Harvard Women's Health Watch

In Brief: Unconscious mind can help with complex decisions

In Brief

Unconscious mind can help with complex decisions

"Well, let me sleep on it..." You've probably heard this before and said it yourself. The idea is that when you're having a hard time making an important decision, it may help to step back and let your unconscious mind take a crack at it. Accepted wisdom also suggests the opposite — that we're likely to make a better decision only after careful and conscious deliberation. Psychologists at the University of Amsterdam explored the issue in a series of consumer-choice experiments described in the Feb. 17, 2006, issue of Science. Their findings indicate that conscious thought may be best for simple decisions. But when things get more complex, two minds — conscious and unconscious — could be better than one.

The experiments involved hypothetical and actual consumer purchases. In one, a laboratory exercise, subjects were asked to choose among several cars based on various negative and positive attributes for each. Half the participants were told to think about these attributes for four minutes before choosing the best functioning vehicle. The others were distracted (they were asked to work on puzzles — a way of occupying their conscious minds) before deciding. When the group considered only four attributes, the conscious deliberators picked the best car more times than the distracted puzzle-solvers. But when the task involved 12 attributes, the distracted group made better choices.

The researchers found similar results when they studied actual shoppers making simple decisions (about kitchen accessories, for example) and more complex ones (furniture).

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