Ask Dr. Ceren: Before making an important decision, don’t ‘sleep on it’


By Dr. Sandra Levy Ceren

Q: I can’t make snap decisions and I dwell on important decisions far too long. I’ve been told to “sleep on it, but that makes me anxious and keeps me awake. What is this about? Why doesn’t it work for me?

A: There is nothing wrong in taking time to weigh your decisions. It is important to consider the pros and cons. Snap decisions may turn out favorably, due to sheer good luck, but they are unreliable.

If you have a problem in being stuck in the decision-making process, you need to overcome this obstacle. This may be due to an inability to trust your own judgment - perhaps based on past failures.

Regarding the well meaning, but poor advice, you are not alone in your negative response to it. How often have we been told to “sleep on it” before making a difficult decision? How often has this advice been helpful? Most people report that it has not been helpful and, like you, it has kept them up all night, tossing and turning. In the morning, they are more confused and irritable.

In fact, contrary to what we’ve been told for perhaps much of our lives, recent research debunks the advice “sleep on it” before making an important decision. This advice was based on the idea that complex decision making is best left to the unconscious.

Unconscious thought is considered an active process occurring when information is organized, weighted and integrated in an optimal fashion. Its benefits are argued to be strongest when a decision is complex - one with multiple options and attributes - because unconscious thought does not suffer from the capacity limitations that shackle conscious thought.

However, researchers from the University of New South Wales Complex report contradictory evidence.

They have found that neither snap judgements nor sleeping on a problem are any better than conscious thinking for making complex decisions. In fact the new study suggests that conscious thought actually results in better choices.

This was based on four experiments conducted by university scientists. Participants were presented with complex decisions and were required to choose the best option immediately (“blink”), after a period of conscious deliberation (“think”), or after a period of distraction (“sleep on it”), the former having claimed to encourage “unconscious thought processes.”

All the experiments showed evidence that conscious deliberation can lead to better choices, and there was scant evidence that choices made “unconsciously” were superior.

When confronted with making decisions such as choosing to rent an apartment and purchasing a car, most subjects made choices dictated by their personal preferences for certain qualities such as price safety or security, regardless of which mode of thinking they employed.

Head author of the new study, University of New South Wales psychologist, Dr. Ben Newell, said, “Claims that we can make superior ‘snap’ decisions by trusting intuition or through the ‘power’ of unconscious thought have received a great deal of attention in the media.” (This was based on the headlines that followed a Dutch 2006 study recommending that we should trust our gut and sleep on it.)

Dr. Newell believes these headlines are misleading and dangerous. His studies have refuted the Dutch research. In fact, he states “… our research suggests that unconscious thought is more susceptible to irrelevant factors, such as how recently information has been seen rather than how important it is. If conscious thinkers are given adequate time to encode material, or are allowed to consult material while they deliberate, their choices are at least as good as those made ‘unconsciously’.”

Dr. Newell’s advice for making better decisions is based on seven decades of research on the psychology of decision-making, reasoning and thinking. Watch the

online video

courtesy of the BBC’s Horizon program.

Dr. Ceren is a long time local psychologist specializing in improving relationships with self and others. To query: