Study: Big Decisions Best Made With Less Thought

You're likely to make a better decision if you don't overanalyze it, according to new research. A study published in Science magazine finds that people make better decisions if they stop thinking about the pros and cons and let the unconscious mind do some of the work.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. If you have a complicated decision to make, say about buying a house or a car, you're likely to make a better decision if you don't try to overanalyze it. New research being published in Science Magazine finds that people made better decisions if they stop thinking about the pros and cons for a while and let the unconscious mind do some of the work.

NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: We all have to make big decisions from time to time. A Dutch social scientist named Op Diexterhaus (ph) knows firsthand how not to do it. When he moved to Amsterdam a few years ago, the real estate market was so hot, he had to make a snap decision or lose his chance.

OP DIEXTERHAUS: I bought my house without ever having seen the bathroom, for instance, and that was the main reason that got me interested in how do we make these complex decisions, these complex choices? And also how should we do them, ideally?

HARRIS: He assumed he would have made a better decision if he had had a chance to mull it over for a bit.

DIEXTERHAUS: It's not a new strategy. Folk wisdom tells you that it's good to sleep on things. But within science, it was not really tested.

HARRIS: So over the years, Diexterhaus has conducted a whole series of experiments at the University of Amsterdam to see how people make decisions. The studies are variations on a common theme. People are first given a lot of information. Some are asked to study the information for a while, and then decide. Others are also told to ponder the facts, but then do math problems, or anagrams, or something else to distract them before they make their decision.

He found the best strategy depends upon how tough a choice you have. Say you simply need to buy some shampoo.

DIEXTERHAUS: You're more like to choose the right shampoo if you engage in a little conscious deliberation, if you pay a little attention to what you're doing, read a few labels, make a few comparisons, and then buy your shampoo. For complex decisions like cars, or houses, or computers, or things like that, it's exactly the other way around. It's better to engage in unconscious thought.

HARRIS: So people who stop thinking about tough problems for a few minutes were more likely to make the best choices. In some experiments, the best choice could be measured objectively. In others, it was based on how happy people were with the choice sometime later.

Diexterhaus suspects that the distraction helps people make good choices because the reasoning is handed over to the unconscious mind.

DIEXTERHAUS: After you have all the information you need for making a decision, or after you have all the data, basically, your unconscious works on that information and gives some kind of a summary judgment.

HARRIS: The unconscious mind can apparently weigh factors that can't be completely rationalized. Despite the cliché, it really can compare apples and oranges.

DIEXTERHAUS: The flip side is that we also know by now that conscious thought has some disadvantages. One example is, for instance, that consciousness is not good at making very complex decisions, because it has such small capacity. If we are faced with a very complex problem, if you think too much about it consciously, you only take into account a subset of the information, and not always a very good subset.

TIM WILSON: The results are startling that actually distracting people for a few minutes produces better decisions.

HARRIS: Tim Wilson is a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. He's done some of the pioneering work in this field. He finds Op Diexterhaus's findings quite compelling. He says it's still a big mystery to understand how the unconscious mind does its magic, but the work shows Sigmund Freud's concept of the unconscious is far too simplistic.

WILSON: It's not just the repository of infantile urges and drives. It's also very smart and able to size up the world and solve problems.

HARRIS: This isn't simply trusting a gut reaction, the scientists note. People who make impulse purchases often regret their decisions. The happy medium here is to gather plenty of information and then sleep on it before you decide.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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