Sleeping on a complex decision may be a bad idea

People more likely to rely on gut instinct

Sleeping on a complex decision may not help you make the best choice after all say two studies that question the evidence for unconscious decision-making.

The ‘unconscious thought’ theory for making complex decisions was proposed in a 2006 study by Ap Dijksterhuis at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

The team showed volunteers a series of cars and their attributes on a screen, before asking half of them to think carefully about choosing the best car, and the other half to solve anagrams – a distraction technique to allow unconscious processing. Those in the anagram group were more likely to choose the cars with the best attributes, leading the researchers to conclude that it is best to leave tough choices to the unconscious.

Now two teams have questioned this conclusion. Instead, they suggest that the volunteers made their decisions when they first viewed the data, based on an immediate gut instinct. Those in the anagram group simply recalled this original decision when asked to choose.

Those in the ‘thinking’ group, however, reconsidered their first impressions while the details of the cars faded from their memory, which led to poorer choices. ‘What Dijksterhuis ignored is that people might already decide when they first hear about the cars, and not after thinking about it or solving anagrams,’ says psychologist Daniel Lassiter of Ohio University in Athens.

To test this hypothesis, Lassiter and his colleagues repeated Dijksterhuis’s experiment with a twist: they told the volunteers to memorise the cars’ attributes while viewing them, thus distracting their attention from making an immediate decision.

The small tweak made a big difference. In contrast to Dijksterhuis’s experiment, students made better choices when they spent time thinking, rather than solving anagrams. Lassiter says this is strong evidence against the idea that unconscious deliberation is superior to conscious decision-making.

John-Dylan Haynes of the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin says that the new results show that unconscious thought during anagram solving had no great effect on decision quality. But he says that unconscious processing could be important for gut reactions.

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