Why Sleeping on a Decision May Not Help You

There's nothing about sleep itself that gives us more insight or makes us more confident in a decision.

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By Lisa Evans

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When struggling with a decision – whether to purchase a new laptop, change a business model or a life-changing decision such as quitting your job to start up a new business – we're often told to "sleep on it" as though somehow in the light of the morning, the choice will be clear. However, a new research paper in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making says sleeping on a decision may not actually help you. Harvard Business School marketing professor Uma Karmarkar, the study's co-author, says there's nothing about sleep itself that gives us more insight or makes us more confident in a decision.

In the study, students were presented with four laptop bags and were asked to wait 12 hours before choosing one. Some students were presented with the bags in the morning and went about their daily activities for 12 hours while others were presented with the information in the evening and had their regular night's sleep before making a decision the following morning.

The researchers hypothesized that people would feel more confident about their decision after getting some sleep, but the experiment proved the exact opposite was true. While sleep did help participants remember more positive attributes (such as "has a sturdy zipper" versus "isn't waterproof") about the laptop bags, sleeping on it didn't make them any more confident in the one they finally chose. In some ways, remembering too many positive attributes may have made it harder for those who got some shut eye to make a decision.

Related: Decisions, Decisions: What Separates Leaders From the Rest

Those who'd slept on the decision were less confident about their choice than those who hadn't slept. Previous research shows sleep does have many cognitive benefits, including making people more creative and improving memory.

"Sleep can have benefits on the way we think about information," says Karmarkar. Sleep helps us to move information from short-term storage to long-term storage. Some studies suggest sleep can help improve memory, insight and creativity, leading the researchers to believe that sleep may also benefit decision making. But Karmarkar says her study shows there's nothing about sleep that helps you feel any better about your decision.

In fact, you may actually feel worse after sleep. Because participants in the study were more likely to remember positive attributes of all the laptop bags, they had a more difficult time ruling out some of the bags. "The item looked more attractive after sleep compared to no sleep, but that didn't translate into feeling like you made a better decision," says Karmarkar.

So, sleep may not help you feel any better about your decision, but can sleep help you to make a decision? Not really, says Karmarkar, though she argues that there is some benefit to stepping away from the decision for a period of time.

You just don't necessarily have to sleep on it.

Related: 5 Decisions You'll Always Regret

Lisa Evans

Lisa Evans is a health and lifestyle freelance journalist from Toronto.

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