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?
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?
- Dijksterhuis, A. (2004) Think different: The merits of unconscious thought in preference development and decision making. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(5), 586-598. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1246
- Dijksterhuis, A. & Vanolden, Z. (2006) On the benefits of thinking unconsciously: Unconscious thought can increase post-choice satisfaction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42(5), 627-631. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2005.10.008