In recent years, scientists have made great progress in comprehending how we make decisions. Psychologists have suggested we have two systems of thinking, one intuitive and one analytical, both of which can lead us to make serious cognitive mistakes. Behavior economics have said our responses to incentives are often irrational and skewed, sometimes predictably so. Neuroscientists have taken pictures of our brains to show which parts react to different stimuli.
Yet we still don’t understand the role time and delay play in our decisions and why we continue to make all kinds of timing errors, reacting too fast or too slow. Delay alone can turn a good decision into a bad one, or vice versa. Much recent research about decisions helps us understand what we should do or how we should do it, but it says little about when. Sometimes we should trust our gut and respond instantly. But other times we should postpone our actions and decisions. Sometimes we should rely on our quick intuition. But other times we should plan and analyze.
Although time and delay have not occupied a prominent spot in decision-making research, these concepts lurk behind the scenes, especially in discussions about human nature. Many scientists say the key skill that distinguishes human beings from animals is our superior ability to think about the future. However, thinking about the future is different from predicting it.
As a professor, I have studied law and finance for more than fifteen years. In 2008, when the financial crisis hit, I wanted to get to the heart of why our lending bankers, regulator, and others were so shortsighted and wreaked such havoc on our economy: why were their decisions so wrong, their expectations of the future so catastrophically of the mark? I also wanted to figure out, for selfish reasons, whether my own tendency to procrastinate (the only light fixture in my bedroom closet has been broken for five years) was really such a bad thing.
I interviewed more than one hundred experts in different fields and worked through several hundred recent studies and experiments, many as yet unpublished, in divergent areas of research. I noticed that decision researchers with different types of expertise do not cross paths very often. Frequently, they haven’t heard of each other. Decision research has been so sprawling that experts in one sub-area often know experts in another, even if they are tackling the same questions.
I decided, after a couple of years of thinking about decision-making and time, that in order to understand these concepts we should not look only to psychology or behavioral economics or neuroscience or law or finance or history—we should explore them all, simultaneously. I tried to assemble the mass or evidence from these disciplines as any good lawyer would, to illuminate and clarify arguments we might not see if we look from only one perspective.
The essence of my case is this: given the fast pace of modern life, most of us tend to react too quickly. We don’t, or can’t, take enough time to think about the increasingly complex timing challenges we face. Technology surrounds us, speeding us up. We feel its crush everyday, both at work and at home. Yet the best time managers are comfortable pausing for as long as necessary before they act, even in the face of the most pressing decisions. Some seem to slow down time. For good decision-makers, time is more flexible than a metronome or atomic clock.
During superfast reactions, the best-performing experts instinctively know when to pause, if only for a split-second. The same is true over longer periods: some of us are better at understanding when to take a few extra seconds to deliver the punch line of a joke, or when we should wait a full hour before making a judgment about another person. Part of this skill is gut instinct, and part of it is analytical. We get some of it from trial and error or by watching experts, but we also can learn from observing toddlers and even animals. […] There is both an art and a science to managing delay.
Partnoy is also the author of F.I.A.S.C.O., Infectious Greed and The Match King. A former investment banker and corporate lawyer, he is a frequent commentator for the Financial Times, the New York Times, NPR, and CBS's 60 Minutes.