Guided by unconscious voices

Attention all politicians: Take my advice – sit on it. At least, that’s what the latest research is saying helps lead to the best decisions.

Dear Rex,
Vol. 7 No. 19
March 01, 2006
Science Matters
by David Suzuki
Guided by unconscious voices
Attention all politicians: Take my advice – sit on it. At least, that’s
what the latest research is saying helps lead to the best decisions.
While listening to your instincts or your “gut reaction” has long been
cited by people as a reason for making choices, scientists have often
dismissed this seemingly irrational process as merely “folk wisdom.” Now
science is catching up to that age-old wisdom.
According to a new report published recently in the journal Science,
complex decisions are best handled by the unconscious mind. Researchers at
the University of Amsterdam conducted a series of experiments on purchasing
decisions and found that, while conscious deliberation is good for making
simple decisions, for more complicated choices it’s often better to sleep
on it, then simply go with your gut.
Conscious thought does not always lead to the best decisions because it has
low capacity. We can only consciously think of a small number of things at
any given time, which can lead us to focus on minor details or only a small
subset of relevant information. And because we can only focus on a small
number of details at once, we are not very consistent with multiple
evaluations of the same choices, since we may choose to focus on different
attributes each time. This leads to what has been called “option paralysis”
because we keep coming to different conclusions.
Our unconscious mind, on the other hand, is capable of integrating large
amounts of information, although with less precision. For the Amsterdam
university experiment, researchers postulated that, because conscious
thought is so precise, it would lead to good decisions over simple matters,
where only one or two attributes were involved. However, because
unconscious thought has such high capacity, it would lead to better
decisions over more complex matters.
They called this hypothesis “deliberation-without-attention” and they
tested it using four studies on consumer choices, including some in a
laboratory setting and some using real shoppers. One study involved
participants reading positive and negative information about four
hypothetical cars. Some were then asked to think about the cars for four
minutes and choose one. Others were distracted with another task for four
minutes before making a choice. While those who had time to think about
their choice made good decisions when the information was simple (only four
attributes listed per vehicle), they more often made poorer choices when
the information became more complex (12 attributes listed per vehicle).
In another study, shoppers were quizzed about their purchases upon leaving
an IKEA store and a department store. They were asked specific questions
about the cost of their items, how much they had known about them before
coming to the store, and how much time they thought about their purchases
before they bought them. Follow-up phonecalls revealed that shoppers who
spent more time deliberating about simple purchases (such as kitchen
accessories) and less time deliberating about more complex purchases (such
as furniture) were ultimately more satisfied with their choices.
In his recent book blink, former New York Times science reporter Malcolm
Gladwell wrote about similar properties of the unconscious mind. Gladwell
talks about “thin slicing,” which refers to its ability to find patterns in
certain situations based on very narrow slices of experience. According to
Gladwell, what some people call intuition or that “gut” feeling, is really
grounded in logic and shaped by our knowledge and experience with the world
– we just aren’t necessarily able to easily articulate it.
Researchers from the Amsterdam study point out that, although they focused
on consumer products, “there is no a priori reason to assume that the
deliberation-without-attention effect does not generalize to other choices
– political, managerial or otherwise.”
So to all our new MPs in the House: deliberate, debate, discuss. Then go
home and sleep on it before making a decision. Canada will be better off if
you do.
Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at
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