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Research: You make better decisions using intuition (or sleeping)


the_creativity_cornerAfter all, how on earth would you justify using your gut – or, God forbid, intuition – to a board of directors? They don’t tend to be fans of justifications such as “it just felt right”. As a result, criteria-based decision making is a well-worn method for many organisations and consultants.

When I used to work in advertising, most of my clients would make decisions about which campaigns to implement based on evaluating them against a set of five or six criteria, such as ‘does it meet the objective’, ‘will it appeal to the consumer’, and so on. Yet despite these apparently solid decision-making tools, I saw so many bad decisions made by my clients and some terrible campaigns go to air.

Certainly, conventional wisdom has suggested that the best way to make decisions – especially complex and difficult choices, such as which ideas should be implemented – is to deliberate long and hard. Companies such as Proctor & Gamble are known for their application of screeners or sets of criteria to reach the majority of decisions within their organisation. Other companies spend hours weighing up the pros and cons of different options and solutions.

However, the latest research published within the field of cognitive psychology has shown that criteria-based decision-making could actually lead to poorer decisions. These researchers have looked at the merits of using your conscious mind (i.e. consciously deliberating over criteria, pros and cons, and so on) versus using the unconscious mind (i.e. not thinking about the problem consciously at all).

In one study, Ap Dijksterhuis from the University of Amsterdam asked a bunch of people to make decisions about which piece of artwork they wanted to take home out of a small selection. One group was asked to weigh up the pros and cons of each piece of art and then make a decision based on which painting faired best. Another group was asked to distract themselves from the decision by completing a crossword. After they had worked on the crossword for around 10 minutes, they then had to make a decision.

Dijksterhuis discovered that those who used their unconscious mind, by distracting themselves from the decision at hand, were more likely to make decisions that they were satisfied with several weeks later.

This result has been replicated in a number of other studies with all types of complex decision-making, in which many variables impact on the success of the idea selected.

The reason why the unconscious mind is a much better decision-maker than our conscious mind is quite simple. First, our unconscious mind has a much greater processing capacity. While our conscious mind can only process about seven or eight bits of information at the one time, our unconscious mind is able to process thousands of bits of information at once.

In addition, our conscious mind has a very limited storage capacity compared to our unconscious mind, which holds literally millions of thoughts. And the handy thing is that our unconscious mind is very goal directed – if we set it a decision to make, it will work towards making the most effective decision it can.

So the next time you have a really important decision to make, rather than deliberating over it and using a set of criteria as your decision-making crutch, simply distract yourself from the decisions and let your mind focus on something completely different for at least 10 minutes. Then, come back to the decision and go with what your gut is leaning towards.

Or you can simply follow the age-old advice of ‘sleeping on it’.

Dr Amantha Imber is the head inventiologist at international innovation consultancy Inventium. She is also author of The Creativity Formula: 50 scientifically proven ways to boost creativity in work and in life.