How to Organize Your Information for Better Decision-Making

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Photo: Mathias Darmell / EyeEm/Getty Images

Here’s some good news for anyone else out there who’s always got a zillion browser tabs open at once: We’re doing something right, you guys. Sure, it makes your screen look crazy cluttered and stresses out your organized friends when they look over your shoulder, but there’s something so easy about being able to bounce back and forth between so many different sources of information with just a click. And according to a study published earlier this year in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, having all that info pulled up at the same time can also help you be a smarter decision-maker.

In a recent column in Harvard Business Review, study authors Shankha Basu and Krishna Savani (of the U.K.’s University of Leeds and Singapore’s Nanyang Business School, respectively) explained that people tend to make better judgments when they have all the options at their disposal at once, as opposed to viewing choices one at a time. Over a series of experiments, the researchers asked their volunteers to identify the best choice out of a set of options; in each case, there was one objectively correct answer, even if it took a little puzzling to figure out. In one experiment, for instance, the participants were given the specs on several different models of an electronic appliance, like a microwave or a camera, and asked to choose the one with the best value; in another, they viewed the pricing information of different restaurant suppliers and picked the one that offered the best deal (for this one, the products were all listed at different quantities — x gallons for y dollars, or a gallons for b dollars — so that a little mental math was involved).

Some subjects were able to view all the options in their scenario simultaneously, while others were presented with one alternative after another. Overall, people were 22 percent more likely to identify the correct choice if they saw it at the same time as all the others — possibly, Basu and Savani wrote, because it allowed them to do a more thorough comparison, as opposed to just contrasting each new choice with the one that came before:

We tested this possibility in another experiment, which employed a setup similar to the previous two but also asked participants to write down the thoughts they had when making their choices…. Compared with those who viewed options one at a time, people who viewed options together used more phrases suggesting deep thought (e.g., “I think X is more than Y” or “Hence, I feel Y is the correct option”).

Think of the last time you did some online shopping, for instance: Did you look at each potential purchase one by one, or did you hop back and forth between all your possibilities until you felt comfortable enough to pull the trigger? The latter, this study suggests, may be a better way to ensure you end up with something you won’t regret buying. Besides, an uncluttered browser is overrated.

How to Organize Your Information for Better Decision-Making