Wednesday, 10 Dec, 2008 Science

Unconscious Thinking to Help Make the Best Choice When Faced with Complex Decision


When we need to make a difficult decision, usually we attempt to analyze all possible options in order to choose what is best. According to a new study, when faced with a complex decision the best option is not to think about all the problems and allow our unconscious thought to do the trick.

The strategy may sound quite interesting, but the study published in the journal "Psychological Science" edited by the Association for Psychological Science, warns about the effectiveness of unconscious thought picking the best options. Scientists from the Duke University chose a number of volunteers to take part in a lottery choice task. Participants had to select from four different options, each having a different, but close, payoff.

In order to perform this task, John W. Payne, Adriana Samper, James R. Bettman and Mary Frances Luce, scientists who carried out the research, divided the participants into 3 groups: volunteers from one group were told to think about the task for a specific amount of time, people in another group were instructed to think about the task for an unlimited period of time and those from the third group were distracted before making their choice, thus they though about the task unconsciously. In the second experiment scientist only changed the payoff of the four options. This time there were considerable differences in the rewards.

Scientists discovered that in some circumstances unconscious thought will not help pick the best option. In case when the payoffs were close, the decision was effective in both cases, when participants though for as long as they needed to make a selection and when they picked unconsciously. But when the payoffs became considerably different unconscious thinking registered poorer results than thinking about the task for an unlimited period of time. The group of participants who had to make a choice in a give amount of time showed poorer results in both experiments.

Researchers explain that participants in the second group had "too much time to think" and thus their attention moved "to information of lesser relevance," which led to less gainful decisions.

In such a way the study showed that despite the fact that unconscious thought can sometimes help us pick the best option, it would be more effective to rely on self-paced conscious though more often and try to pay more attention to the problem.

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