The decisive moment

Three cars

The red, the yellow one, no...

Choosing an expensive item such as a car can be hard enough. In 2006 Ap Dijksterhuis, a researcher from the University of Amsterdam, made things a bit harder. He gave people various items of information about a selection four of cars and asked them to choose the best option.

The information had been engineered so that each car had a different mixture of positive and negative attributes, but one car was designed to be a best option and another was designed to be the worst option.

Dijksterhuis then divided his subjects into four groups. To two of the groups he only gave four items of information per car (simple condition), whereas the other group had to deal with 12 attributes per car (complex condition).

After reading the information about the cars, half of each group were allowed four minutes to think about their choice (conscious choosers). The other half were given anagrams to complete in order to distract them from thinking (unconscious choosers). They were then asked to make their choice of the best car and their result was compared with the real answer.

In the simple condition (four attributes per car), there was no real difference in success rate between the conscious and the unconscious choosers. However, in the complex condition (12 attributes per car) the people who had been distracted made consistently better decisions than the people who had been allowed to consider the choice.

So, is the unconscious mind better at making complex decisions than the conscious mind?

Dijksterhuis, A. (2006) On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect Science, 311(5763), 1005-1007. DOI: 10.1126/science.1121629

The Decisive Moment - Jonah Lehrer

Decide to read this book!

A quick book review

This is one of the questions posed by Jonah Lehrer in his book The Decisive Moment, and Dijksterhuis’ experiment is one of the bits of evidence he uses to look at how the brain makes decisions in different circumstances. Here’s a quick summary of the book:

  • Chapter 1 questions the long-held assumption that rational thought is the best and only way to make good decisions.
  • Chapter 2 explores the emotional/unconscious decision making processes in the brain and examines the situations in which these processes seem to be more effective than rational thought.
  • Chapter 3 highlights the limitations of unconscious decision making and gives examples of ways in which the emotional brain can be misled.
  • Chapter 4 suggests the situations in which conscious rational thought processes are more effective, namely those which require the generation of novel solutions.
  • Chapter 5 shows how, in some circumstances, rational thought might actually make us less effective in our decisions and actions (this is where Dijksterhuis comes in).
  • Chapter 6 looks at the interplay of the conscious and unconscious mind in a specific set of decisions, namely moral judgements.
  • Chapter 7 tackles the process by which decisions emerge and how different parts of the brain compete for attention. In doing this, Lehrer explores the danger of too much self-imposed certainty.
  • Chapter 8 attempts to put everything together, exploring how the different processes lend themselves to different decision making tasks and explores how the rational and emotional processes can work effectively together to make good decisions. It also looks at the benefit of being constantly aware of your own thinking and decision making.

If you have read other popular books on decision-making, neuroscience and psychology, then many of the case studies and experiments Lehrer mentions will be familiar. However, he puts them all together into a very well-structured argument, peppered with interesting anecdotes and clear explanations of quite complex ideas. I would definitely recommend you give it a go.

Back to the cars

For me there is one small problem with the assumption that unconscious thought is better at dealing with complex decisions than conscious thought: how did they design the experiment? Dijksterhuis must have worked out in advance which car was the best one using rational analysis. Perhaps the participants were unable to do this is because they were only given four minutes to think about it. Rational thought may be better at making complex decisions if it is given time to work — and perhaps the right decision making tools and methods. Rational thought is slow and it can easily be fooled into putting too much emphasis on the wrong information, but given time and structure it may get there in the end.

I’m quite prepared to believe that the unconscious mind may be better at making certain types of decision than rational thought. However, I think that saying that it’s just to do with the rational mind’s inability to handle complexity is possibly overstating things. It’s more likely to be a combination of complexity and limited time to think.

Most career choices consist of a whole set of complex decisions. For some, there may be plenty of time to come to a conclusion. Others may have to be made in an instant. Knowing when and how to combine conscious and unconscious decision making is very important.

  • To what extent do you enable clients to use a balance of rational and unconscious decision making?
  • Rational decision making can be improved by taking time and using consistent methods, what do you do to improve the effectiveness of unconscious decision making?
  • How much do you seek to make clients aware of their decision making processes?

Further reading


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  1. #1 by Vinny on 13 May 2010 - 15:26

    Am so far only on Chapter 3 of this book. (I would also recommend it as an interesting read!)

    I think that this links very well to Krumboltz’s Social Learning Theory of Career Decision Making.

    For those of you not familiar with it here is a summary:
    (aplologies to career theory purists, this will be a brief and hugely simplified summary!)
    1. Personality and behaviour is based on a unique set of learning experiences.
    2. These learning experiences (as well as some other external factors) shape a persons beliefs about the world (i.e. that you need to be posh to become a judge) and about the person (I’m good at art).
    3. These generalisations help shape people’s career interests.
    4. The outcome of the theory is that in order to help people with career choice, you sometimes need to challenge or re-frame the generalisations they have made, particularly those of a self-defeating kind that have arisen from faulty learning experiences..

    Most of the time I try to help people with rational decision making.
    According to Krumboltz, to help people make a good decision, it is important that we analyse whether the unconcious mind has built up incorrect generalisations about the world and about the self. This will help the rational mind to make a better decision.

    I’m hoping that chapters 3-8 will help me better evaluate where the unconcious mind can go wrong!

    • #2 by David Winter on 13 May 2010 - 15:42

      And possibly where the conscious mind can also go wrong…

  2. #3 by Vinny on 17 May 2010 - 10:57

    Can I look at this from another angle?
    In his book, Lehrer describes a backgammon player (the best player in the world). Lehrer explains how he got to be so good. Basically, he didn’t use his rational mind whilst he was playing. He just played a lot and made mistakes. The key to his sucess happened after each game. Following every game, he used his rational mind to pick apart all his mistakes and decide what he would have done better in each circumstance. Where he did things fairly well, he looked to see if he could have done it even better.

    He then went back into the next game and repeated this pattern. In the heat of a game, he used his unconscious mind to determine whether he was doing the right thing and afterwards used his rational mind to work out how to improve next time.

    To me, this mirrors my journey into learning about guidance. When I’m with a client, I often instinctively decide what to say and which way to guide the interview (I don’t have enough time to use my rational brain to consider which of the millions of possible phrases would be the right one to use at that point with that client)
    In order to improve, I use my rational mind, but not DURING the session. Instead I analyse my interview afterwards and rationally pick apart where I could have improved and what I could have done better.

    I have often wondered if I should use my rational mind more during a guidance interview, but I think I’ve decided to go with my instincts and let my rational mind take a back seat until I’ve finished.

    Does anyone else use this approach?
    Is it the best one to use with careers guidance?

  3. #4 by Ghislaine Dell on 19 May 2010 - 16:00

    Vinny – I definitely use this approach during guidance and it sums up why I’ve had a hard time with the theories thing (liked your quick summary by the way!). If I try and focus on my rational mind I find myself losing the thread of what the client is saying. I am starting to feel though that this approach isn’t always delivering for the client and find myself pausing for thought to think about what I should say next. A pity we can’t ask the client which approach they find the most useful….
    Funny that although I might not use my own rational mind I do try and help clients use theirs.

  4. #5 by David Winter on 19 May 2010 - 17:48

    Vinny and Ghislaine

    Thanks for taking this in the direction of reflective practice (there’s more to come on this topic in the next couple of posts – how did you know?)

    Guidance (or group facilitation) is a situation in which you have to assimilate a lot of complex information simultaneously with immediate time constraints. If you believe the proposition put forward by these researchers, this is exactly the sort of situation in which unconscious/instinctive decision making is likely to outperform conscious/rational thinking. So, Vinny’s rule of thumb, which I’ll summarise as: ‘use your gut during and your brain afterwards’ is a pretty reasonable starting point.

    The more you follow that cycle of act-then-reflect the better your gut reaction is likely to be because you are building a databank of good-quality, analysed experience for it to use.

    There are tricks for giving yourself space to reflect during the action.

    Ask a question which you think you already know the answer to so that you don’t have to listen quite so attentively, giving a bit of your brain space to think about what you have heard before. You have to keep half an ear open in case they say something you weren’t expecting.

    Use silence more. Don’t feel you have to respond immediately. You can always claim you are giving the client space to think and reflect.

    Actually, ask for a bit of time to think about things. Who says you have to be able to respond immediately? You’re paying the client a compliment in saying that your issues is sufficiently meaningful that I need to contemplate it.

    Any other tricks for giving yourself thinking space?

  5. #6 by Tristram Hooley on 3 September 2010 - 09:51

    I’ve just posted on this book at

    I think that the discussion here about how to handle the ideas in the book as part of guidance practice is really interesting. Vinny’s analogy with Lehrer’s backgammon player is a good one and shows how the concious and unconcious mind can be employed effectively together. I think that there is value in continuing this discussion.

    Does anyone know of any articles where guidance practitioners have talked about how to move their practice away from rational decision making models?

    • #7 by David Winter on 6 September 2010 - 23:33

      Hi Tristram

      Not sure if this fits the bill, but it’s one of the best papers I’ve come across that looks at non-rational career decision making.

      Krieshok, T., Black, M., & McKay, R. (2009) Career decision making: The limits of rationality and the abundance of non-conscious processes. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 75(3), 275-290. DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2009.04.006

  1. Do you have a decision-making style? « Careers – in Theory

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