In 1972, the United States Federal Trade Commission passed a law that any door-to-door sale had to be accompanied by a written statement informing the buyer of their right to rescind the purchase within three days of the sale. That law was passed because of consumer complaints about aggressive sales techniques and small print contracts.
Economists call this “cooling-off period” and it would be sensible to apply it both to fundamental decisions that can change our lives and to those whose impact could become unsuspected because we cannot control all the variables.
What exactly is the cooling-off period?
The cooling-off period is the equivalent of taking a quiet time to reflect before making a decision. It is that pause that we make before letting go of the first thing that crosses our mind or those days that we take to think before choosing the way forward.
The cooling-off period is also sleeping on it before to make the decision. In fact, did you know that 75-95% of dreams have emotional contexts?
Neuroscientists have appreciated that as the brain goes through the different stages of sleep, it undergoes drastic alterations in its neurochemistry and functioning. The areas related to emotions, such as the amygdala, hippocampus, and anterior cingulate cortex, become particularly active.
During sleep, emotional memories are consolidated, but fear responses are also extinguished. That means that a good night’s sleep can reduce the impact of emotional situations helping us see things more clearly. Therefore, allowing at least one night to pass before making an important decision also acts as a cooling-off period.
The 2 situations in which we must apply that time of reflection
Although we must always think before we act, applying the cooling-off period is particularly important when two conditions are met, according to economists C. R. Sunstein and R. H. Thaler:
1. Infrequent important decisions. When it comes to decisions we don’t make often, like choosing the city to move to, the next car to buy, or the career to study, we need to pause to reflect. In this type of decision we do not have much experience and there are many factors involved, so it is essential to apply a cooling-off period that allows us to glimpse all the options and weigh the consequences.
2. Very emotional situations. When we find ourselves in complex situations that trigger an intense emotional response, such as a misdiagnosis or a relationship crisis, we find it difficult to think rationally and are more likely to make hasty decisions that we later regret. In those cases, the cooling-off period will allow us to regain calm and emotional control in order to make the best possible decision.
How long should this cooling-off period last?
The cooling-off period can last as little as a few minutes or extend for days. Each person and each situation is different, so ideally, this stage of reflection should last as long as you need it.
If it’s a vital decision, you can put off that reflection pause for days or even weeks. This way you will have time to gather all the information you need, until you feel confident to make a decision. If you are going through a conflictive situation that has brought your emotions to the surface, the cooling-off period should last as long as you need to regain control of your emotions.
It is worth clarifying that this cooling-off period cannot become an excuse to procrastinate or evade decision-making. It is not a period to forget about the problem or conflict but to reflect on its causes, alternatives and consequences.
Taking time to reflect, calm emotions and adopt the necessary psychological distance will help us to better assess our alternatives and anticipate the consequences of our decisions. That does not mean that we are not going to be wrong, but at least we will make our decisions with knowledge of the facts and being more aware of all the factors involved.
The cooling-off period is not a guarantee of decisional success, but rather a kind of protection or shield against impulsiveness and irrationality. It simply prevents the seed of repentance from growing in the future.
Sunstein, C. R. & Thaler, R. H. (2008) Un pequeño empujón. Madrid: Taurus.
Van der Helm, E. & Walker, M. P. (2009) Overnight Therapy? The Role of Sleep in Emotional Brain Processing. Psychol Bull; 135(5): 731–748.
Levin, R. & Nielsen, T. (2009) Nightmares, bad dreams, and emotion dysregulation: A review and new neurocognitive model of dreaming. Current Directions in Psychological Science;18(2): 84–88.