Harvard Business School professor Mike Norton ’97 has another new article out, this one entitled “From Thinking Too Little to Thinking Too Much: A Continuum of Decision-Making.” In it, he and coauthor Dan Ariely (a professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke) explore how “thinking too little” and “thinking too much” are problems that have largely been addressed in isolation, and whether those studies offer any advice for thinking “just right.”

An IBM slogan since the ’20’s

According to Norton, the answer is “very little.” Prescriptive advice for important decisions from the science of decision-making essentially breaks down as follows:

For those decisions that people have made many times—like renting an apartment—we suggest that decision makers should be on the lookout for thinking too little: ‘Are the attributes I have grown accustomed to using to evaluate the apartments I rented in New York the correct attributes to being to bear when renting in San Francisco?’, because using prior rules may lead people astray when environments differ by too great an extent. And for decisions made for the first time—such as getting married—people may be tempted to go with their gut feeling, asking, ‘Is this my soul mate?’, when it may be better to bring at least a minimum level of decision analysis to bear, asking ‘Do we share the same attitudes towards spending money?’, for example, an important predictor of relationship satisfaction.

Still, the release of the article is the occasion for a good interview with Norton in one of HBS’s house publications, Working Knowledge. In it, Norton explains his recent work:

We set out not to tell people whether they’re thinking the right way, but just to get them thinking, ‘I’m supposed to be making a decision right now—am I thinking too little about this, or am I thinking too much?’ ” Norton says. “Both of those could lead to mistakes.”

For example, in choosing laptop computers for a sales team, an IT executive might get caught up in comparing the graphics capabilities and audio quality of various options, when in fact the only factors of importance to users are the size, weight, and security features…

[Norton adds] “But too often the correction to ‘We don’t have time to do that’ is an over-correction to one hundred percent ‘We should go with our gut.’ ”

While all good managers should be able to make snap decisions in high-pressure situations, they may miss out on good opportunities—and fall into ruts—when they make quick decisions strictly out of habit. Too often, “We always do it that way” is the main reason for a decision… For instance, a manager might hire or disqualify job candidates based on whether they make good eye contact during an interview, just because past candidates who made good eye contact ended up performing well at the company.

“So they just decide to use that criterion forever because it’s worked out in the past,” Norton explains. “But they don’t think about what if they had hired people who don’t make eye contact. Maybe they would have been better than the people who do.

Plus, here’s a look at Norton’s awesome desk toy… and a glimpse of his future work:

The most captivating item in Michael Norton’s office is a Star Wars: The Force Trainer, a toy that allows would-be Jedi warriors to levitate a Ping-Pong ball within a tube using only the power of focused thinking. Norton, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School, plans to study whether inducing people into believing they can expertly control the ball will affect the way they perceive themselves as business influencers.

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