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14669NY Times Article: The Unconscious Mind

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  • medit8ionsociety
    Feb 23, 2006
      The Unconscious Mind: A Great Decision Maker
      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
      students were.

      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,
      psychologists say.

      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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