough attention to the limited power and limited effect sizes of many of the studies, Mitchell said.

"There are in fact widespread situational differences in rational behavior," he said, citing an example in which people presented with a logic problem were more likely to reach the correct answer when asked to work the problem out in public.

"When we hold people accountable, when we make them publicly take a position in front of others - particularly if the views of the others are not known - what happens? People actually become more careful," he said.

There are also large differences in individual rationality, he said. Education in statistics or economics has been shown to lead to improved performance on inductive reasoning tests, and variables such as gender and culture have been shown to have an effect on cognitive disposition, which refers to the more flexible aspects of cognition, such as how much time people are willing to spend on problem solving or studying, or how likely they are to question their own conclusions.

Recent research on cognitive reflection, or the ability to question initial answers to a problem, shows a relationship between higher scores on the Cognitive Reflection Test - or CRT - and success on other rationality tests.

Mitchell's own research has backed this up. For the past five years, he has administered to law students both a CRT test and a rationality test.

He found that students who scored higher on the CRT test — and were presumably more able to question their initial thoughts about a problem — also tested higher for rationality. The same test administered to the general public through Amazon's Mechanical Turk Program showed the same correlation, Mitchell said.

"On a wide variety of tasks, these more reflective people, the people who are more prone to deliberate on problems, did better on logical and statistical reasoning tests, were more consistent in their risky choices, and I think more importantly, were able to engage in some fairly complicated mental simulations to figure out what the right answers to the problem were," he said.

Cognitive reflection also has specific benefits to lawyers and the practice of law, Mitchell said. People who are cognitively reflective question their premises; they think they need more information, and feel they need to examine all sides of a problem and anticipate what others are going to say.

"I think that's the sign of a good lawyer," he said.

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