14669NY Times Article: The Unconscious Mind
- Feb 23, 2006The Unconscious Mind: A Great Decision Maker
By BENEDICT CAREY
Published: February 21, 2006
Snap judgments about people and places can be
remarkably accurate, and there is no substitute
for simple logic and reflection in determining
questions like which alarm clock or cellphone is
the best value.
But many more important decisions * choosing the
right apartment, the optimal house, the best
vacation * turn on such a bewildering swarm of facts
that people often throw up their hands and put the
whole thing temporarily out of mind. And new research
suggests that this may be a rewarding strategy.
In a series of experiments reported last week in
the journal Science, a team of Dutch psychologists
found that people struggling to make complex decisions
did best when they were distracted and were not able
to think consciously about the choice at all.
The research not only backs up the common advice to
"sleep on it" when facing difficult choices, but it
also suggests that the unconscious brain can actively
reason as well as produce weird dreams and Freudian
"This is very elegant work, and like any great work,
it opens up as many questions as it answers" about the
unconscious, said Timothy D. Wilson, a psychologist at
the University of Virginia and the author of the book
"Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive
Unconscious." He was not involved in the research.
Psychologists have known for years that people process
an enormous amount of information unconsciously * for
example, when they hear their names pop up in a
conversation across the room that they were not
consciously listening to. But the new report suggests
that people take this wealth of under-the-radar
information, combine it with deliberately studied
facts and impressions and then make astute judgments
that they would not otherwise form.
In the study, the research team, led by Ap Dijksterhuis
of the University of Amsterdam, had 80 students choose
among four cars based on a list of attributes for each,
like age, gasoline mileage, transmission and handling.
After presenting the attributes in quick succession,
the researchers instructed some students to think carefully
about the decision for four minutes and distracted others
by asking them to solve anagrams.
When the list of characteristics was four items, students
were more likely to pick the best functioning vehicles if
they reasoned through the decision, rather than if they
were distracted. But with 12 attributes, the distracted
anagram solvers tended to make wiser choices, the study found.
The unconscious brain has a far greater capacity for
information than conscious working memory, the authors
write, and it may be less susceptible to certain biases.
"One example is people who like a house for its space but
don't properly weigh in the effect of commuting distance
until they're spending two hours on the train every day,"
said Dr. Dijksterhuis. The unconscious brain might give
the commuting more weight, he said.
The researchers developed a "complexity score" for 40
products and assets based on how many of each item's
attributes people took into account. Cars, computers
and apartments were at the top, dresses and shirts in
the middle and oven mitts and umbrellas at the bottom.
Using that scale, the psychologists surveyed students who
had recently bought some of those items and found that
the more the buyers thought about their purchases of simple
objects, the more satisfied they were. But the opposite
was the case for complex purchases, where the more time
spent in conscious deliberation, the less satisfied the
In a survey of shoppers outside furniture and department
stores, the researchers found a similar relationship
between the amount of time shoppers spent thinking about
simple and more involved decisions and their later
satisfaction with their purchases. The research is only a
stab at characterizing a process that is mostly unknown,
For example, the studies did not take into account the
effect of emotion or memory on the unconscious, both of
which can sway decisions. Nor is it clear exactly which
kinds of decisions are best handled by letting go.
"Are we saying that an executive who has just read an
important report should not think about it?" said Jonathan
Schooler, a psychologist at the University of British
Columbia. "The research helps us work toward an answer,
but I don't think we're quite there yet."
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