Sleeping On Important Decisions Doesn’t Necessarily Help You Make Better Choices

How many times have you thought, “I’ll just sleep on it,” before making a big decision? This matter-of-fact strategy is employed by many, if not most people, who believe the long-term conventional wisdom that a well-rested mind is one better able to make confidence-boosting, large decisions. Putting that assumption to the test is a group of Harvard Business School researchers, with surprising results.

To Sleep, Perchance to Decide

The study, Should You Sleep on It? The Effects of Overnight Sleep on Subjective Preference-based Choice, published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, may surprise those who have postponed making important choices until after getting a few solid hours of sleep. The researchers determined to explore the over-all effects of the sleeping-on-it strategy and powerful decision making, keeping in mind the already-tested body of evidence, which links sleep affirmatively to better problem solving.

In two separate experiments, individuals were asked to view multiple attributes which described a set of items, in this case one of two computer bags, which could be won by entering a raffle. Each participant was asked to select their preferred item after 12 hours had passed. Some participants spent some of that time sleeping and others remained fully awake. The participants who slept had an increase in positive perceptions about the items. The researchers noted the contrast between this finding and previous research, which indicated that sleep had the effect of enhancing recall about negative, as opposed to positive, information. Researchers however also found that this increase in positive recall didn’t represent a greater interest in obtaining the item.

Time of day controls were utilized to make sure that naturally-occurring, circadian rhythms were not a factor in the decision making process.     

Researchers concluded that sleeping on an important decision won’t increase your confidence in your choice, even it it does make you feel more positive about your choice. In addition, for some people, the added time spent sleeping prior to decision making might actually have an adverse effect by adding a layer of confusion or doubt to their choice.

To Sleep or Not To Sleep

So does that mean you should jump into decision making, no matter your fatigue level or the hour?

The study’s researchers do not contest sleep’s positive effects on the brain’s problem solving capabilities but rather, on its impact upon a person’s confidence in the decision they make.

Keeping this in mind, a good rule of thumb may be to go by your own past experiences with decision making and sleep. If “sleeping on it” has worked for you in the past, it might be a good idea to continue with that practice. If, however, this so-called, tried-and-true practice has not worked, at least now you know that there is science to back up why.