The Best Way to Make a Tough Decision

Do Your Homework, Then Distract Yourself, Researchers Say

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 16, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 16, 2006 -- The next time you're making a tough decision, your best bet might be to do your research and then take a break before choosing.

So says a study published in Science. The researchers studied complex decisions, such as picking a new car, and easy choices, such as buying new oven mitts.

Their findings:

  • Complex decisions are best made by becoming informed and then letting the subconscious get involved.
  • Simple choices can be handled by conscious thought alone.

The study, done in the Netherlands, comes from Ap Dijksterhuis, PhD, and colleagues. They work in the University of Amsterdam's psychology department.

Tough Choice, Easy Choice

The researchers gave 80 college students at the University of Amsterdam information about four cars. Some students got simple information; others got a lengthy list of details on the cars.

The students' task: Pick which car they'd like to buy. Some were told to think carefully about the cars for four minutes before deciding. Others were told that they would do word puzzles for four minutes and then choose their car.

The puzzles were a distraction. The students couldn't consciously think about the cars while doing the puzzles, giving their subconscious a chance to weigh in, the researchers explain.

Given simple information, most students chose wisely based on conscious thought alone. They didn't need to distract themselves with the puzzles first to make the right choice, in the researchers' view.

But given complex information, the puzzle group did better at choosing cars. Of course, no one actually bought any of the cars; the choice was hypothetical.

Beyond Shopping

Other tests on shoppers yielded similar results, the study shows. But what about decisions that don't involve dollars?

There is no obvious reason to assume that the same strategy -- research first, then allow for subconscious thought -- wouldn't work in other types of tough choices, "political, managerial, or otherwise," write Dijksterhuis and colleagues.

"In such cases, it should benefit the individual to think consciously about simple matters and to delegate thinking about more complex matters to the unconscious," they write.