Unconscious Decision Making

You've probably had this experience: You have a difficult decision to make or a complex problem to solve. Your conscious mind chews on it, researching facts, examining the angles, but the decision or solution escapes you. Frustrated, you take a break for lunch, a walk or a nap. At the end of the break, the right choice magically comes to you.

Conscious Decision Making

We seem to revere people who carefully think through decisions, but research by Ap Dijksterhuis, a professor of psychology in the Netherlands (HBR "List #9" 2007), suggests that "conscious deliberation, however long and careful, can be a surprisingly crude and ineffective tool, because the conscious mind has a very limited processing capacity. But you knew that, didn't you?

  • The longer you study a decision, the more likely you are to "get the pros and cons wrong."
  • The longer you think about it, the more likely you are to include irrelevant information in the decision process (there's a vital few bits of information you need to make the decision).
  • The more information you include, the less accurate your decision becomes.

Using Your Unconscious

The good news is that you can learn to use your unconscious, which has far more processing power, to make better decisions. The process is simple.

  1. First, gather all the information you can quickly.
  2. Do something else to distract your conscious mind. If it's really important, you can even sleep on it overnight.
  3. Let the decision come to you.

In experiments, Dijksterhuis found that the unconscious thinkers made better decisions than the conscious thinkers. The decisions were more accurate, rational and acceptable.

Here's My Point

The conscious mind is like an old personal computer that processed instructions sequentially. The unconscious is like a massively parallel supercomputer.

Too many people rely on their conscious choices and lament their mistakes. Too few people take the time to digest complex choices or diagnose complex problems. And it's a shame because we all have a deep well of underutilized thinking power. Our decisions shape the future. Isn't it time to start using your supercomputer?

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