Jonah Lehrer reports why thinking too much causes us to focus on variables that don’t matter:
When it comes to judging jam [the focus of the studies], we are all natural experts. We can automatically pick out the products that provide us with the most pleasure.
When researchers added extra analysis to the study, asking participants to explain the why of their jam preference and justify their decisions, the “extra analysis seriously warped their jam judgment:”
“[T]hinking too much” about strawberry jam causes us to focus on all sorts of variables that don’t actually matter. Instead of just listening to our instinctive preferences, we start searching for reasons to prefer one jam over another.
And it’s not just jam:
[The researchers] have since demonstrated that the same effect can interfere with our choice of posters, jelly beans, cars, IKEA couches and apartments. We assume that more rational analysis leads to better choices but, in many instances, that assumption is exactly backwards.
The larger moral:
[O]ur metaphors for reasoning are all wrong. We like to believe that the gift of human reason lets us think like scientists, so that our conscious thoughts lead us closer to the truth. But here’s the paradox: all that reasoning and confabulation can often lead us astray, so that we end up knowing less about what jams/cars/jelly beans we actually prefer. So here’s my new metaphor for human reason: our rational faculty isn’t a scientist — it’s a talk radio host.
As Howard Moskowitz, expert researcher on Prego spaghetti sauce and other foodstuffs once declared, “The mind knows not what the tongue wants.”