Sleeping over a Problem vs. Deciding in a Blink

Barack Obama had chosen to sleep on his decision to authorize the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. This, according to Maarten Bos and Amy Cuddy, is exactly what scientific research would prescribe when facing a complex decision. In Harvard Business Review Article titled “A Counter-Intuitive Approach to Making Complex Decisions” they point out that there is clear research evidence to support Obama’s decision to sleep over the problem and it is the right course of action for anyone facing a challenging quandary. They have also outlines a 3 step process for such decision making – (1) Take in all information, (2) Sleep on it, and (3) Check the facts.

However, many of the readers commented that this seems to be the opposite conclusion of the book “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking” by Malcolm Gladwell. Quoting Maarten W Bos from one of the comments …

“…experts can often recognize patterns within their area of expertise very fast, and therefore have a lot of subconscious processing before they make a decision…”

So, the debate goes on – should you sleep over a problem or deciding in a blink?

What do the two methods of decision making have in common?

Do you see the commonality?

In both cases we don’t understand what our brain does in the intervening period. In the first case, the subconscious processing happens over a period when we are sleeping. In the second case, subconscious processing happens in a millisecond.

In either case there are no logical steps in arriving at the solution – we just know what the right solution is. Will such a decision made by our subconscious always be a better decision?

So, the debate should be about…

  • …always use logical thinking
  • …always take advantage of or subconscious brain
  • …judicious mix or the two

In theory, the third option looks the best but how to know what is the right mix? When should we stop analysis and logical thinking and hand over to your subconscious?

[Update: 12-April-2012]

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has published a book titled Thinking, Fast and Slow (published in Oct-2011) which deliberates on the same topic. He is talking of System 1 thinking which is Thinking Fast (unconscious, intuitive and effort-free) and System 2 thinking which is Thinking Slow (conscious and uses deductive reasoning).

Here are 2 reviews of the book which will give you a fair idea of what the book is all about.

The essence of the book is:

If you have had 10,000 hours of training in a predictable, rapid-feedback environment — chess, firefighting, anesthesiology — then blink. In all other cases, think.

3 Responses to “Sleeping over a Problem vs. Deciding in a Blink”
  1. I think it depends on time you have in hand….based on the same you have to select the approach….we have to use all of these 3….as situation demands.

  2. Badri N Srinivasan says:


    When you observe a complex problem, the key to solving it is a judicious mix of logical thinking and the usage of the subconscious brain. Interestingly, the right mix is seen by the person based on extensive experience and intuition which recognizes patterns and the switch between logical thinking and the subconscious brain happens seamlessly and the solution becomes evident. This requires deep thought and could be either slept over or could appear in a jiffy depending on the context and the experiential impact of the problem. Repeated usage of the technique strengthens the probability of the success of the outcome and this can be possible only when the person has experienced various types of scenarios as what you don’t experience, you cannot understand.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post….

  3. Lata says:

    I agree. when I sleep over a problem, the solution presents itself in my dream. Sometimes I even forget the dream.. 🙂

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