I’ve got a wickedly complex decision to make. What should my priorities be now that I no longer have a full-time banking job? I’ve got at least a dozen different alternatives, each with subtle-to-obvious differences with respect to my key values including impact on my family, benefit to society, intellectual challenge, financial security and leverage of my skills and experience. Am I more likely to make a wise decision by 1) deliberating carefully, say by performing a cost-benefit analysis of my options; 2) distracting myself with a video game and letting my unconscious figure it out or 3) just decide right away?
According to Psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, I should fire up the Space Invaders. In his seminal paper, Think Different: The Merits of Unconscious Thought in Preference Development and Decision Making, he finds that the unconscious is better at solving complex problems that require sensitivity to subtleties among multiple factors to come to a global, integrated conclusion. This is called the unconscious thought advantage (UTA).
When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves. In the important decisions of personal life, we should be governed, I think, by the deep inner needs of our nature. — Sigmund Freud
According to Dijksterhuis, the conscious mind can be woefully inadequate for hard problems like what to do for a living. It is limited to handling about seven pieces of data at a time; people read at a rate of 45 bits per second. In contrast, the unconscious mind can process visual information at a rate of ten million bits per second. If these were different computers, which would you rather work on your hard problem? His view is that the conscious mind might be better for simple and mundane decisions.
Dijksterhuis ran five experiments to test 1) whether having time to think unconsciously helps and 2) whether unconscious decisions were usually better than conscious ones. He had college students consider a complex decision among different rental apartments and different roommates. To create conditions for unconscious decision-making, he distracted his subjects with a difficult memory exercise. The results supported both hypotheses.
It turns out there’s controversy among cognitive psychologists over UTA. Harvard Business School found that “sleeping on it” does not help you make better decisions. Further, Scientific American reported on a meta analysis of sixty studies: only fifty percent of them found evidence for UTA. Dijksterhuis rejects the study’s conclusions, stating that “the evidence for UTA is growing quickly”.
While the jury is still out on the relative benefits of deciding with your unconscious, the research is tantalizing. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could rely on an effortless unconscious process, that avoids our worst biases and most inadequate short-cuts (heuristics), to make our hardest decisions? In the meantime, I will still rely on my spreadsheets and other decisions tools.