Harvard Mental Health Letter

Commentary: When the unconscious knows best

Commentary

When the unconscious knows best

A group of researchers in Amsterdam, publishing in the February 17 Science, has provided some evidence that if you want to make a satisfying decision, it's sometimes better to do so without conscious thought. In a series of experiments, the Dutch researchers studied whether consciously thinking through a choice of actions is more productive than letting the process go on outside of awareness. It turns out to depend on the complexity of the decision.

In one study, the researchers divided subjects into three groups and gave them a choice of four hypothetical apartments to rent. One group was told to choose right away, and a second group was given some time to think. Neither chose as satisfactorily as a third group that was distracted during a deliberation period so that they couldn't consider the choice consciously.

In another study, subjects were asked to choose one of four hypothetical cars. Some had time to deliberate consciously, and others were distracted; some were given 12 factors to weigh, and others were given only four. The distracted individuals made satisfying choices no matter how many factors they had to consider, but the conscious deliberators did worse when the decision was more complicated.

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