Distancing yourself from a decision may help you make the choice that produces the most benefit for you and others affected, suggests new research.
It holds that one key to maximising benefits for everyone is realising that occasionally the best decision will benefit you the most.
“The most efficient decision is the one that is going to maximise the total pie — and that is true whether more goes to you or more goes to someone else,” said lead author Paul Stillman who did this work as a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at The Ohio State University.
“Sometimes it makes the most sense to seem a bit selfish if that is going to maximise overall benefits,” he added.
According to the researchers, this “big picture” perspective is what psychologists call “high-level construal” and involves creating psychological distance from the decision, thus allowing you to step back and see the consequences of your decision and to see more clearly the best way to allocate resources.
For the study, published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision, the researchers had 106 students complete a task that prompted them to think in a big-picture way or in a more immediate, present-day way.
Participants were presented with the goal of improving health and were asked to generate a list of what goals this could help them achieve, such as “longer life.” This puts them in a big-picture frame of mind.
Others were told to come up with a list of how to achieve the goal of improved health, such as “exercise.” This put them in a present-day frame of mind.
All participants then played an economic game in which they had to make nine decisions about how to share money between themselves and four other people.
The participants were told that the others wouldn’t know who made the decision, and none of the participants could share the money.
For half the participants, maximising benefits always meant favouring others. For example, for every $1 they gave to themselves in the game, each of the other four people would lose $9.
The situation was reversed for the other half of participants — maximising benefits always meant favouring themselves.
The findings showed that participants who had been prompted to think big picture were more likely than others to make decisions that would maximise the total value — whether they were the ones who benefited the most or whether the others did.