Imagine that after ample preparation and weeks of negotiations with three potential vendors, you have to choose among their proposals, each of which has numerous strengths and weaknesses. What’s more, you have only five minutes left to make this tough decision.
How should you spend this precious time? Ap Dijksterhuis and other researchers at the University of Amsterdam offer this somewhat surprising advice: fight the temptation to read through the proposals one last time, and don’t run any more numbers. Their studies suggest that you actually may make a better decision by putting the proposals aside, doing an anagram puzzle, and following your intuition.
Not only were study participants more satisfied with the decisions they reached that way, but independent evaluators also rated their choices as better on average than the choices of those who consciously deliberated to the last second. These efforts were apparent, however, only for complex problems with many interconnected issues, such as choosing a new home.
Deliberate thought tends to involve rule-based analysis and is thus ultimately constrained by what we can process consciously. By contrast, “unconscious thought does not suffer from low capacity. Indeed, it has been shown that during unconscious thought, large amounts of information can be integrated into evaluative summary judgment.”
As we emphasize continually, rigorous analysis is essential. But before you make a final decision, allow your unconscious a few moments to do its unique integrative work.