Complex decisions best left to your unconscious, study finds
and World Science staff
If you’re facing a big decision, such as buying a car or a house, collecting the relevant information is important. But once you’ve done your homework, it’s best to forget about the decision for a time and letting your unconscious churn through the options, researchers have found.
The scientists found in a new study that letting the unconscious temporarily take over leads to better outcomes than using mainly conscious deliberations to make the same decision.
In psychology, the unconscious mind is that part of thought and emotion that happens without awareness.
Ap Dijksterhuis and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, studied people making simple and complex decisions regarding cars, furniture, shampoo, oven mitts and other goods, both in the lab and at furniture and department stores.
In the car-shopping experiments, participants were asked to read a complex series of facts about cars they were to choose from, and then immediately given puzzles called anagrams to keep their conscious selves busy.
After working on the puzzles, this group made more satisfying car choices than the participants who were given no puzzles and had to choose a car after consciously pondering the available information, the researchers found. The former group ended up more satisfied with their decisions than the latter.
During conscious deliberation, people only consider a subset of the relevant information and might inappropriately weight it, according to Dijksterhuis’ team. In contrast, the human unconscious can integrate wider swaths of information, which may lead to more satisfying results when decisions are complicated.
On the other hand, they found, simple decisions like choosing shampoo are made satisfactorily after attentive or effortful deliberation. This is presumably because the limited number of factors can easily be handled and weighted appropriately, they reported.
“In such cases, it should benefit the individual to think consciously about simple matters and to delegate thinking about more complex matters to the unconscious,” they wrote in a paper on their findings, published in the Feb. 17 issue of the research journal Science.
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