When we heard that Barack Obama had chosen to sleep on his decision to authorize the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, we were pleasantly surprised. After all, "sleeping on it" is exactly what scientific research would prescribe when facing a complex decision, but it's not often a path that leaders in high-pressure situations would take. Not surprisingly, perhaps, some pundits expressed outrage over Obama's choice to press pause on the decision, calling him "feckless" andaccusing him of "leaving advisors hanging."
Thankfully, few of us have to make decisions whether and how to kill terrorist leaders in our day jobs, but we all are faced regularly with complex situations that need our decisions. Oftentimes these situations are the ones we feel need a decision right away — either because of external pressures or because our "gut instinct" arrives quickly. But is sleeping on it the best way to make complex, high-impact decisions? Or is immediate decision making the best course for these situations?
In our experience as social psychologists studying human behavior and decision making, we think the evidence is clear: Sleeping on it was the scientifically sound decision for Obama and is the right course of action for anyone facing a challenging quandary. Maarten Bos, the co-author of this post, recently led an experiment that shed new light on the underlying mechanisms of why this is true — especially for complex decisions. The results were recently published in Journal of Consumer Psychology.
Bos and his co-authors found that during periods when the mind is "distracted" or not consciously focused on an issue (for instance during sleep), there is an active process that accurately weights the pros and cons of relevant decision attributes. Participants in the experiment were presented with information about cars. Some cars possessed many positive but irrelevant attributes, whereas others possessed fewer positive, but important attributes. Those participants who decided immediately chose the cars with many but unimportant attributes, whereas participants who were first given a task to distract them from the decision chose the quality cars. In short, sleeping on a decision allows us to differentiate between the vital and the irrelevant aspects, ultimately leading to higher quality decisions. Our unconscious can process large amounts of information — as long as we give it time to do so
So, what is the best way to approach complex decisions? We recommend you do these three things:
1. Take in all information. Obviously, before you can make a decision, you need to have the information. We should use our conscious mind to gather and encode all the necessary facts pertaining to a decision. Usually, some options can already be discarded in this stage — options that clearly violate a "decision rule" for instance "this apartment costs twice as much as what I can afford".
2. Sleep on it. Now that you have all the necessary information, you need to process it. Because your conscious attention is limited, you should enlist the help of your unconscious. Conscious processes often disturb unconscious processes, so you need to distract your conscious mind.
3. Check the facts. Your unconscious can process large amounts of information, but it is not as precise as conscious thought. There is no amount of distraction that will help you answer an arithmetic question. Therefore, after you have made a choice unconsciously, you should check the facts of your decision consciously. Does your decision do any (serious) damage? Attributes are often interdependent - the value of one attribute influences the value of another: Do all the attributes of the choice, taken together, violate a decision rule?
Obviously, literally going to sleep isn't always an option in the middle of the workday, but you can achieve a similar effect by going running, listening to music, or doing any other task that distracts you from the decision. After a period of distraction, one option usually feels better than the other(s). After you've gone through the three steps above, that's the option you should choose.
So while the thorniest of problems naturally feel like the ones you should burn the midnight oil on until you've reached a decision, the science suggests a different approach — one that produces better decisions and better rested decision makers.
Maarten Bos is a social psychologist and researcher at Radboud University in Nijmegen. He also owns a consultancy firm that advises organizations on ethical persuasion.
Amy Cuddy is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School.