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"It Is Better To Sleep On It " !

Jan 7, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
It's better to sleep on it, research shows
Margaret Munro
CanWest News Service

Friday, February 17, 2006

Thinking too hard about complex decisions, such as choosing a car, may lead to worse decisions, scientists say.

New research suggests the best way to make tough decisions is to forget about them.

Collect the relevant information, it says, then let the unconscious churn through the options. In the end, it makes for better decisions.

"Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not always advantageous to engage in thorough conscious deliberation before choosing," say psychologist Dr. Ap Dijksterhuis and his colleagues at the University of Amsterdam, who make a strong case in the journal Science today for listening to gut feelings and intuition.

Their work on "unconscious thought theory" taps into the brain's hidden -- and many psychologists say unappreciated -- ability to juggle and weigh complicated situations and options.

"In short, consciousness should be used to gather information, the unconscious to work on it," says Dijksterhuis.

A similar approach was proposed in Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, which has made the author a popular figure on the corporate lecture circuit.

The new study focuses on consumer choices, but Dijksterhuis and other psychologists say politicians, managers and negotiators would also be well advised to delegate tricky decisions to the unconscious.

"This process of just 'sleeping on it' and 'letting it sit' is not just procrastination but is a valuable, productive technique that is drawing on cognitive processes that seem to really exist," says psychologist Dr. Jonathan Schooler of the University of British Columbia, who has done extensive research in the field.

"At a minimum, people should include this in their tool kit of decision-making."

The Dutch studies suggest simple choices like deciding on shampoo, towels or oven mitts can be safely left to the conscious mind. But more complex decisions are best left to the unconscious.

In one of the experiments, university students were presented with four hypothetical cars, and a list of 12 attributes for each of them. Half the students were then immediately given word puzzles to keep their conscious minds busy. The other half was asked to mull over the pros and cons for the different cars, one of which had far more pluses than the others.

After four minutes the students were asked to pick the best car. More than half the students who had been preoccupied with puzzles made the best choice. But only 25 per cent of the students who actively considered the choices picked the right car.

The researchers say people can only consciously consider and weigh a limited amount of information. The unconscious mind, they say, can integrate wider swaths of information, which leads to better and more satisfying decisions.

All of which indicates people shouldn't agonize over and fixate on choices. The better approach, say the psychologists, is to gather relevant information and then take a break. The break does not necessarily have to be long, judging by the car experiments, which gave the students just a four-minute distraction.

"The important recommendation of this work is that there can be real utility to just letting it percolate and then seeing what comes to mind," says Schooler.

If a decision doesn't come, he says the conscious mind probably needs to gather more information for the unconscious to shift through.

© The Vancouver Sun 2006


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