Complex Decision? Don’t Think About It

Complex Decision? Don’t Think About It

(Dec. 10, 2008)
— When faced with a difficult decision, we try to come up with the best
choice by carefully considering all of the options, maybe even
resorting to lists and lots of sleepless nights. So it may be
surprising that recent studies have suggested that the best way to deal
with complex decisions is to not think about them at all—that
unconscious thought will help us make the best choices

When faced with a difficult decision, we try to come up with the
best choice by carefully considering all of the options, maybe even
resorting to lists and lots of sleepless nights. So it may be
surprising that recent studies have suggested that the best way to deal
with complex decisions is to not think about them at all—that
unconscious thought will help us make the best choices.

Although this may seem like an appealing strategy, new research in
Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological
Science, cautions that there are limitations in the efficacy of
unconscious thought making the best decisions.

Duke University researchers John W. Payne, Adriana Samper, James R.
Bettman and Mary Frances Luce had volunteers participate in a lottery
choice task, where they had to pick from four various options, each
with a different, but close, payoff. The volunteers were divided into
three groups for this task: one group was instructed to think about the
task for a given amount of time, another group was told to think about
the task for as long as they wanted and the last group was distracted
before making their selection (thus, unconsciously thinking about the
task). A second experiment was similarly set up, except that there were
substantial differences in the payoffs of the different options.

The researchers found that there are situations where unconscious
thought will not result in the best choice being selected. The findings
showed that in some instances (when the payoffs were similar), thinking
about the task for as only as long as it takes to make a decision was
as effective as unconscious thought, resulting in the most profitable
options being chosen. However, when there were large differences in the
amount of money to be won, mulling over the decision at their own pace
led the volunteers to larger payoffs than unconscious thought.

The volunteers who were told to consciously think about the decision
for a specific amount of time performed poorly in both experiments. The
authors explain that those volunteers had “too much time to think”
about the task and suggest that their attention shifted “to information
of lesser relevance,” resulting in less profitable decisions.

These results suggest that although unconscious thought may help us
make the right decision in some instances, it is often better to rely
on self-paced conscious thought and really focus on the problem at hand.


Adapted from materials provided by Association for Psychological Science.

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