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February 18, 2006

Sleep On It Science/Technology

This is interesting: researchers have confirmed the wisdom of "sleeping on it" when a complex decision needs to be made. BBC News:

A Dutch study suggests complex decisions like buying a car can be better made when the unconscious mind is left to churn through the options.

This is because people can only focus on a limited amount of information, the study in the journal Science suggests.

The conscious brain should be reserved for simple choices like picking between towels and shampoos, the team said.

Psychologists from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands divided their participants into two groups and devised a series of experiments to test a theory on "deliberation without attention".

One group was given four minutes to pick a favourite car from a list having weighed up four attributes including fuel consumption and legroom.

The other group was given a series of puzzles to keep their conscious selves busy before making a decision.

The conscious thought group managed to pick the best car based on four aspects around 55% of the time, while the unconscious thought group only chose the right one 40% of the time.

But when the experiment was made more complex by bringing in 12 attributes to weigh up, the conscious thought group's success rate fell to around 23% as opposed to nearly 60% for the unconscious thought group. [Emphasis added]

More examples in the article. As we moderns have grown increasingly dependent on conscious analysis and reason, it would seem that we've put ourselves in the position of making increasingly bad decisions, decisions that take too few variables into account. We think traditional methods of decision-making that leverage things like dreams, visions, meditation, hunches, aesthetic judgment, intuition, and "feel" are inferior. The laugh's on us.

Posted by Jonathan at February 18, 2006 08:46 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


I admit to having a real problem with this and not only because of the tendency of psychological researchers to jump to conclusions based on data that in other fields would be regarded as inadequate to the task.

The idea of "sleep on it," of taking time to assimilate complex data, hardly seems controversial. But there are two real red flags for me in this particular case.

One is the notion of "the right car." Obviously, the researchers had determined to their own satisfaction that one choice was superior to all the others. But the importance of some factors is purely subjective - legroom being one. How could they quantify that to determine a "correct" choice?

The second is that according to their results, the "success rate" of the "unconscious" choice not only surpassed that of the "conscious" choice, it actually got significantly better with a more complex set of factors. A marked improvement in performance at a more complex task certainly should have raised a few eyebrows.

The reference to post-purchase consumer satisfaction only increases my hesitation: They report that "conscious" consumers expressed more post-purchase dissatisfaction with "complex" purchases like furniture, which they attribute, it seems, to the superiority of "unconscious" decisions.

But did they make any allowance for the possibility that "conscious" consumers eye their purchases, even after the fact, with a more critical eye and thus are more likely to have lower levels of satisfaction? If not, they cannot reach the conclusion they seemingly did.

Perhaps they did consider all this but from the article there is no way of telling. And unless they did, the conclusions simply cannot be drawn from the data offered.

Posted by: LarryE at February 19, 2006 11:39 AM