Taking your mind off a big decision often results in a more satisfactory outcome.

If you’re in the process of making a tough decision, a team of Dutch psychologists suggests taking a break, distracting your conscious mind with a fun puzzle and letting your subconscious do the work.

In an article published in the February 17th issue of Science, Ap Dijksterhuis, professor of psychology at the University of Amsterdam, and his team claims that people make the most satisfying choices on complex decisions after focusing on another task for some time, and then returning to the original dilemma.

Loran Nordgren, a graduate student working with Dijksterhuis and a coauthor of the paper, says that the research group’s goal was to test the strength of a familiar proverb.

“We were in a sense looking to show that the old folk wisdom of ‘sleeping’ on one’s decisions is a lot more justified than the scientific community has traditionally assumed,” he said by email.

The researchers asked subjects to make purchasing decisions about products ranging from shampoos to cars, both in a lab setting and at a store. The purchase of a car was deemed an especially complex decision, so researchers supplied detailed information on the different options available to the subjects.

Some of the participants then received puzzles in order to occupy their conscious minds and leave their subconscious minds unhampered to tackle the choices at hand. The subjects who worked on the puzzles made more rational choices on the cars than subjects who immediately made a decision.

Simpler decisions, like choosing between different brands of shampoo, were made effectively regardless of whether or not participants waited before making their choices.

“Conscious thought has a very limited processing capacity,” Nordgren said. “You can only focus on a few things at a time. Now when you compare that with the processing capacity of unconscious mental activity, such as the perceptual system, you quickly see some of the limitations of conscious thought.” 

Nordgren says that this limitation indicates that conscious thought should not be relied upon in big or complex decisions.

“In this sense, conscious thought is like a flashlight,” he said. “It can clearly illuminate a particular piece of information. But, as the information becomes more complex, conscious thought can focus only on a subset of the information, and this can lead to bad decisions.”

Originally published February 23, 2006

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