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Distract yourself to make better decisions

Elizabeth Narins, Women's Health

Should you accept a new job offer, or give your ex another chance? Before making a decision, distract yourself for a few minutes--you'll make a smarter choice, according to a new study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Researchers described the features of four different cars to 27 adults. Then they separated the study participants into three groups: One group evaluated the cars right away, the second group rated the cars after thinking about the pros and cons, and the third group rated the cars after performing a distracting math-memory task. In the end, the distracted group chose the most wisely.

Even when distracted, the part of the brain that's responsible for learning information continues to be active, says study leader J. David Creswell, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. Meaning: You unconsciously consider your options while your attention goes elsewhere.

And that's a good thing--especially when you face a difficult decision like where to live. That's because it's easy for your conscious mind to get bogged down by the details, such as the cost of rent or location. "Your conscious mind has a capacity constraint--it can only think about a couple of features at once," says Creswell. "But your unconscious mind doesn't have these capacity constraints. It can weigh all relevant information more effectively."

You don't need to rely on your id for everyday decision-making, like whether to order the chicken or the fish. But if you want to pick like a pro, distract yourself for two minutes before you deliver a verdict. The most effective distractions are completely different from the original problem, says Creswell. His favorite trick to tune out: turn up your favorite music.

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