Think, Blink, or Sleep on It
September 25, 2019
Ever been advised to listen to your gut when trying to make a decision? A new paper in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences says snap decisions concerning complex issues often are the least likely way to end up feeling good about your choice.
Better options are deliberation and distraction—but choosing between those depends largely on the information and what being asked, according to the paper, “Evaluating the Benefits of Conscious and Unconscious Thought in Complex Decision Making,” by Marlène Abadie and Laurent Waroquier.
Their article reviews studies looking at three decision modes, those that involve deliberation, gut feeling and distraction—think, blink or sleep on it. It turns out deliberation and distraction both have advantages depending on how the information is presented or the specific task required.
Distraction tends to work best when participants are asked to form “holistic” or “gist” representations of the choices—the essence of the argument–rather than to weigh the choices based on specific positive or negative traits. For example, distracted participants generally chose the best computer when asked form overall opinions of four computers, or when presented with all of the information about the computers simultaneously.
Participants absorb the information and then distract themselves with an activity that does not require much work, such as completing a word-search puzzle or listening to music. The thought is that the distraction period allows for “unconscious processing of decision information.”
Deliberation tends to work best when the choices are quantifiable and the attributes can be grouped together–such as choosing a car based on whether it has good mileage or poor legroom. Weighing the pros and cons also has the advantage when the research is accessible. If you’re shopping and can’t decide between the green pants or the brown pants, deliberation is your best bet.
The authors acknowledge that policy makers often have brief windows to make complex decisions. “Even if you have little time, do not follow your gut feeling blindly; even a short period of deliberation or distraction may be very useful.”