The human brain is a remarkable and sometimes surprising computer. A group of researchers in Amsterdam, publishing their work in the February 17, 2006, issue of Science, arrived at an unexpected conclusion: Making satisfying decisions does not depend entirely on conscious thought.
The Dutch researchers performed a series of clever experiments to figure out what kind of deliberation — conscious or unconscious — serves people best. Is it more productive to think through decisions consciously and methodically or simply let a decision percolate outside your awareness? The experiments showed that it depends on how complex the decision is.
What is not a surprise is that the brain has its limits. As the number of factors that influence a decision increases, it becomes harder to keep every important issue in mind simultaneously. You may:
- Unwittingly leave key factors out of the equation
- Overvalue some issues at the expense of others that may be more important
- Not be able to predict how multiple factors will interact
Even using a scratch sheet to list all the pros and cons may become counterproductive.
Purchasing a car and buying a house are examples of where you might over-analyze big decisions. Despite spending hours on research, there will be issues beyond your knowledge, even if you're an expert. The psychologists in Holland have given us evidence that for these kinds of decisions, we should — at least in part — trust our "gut." This actually means trusting our brains.
In one study, researchers gave subjects a choice of four apartments. One group was told to choose right away. A second group was given some time to think about the decision. The third group was distracted on purpose so they couldn't consider the decision consciously. This third group made the better decisions. (This was defined by objective measures and by measures of the person's satisfaction with his or her own decision.)
In another study, subjects were asked to choose one of four cars. Some subjects were given time to deliberate consciously, while others were distracted. Of these subjects, some were given 12 factors to weigh, and others were given only 4. The distracted group made reasonable choices no matter how many factors they had to consider, but the conscious deliberators made lower quality decisions as circumstances became more complex.
The researchers questioned another set of subjects about recent purchases of varying complexity. For simple purchases, subjects' level of satisfaction increased as they gave their choices more conscious thought. For complex purchases, the opposite was true — the more conscious deliberation, the less satisfaction.
Then the researchers went shopping for shoppers, catching them as they left stores. They asked about the buying process and followed up with questions by phone a few weeks later. Again, conscious thinkers were relatively happy when they purchased simple products, but unconscious thinkers were relatively more satisfied with their purchases of complex products.
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Freud Was Right
As Freud pointed out more than 100 years ago, what we think of as the conscious mind is only the tip of the iceberg of brain activity. These clever scientists have shown us, once again, how true this is.
And it makes a good deal of sense — it is very adaptive to have the brain work this way. Much of what we do day-to-day is automatic. We probably wouldn't survive very long if we had to consider in detail every action we take.
The Dutch psychologists point out that unconscious decision making, though not as precise as conscious deliberation, has the advantage of being almost endlessly expandable. As decisions become more complex, conscious thinking can lead to making less satisfying choices, while unconscious thought does not decrease the quality of what we decide.
We are capable of summarizing or integrating large amounts of information off-line and coming up with decisions that suit us reasonably well. It's not a perfect system, but it is certainly adequate.
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The "Right" Decision?
Of course, this research does not tell us what the "right" decision is. It does tell us that ultimate satisfaction with a decision is not completely dependent on facts. Decisions have emotional, subjective components that become harder to consciously measure as decisions become more complex.
The new findings might lighten your burden — even if you are a perfectionist. You don't have to torture yourself with every last detail. In fact, you may get to know your own mind better if you resist the pressure to obsess — whether you are making an important medical decision or buying that new home theater system you've been thinking about.
These experiments suggest a strategy for big decisions:
- Scan your options and take in what you can.
- When you feel yourself reaching your limit, let the decision sit. Get back to life's other activities.
- If, after a while, you're still indecisive, maybe it's because the pros and cons are equal and one choice is really no better than the other.
- But if you have a good feeling about your decision, you now have some science to suggest that your choice will work for you.
In other words, go for it.
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Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is the editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. He is also associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been practicing psychiatry for more than 25 years and teaches in the Harvard Longwood Psychiatry Residency Program.