When To Think Less About Your Choices

Smart people have a tendency to think hard about the choices they make. Who are you going to marry? What house are you going to buy? What flavor of gelato should you get? Some make lists of pros and cons, some try to think about the most important features of the choices, and some make up new strategies on the fly. The more important the decision, the more we feel it’s warranted to think hard about it. It seems self-evident that thinking more would produce better choices. But in science, even self-evident things have to be tested.

Psychologists Ap Dijksterhuis and Zeger van Olden ran an experiment in which people were asked to choose which art poster they liked best. The first group of people, the conscious thought condition, were shown the posters on a screen, one by one. They were encouraged to look at the posters carefully, and to even list what they liked and disliked about the posters on a piece of paper. Finally, all posters appeared on the screen and the people clicked which one they liked best.

In the unconscious thought condition, people were shown the posters, and then did anagrams for seven minutes and thirty seconds – the same amount of time that the conscious thought condition people were thinking about the posters – and then they were shown the posters again and asked to make a choice. People in both groups got to take home the poster they chose.

Three to five weeks later the people were phoned and asked how satisfied they were with their poster, on a scale of one to ten. Contrary to what we might expect, people in the unconscious thought condition, the ones who did anagrams instead of thinking about the posters, were happier with what they went home with!

What’s going on here? When people think hard about something, they tend to focus on only a few variables. Conscious thought is like that. Unconscious thought, on the other hand, tends to be a bit more holistic, and relies more on emotion. While the unconscious thought group was solving anagrams, their unconscious minds were working on the posters. Interestingly, there was another group, the immediate decision group, which chose a poster immediately, with no time to think about it, and no anagram delay. This group had the same poster satisfaction scores as the conscious thought condition. This suggests that unconscious processing is useful – your immediate reaction might not be the best, and your conscious thought might not be the best either.

Overthinking can mean that too much attention is being paid to unimportant attributes. When it comes to liking a poster, it is your feelings about the poster that matter the most. By limiting the input of the rational system, intuition gets a greater weight in the generation of predicted and actual emotions, increasing one’s ability to correctly know what one feels, or will feel, about a choice.

In short, it’s easy to overthink things.


Dijksterhuis, A., & van Olden, Z. (2006). On the benefits of thinking unconsciously: Unconscious thought can increase post-choice satisfaction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44,692-698.

Image via Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock.

Jim Davies, PhD

Jim Davies, PhD, is an associate professor in the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton University. He is the author of Riveted: Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make us Laugh, Movies Make us Cry, and Religion Makes us Feel One with the Universe. As director of the Science of Imagination Laboratory, he explores processes of visualization in humans and machines and specializes in artificial intelligence, analogy, problem-solving, and the psychology of art, religion, and creativity. His work has shown how people use visual thinking to solve problems, and how they visualize imagined situations and worlds.rn In his spare time, he is a published poet, an internationally-produced playwright, and a professional painter, calligrapher, and swing dancer.
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