Sleep on it? What science tells us about making decisions

Delegates rest during a break of the plenary session at the U.N. Climate Change Conference COP 20 in Lima December 13, 2014. U.N. talks on slowing climate change were threatened with collapse on Saturday after China clashed with the United States and led emerging nations to reject a compromise outline of an agreement.   REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil

Image: REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil

Joe Myers
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Sleeping on a decision doesn’t make us happier with our final decision, according to new research.

The study examined people’s feelings about purchasing a new laptop bag. Half of participants were given the details at night, while the other half in the morning. Twelve hours later they had to select a new case.

“It was evident that the people who made a decision the same day felt better about their choice than those who had slept on it,” explained one of the researchers, Professor Rebecca Spencer, in an interview with Harvard Business Review.

A waste of time?

The research found that those participants who were given the information first thing in the morning were happier with the decision they ultimately made.

However, those who were given an opportunity to sleep on it remembered more about the products. Not only that, they were also more likely to remember positive things about the laptop bags.

Professor Spencer suggested this could be why the sleep-on-it group felt less happy with their decision. “It might be more difficult to make a decision by comparing good things with other good things than by comparing good with bad,” she said. But, over time people could become happier with their decision – this would need further study though.

She also agreed that the decision involved in the research wasn’t a major, life-changing challenge. The situation is likely to be far more complicated in the real world. However, she argues that their research is still highly relevant, given the retention of positive thoughts and memories.

The importance of sleep

Professor Spencer also emphasizes the importance of getting sleep, both personally and professionally. Working yourself into the ground, and bragging about it, is a recipe for disaster.

“Sleep keeps you on an even keel, and when you don’t sleep, things go bad fast,” she says.

Research has highlighted the importance of sleep emotionally, for the quality of your work – for example attention to detail – and for memory processing. Indeed, a nap during the day can be beneficial for adults, as well as children, says Spencer.

This chart, from a separate study, shows the impact a lack of sleep could have.

 Is your sleep deficit causing these problems?

So, although sleep might not be as helpful in decision-making as you thought, its broader benefits should not be ignored.

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