HEALTHY LIVING
03/15/2014 10:35 am ET Updated Mar 15, 2014

Making A Big Decision? Why You Should Take A (Quick) Pause Beforehand

Chris Strong via Getty Images

A new study affirms the importance of "taking a moment" before making a decision.

Researchers found that taking just an extra fraction of a second to decide something leads to improved decision-making accuracy.

"Postponing the onset of the decision process by as little as 50 to 100 milliseconds enables the brain to focus attention on the most relevant information and block out irrelevant distractors," study researcher Jack Grinband, Ph.D., associate research scientist in the Taub Institute and assistant professor of clinical radiology at Columbia University Medical Center, said in a statement. "This way, rather than working longer or harder at making the decision, the brain simply postpones the decision onset to a more beneficial point in time."

For the study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers had study participants look at a number of moving dots on a computer. The dots were moving in a random order, but the participants were instructed to say whether they thought the dots were overall moving to the left or the right.

Then, another set of dots came on to the screen, making it difficult to say what direction the initial set of dots were moving. When the new set of dots were moving in the same direction of the first set of dots, the participants were largely able to correctly identify the direction the dots were moving. But when the new set of dots moved against the direction of the first set of dots, the participants made more mistakes.

The participants were instructed to say what direction the dots were moving either as quickly, or as accurately, as possible. But no matter what, all the participants were permitted to give their response anytime after the new set of dots had moved onto the screen.

In a second experiment, the researchers presented a similar task to study participants, with one difference: The participants heard clicking noises that indicated when they had to give a response (they had anywhere from 17 to 500 milliseconds to provide a response).

"In this situation, it takes about 120 milliseconds to shift attention from one stimulus (the bright distractors) to another (the darker targets)," Grinband said in the statement. "To our knowledge, that's something that no one has ever measured before."

In addition, researchers found that when the study participants delayed the making of the decision -- even if they weren't aware they were doing so -- they were more likely to make the correct decision.

"Our finding that decision onset can be controlled may spur the development of new training programs to delay decision onset, which could be particularly helpful for individuals or clinical populations that have a slow stimulus selection process or who make fast high-stakes decisions in complex realistic environments," the researchers wrote in the study.

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