Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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16-Feb-2006

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Facing a tough decision? Forget about it



The best way to make a tough decision is to collect the information you need and then forget about it.

This advice comes from scientists who have just published a new study focused on how people make decisions, and what kinds of decision-making strategies make people happy.

Decisions can be grouped into two basic categories: complex decisions like buying a house or a car -- and simple decisions like choosing shampoo.

The scientists conclude that thinking really hard and carefully about a decision works well when the decision is pretty simple.

But when the decision gets more complicated, focusing all your attention on the decision isn't usually the best approach.

For example, imagine you are trying to choose between a bunch of different cars, and you have already read lots of details (some good and some bad) about each of the cars. The scientist found that thinking really hard about what car you should choose leads you to choose a car that is not the best one for you.

But if you don't specifically think about what car to choose (after you have read all the information), and instead play a word game for a while, then you are more likely to make a better car decision.

How can you make a better decision by not thinking about it?

The answer is that you really ARE thinking about it. You are just thinking about it in a different way. You are thinking "unconsciously." And this is a good thing. Your brain is working on the problem even though your attention is focused on something else.

Your brain is capable of juggling lots of facts and figures and possibilities at the same time when you let it work without specifically thinking about the decision. But when you are specifically thinking about a problem, your brain isn't able to consider as much information at the same time.

So, as you sit here thinking about not specifically thinking about thinking about decisions, think about the fact that not specifically thinking can be the be the best kind of thinking when the decision is complex and you've already done your paying-attention-to-the-details kind of thinking.

Think about that.

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This research from Ap Dijksterhuis and colleagues from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands appears in the 17 February 2006 issue of the journal Science.