Unconscious Decision Making

by Stephen Mills on January 5, 2010

Light Bulb Brain

I grew up thinking my unconscious mind regulated my breathing and heart rate and other autonomic functions.  I assumed that my thinking was done only at the conscious level.  I was clearly wrong.

One of the most amazing and at the same time unsettling ideas emerging from research in the neurological and psychological sciences in recent decades, is the power and the pervasive nature of automatic unconscious (or nonconscious) thinking.  It’s amazing because we have an incredible thinking and problem solving machine operating beneath the conscious level of our awareness.  It’s unsettling because it is becoming apparent that some, and probably many, of our decisions are made by unconscious processing before we become consciously aware of them.  That is a topic for another time.

Some Complex Decisions Are Better Made Unconsciously

Your conscious mind can only manipulate a very limited number of chunks of information in working memory.  It has limited processing capacity.  This is not the case for the unconscious mind.  It is a massive parallel processing machine that performs amazing feats that we have not yet been able to replicate with computers.  The unconscious mind also has a much higher processing speed than the conscious mind.  Scientists have estimated the bits-per-second of each, but I can’t remember where I’ve read them or what the numbers were.  I do remember the conscious mind’s processing powers were tiny in comparison.

As strange and counter-intuitive as it may sound, this means that decisions in which a large number of variables or units of data must be compared and manipulated are going to overwhelm the limited capacity of your conscious mind.  The general rule then is to leave the more complex decisions, those with a lot of variables, to the power of your unconscious mind.  Simpler serial or logical decisions with fewer variables are better suited to the conscious reasoning process.

The last time I bought a car I thought my head was going to explode.  I kept trying to decide between two cars that both had their different advantages and disadvantages.  It was difficult to compare the weight of the various factors, and there were simply too many variables for me to get a clear handle on what to do.  I finally went with the gut feeling I had been having all along and I never have regretted it.

An Experiment in Choosing the Best Apartment

Imagine this.  Four fictitious apartments are assigned 12 attributes each.  Things like “has an attractive look”, “is fairly large”, “has a bad landlord”, and “is in a noisy” neighborhood.  These attributes had been pretested and set up in a way that there was a clear choice on the best apartment (a lot more positive attributes) and a clear choice on the worst (a lot more negative attributes).  The other two apartments were neutral.

The subjects of the experiment were then presented the attributes of the apartments one at a time.  After all the attributes of the four apartments were presented, they were asked to make their choice for the best apartment.  They were divided into three groups.  One group was asked to make an immediate decision.  The second group was given time to think about their decision before making it.  The third group was given the same amount of time to complete a distracting task and then they were asked to make a decision.  The distraction task was an intensive working memory task to ensure the subjects couldn’t be consciously thinking about the apartment.  These groups were labeled “immediate”, “conscious”, and “unconscious” respectively.

The bottom line results were that the “unconscious” group consistently produced the best results.  For some reason, pondering the decision and consciously trying to pick the best apartment was not much better than the immediate group that had no time to think about it.  Why would this be so?  You would think that the conscious group’s unconscious mind would also be working on the problem during their conscious thinking time and thus they would get additional benefit from having both minds working the same problem.  With more power on the problem shouldn’t the conscious group produce the best results?

Articulation of Reasons Can Lead to Bias

There is a lot of evidence from other experiments that translating complexity into verbally articulated reasons can cause bias in our minds.  This bias my override the unconscious conclusion.  When we are reasoning consciously, we tend to favor those factors that can be easily articulated and thus we give them more weight than they deserve.  This leads to bad decisions.  Couples who simply report their feelings about the status of their relationship and rate it as “good” are much more likely to still be together six months later than couples who listed the reasons for their relationship status and also rated it as “good”.  The latter are obviously are not able to verbally articulate the true state of the relationship.  The unconsciously generated feeling was simply more accurate than the verbally articulated reasons.  Ladies take note!  Your relationship chatter is not necessarily a good thing :-)

The same thing happened in an experiment on choosing art.  People who just go with what they feel they like, pick differently than those who are asked to list the reasons for their choice.  The reason givers are more likely to be unhappy with their choice later.  Bottom line is that giving reasons often impacts your choice for the worse.  It causes you to emphasize that which can be verbalized over that which can’t.

Focus groups cannot pick television show winners because by articulating their reasons they are biasing their choices.

In the apartment picking experiment there were further trials to try to tease out what was going on in the unconscious mind that allowed it to make a better choice.  It turns out that it seemed to be able to better separate the positive and negative attributes.  Over the time period when it was working on the problem, the unconscious mind was able to increase the polarization of the positive and negative attributes and thereby make a better decision.

You actually make decisions with unconscious processing a lot more often than you realize.  Your unconscious mind often (but not always) communicates its answers to you through feelings.  People who have lost the ability to feel emotions through brain injury are paralyzed by their conscious reasoning.  They can’t make a decision because there are simply too many factors to consider.  They may labor over what others might consider simple decisions for hours and never get anywhere.  So even when you think you are making a rational decision, you are often just rationalizing an unconscious feeling after your unconscious mind has already decided for you, usings reasons of which you are not consciously aware.

What Does All This Mean to You

Should we then just give up conscious thinking?  Of course not.  The conscious reasoning powers you have are excellent for serial and logical deductive thinking.  They just can’t handle the massive parallel processing of the unconscious mind.  Further, the conscious mind often needs to overrule the mistakes and errors of the unconscious.  When looking for my new car, I felt really good about a $125,000 dollar Mercedes, but my conscious mind eliminated that option from consideration.  It would have given my bank account a bad feeling!

Experts in the field believe that in the case of complex decisions where there are a lot of variables, you need to give yourself a goal, such as to choose a new car, and then consciously become informed of the relevant information.  Then you stop thinking about the decision and do something else while your unconscious mind evaluates.  Later, maybe the answer will just pop into your head, but if not you are going to have feelings about the right choice.  Learn to read those feelings and go with them.  If you try to reason it out you become susceptible to the verbal bias I described above.

By nature I am a very logical and rational person.  It is very hard for me, and I think for a lot of other people, to believe that some decisions can be better made unconsciously.  However, the experimental evidence is piling up.  Furthermore, most people just don’t realize the critical part that unconsciously generated feelings play in most of their day-to-day decisions.

The skill that is going to make the difference in improving your decision making is knowing when to employ the various methods.  I don’t have the answers, but I think the coming years are going to reveal a great deal about the amazing abilities of our mysterious minds.  If you get out ahead of the curve, you are going to be the better prepared to deal with our increasingly complex world.

What do you think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.

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{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

Kenji Crosland January 5, 2010 at 5:05 pm

I really like the mention of that experiment. It really puts the interaction between the conscious and subconscious into focus.

The conscious mind can be good at choosing problems that we want the subconscious to solve. It’s amazing how many times I’ve had a seeming random idea or insight that could have been in response to a conscious thought I had days ago. An example is getting an idea for a great cocktail when you’re writing emails at work. The idea pops into your head while you’re not thinking about it but you most likely got the idea because you were in a cocktail bar a few days ago staring at the bottles on the wall and were thinking idly about what would make a good drink.
.-= Kenji Crosland´s last blog ..The Rise of the Generalist Part II: The Specialist’s Survival Guide =-.

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Stephen Mills January 5, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Hi Kenji. Most of my insights pop into mind while I’m driving or taking a shower. Also I agree about the conscious mind choosing the problem. The conscious mind has to ponder a problem or think about a goal for the unconscious mind to get to work on it. At least that’s the way I read the articles. Thanks for commenting again.

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Lana-DreamFollowers Blog January 5, 2010 at 5:43 pm

That was an outstanding post, Stephen. I am fascinated by the topic of conscious/unconscious minds and you outlined perfectly when and why each of them should be used. Thank you!
.-= Lana-DreamFollowers Blog´s last blog ..My 2010 Goals and Two Awesome Techniques I Used to Set Them =-.

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Stephen Mills January 5, 2010 at 8:06 pm

Hi Lana, thanks for that great compliment!

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Christian January 5, 2010 at 8:37 pm

If I may suggest a book for people who enjoyed this blog post, “How We Decide” goes into more details about exactly these questions and ideas.

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Stephen Mills January 6, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Hi Christian, I read that book last year some time and absolutely loved it though I don’t remember anything specifically from it. I read so many books I can’t keep track of what came from what. It is on my list of books to buy. Thanks for your comment.

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Gordie - Lifestyle Design For You January 6, 2010 at 5:05 am

Brain science is skyrocketing and is undoing what we previously believed for decades. The power of the nonconscious mind is much greater than we ever knew.
.-= Gordie – Lifestyle Design For You´s last blog ..How Self-confidence Can Strengthen Your Lifestyle Design And Personal Development. =-.

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Stephen Mills January 6, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Hello Gordie. I think I read something like 90% of what we know about the brain we’ve learned in the last 10 years. And that is a rolling ten years and will be true 10 years from now. It’s a fascinating topic to me.

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Tim Brownson January 6, 2010 at 9:24 am

Excellent post mate!

This is a topic that I wish were discussed more often because it’s fascinating and if more people were to give their unconscious a bit more credit they’d not screw up so often.

I frequently ask clients “how often do you have a strong gut feeling that is wrong and then how often do you rationalize it away and wished you hadn’t?”

The answers are almost always hardly ever and regularly. Weird huh?

Have you seen some of the latest research suggesting we may have an independent (from the brain) decision making system in our gut!! Yikes, not sure about that one.
.-= Tim Brownson´s last blog ..Call That A Goal? THIS is a Goal! =-.

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Stephen Mills January 6, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Hi Tim! Thanks for dropping by to comment. Yes, I’ve heard about the gut brain idea, but just barely. I’ve never read anything detailed about it though. The thing that surprises me is just how many of our decisions might really be happening unconsciously under the radar and then we make up stories about why we did it. I remember when I first started reading about the split brain patients who made up stories and had no idea they were doing it. In a way that scares me.

Some of the really fascinating stuff about how the unconscious brain detects patterns and solves problems long before you are consciously aware of them just amazes me. I think your book mentioned the drawing from different card piles experiment right?

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Jason Fuller September 16, 2013 at 4:15 am

Clearly you are in sales…

“how often do you have a strong gut feeling that is wrong…”
… I’d say the majority of times when it came to a game of chance where my odds were less than 1/2 (and possibly even less than the actual odds).

“…and then how often do you rationalize it away and wished you hadn’t?”
Almost exclusively only when a game of chance is involved where I didn’t understand the odds (like the montey hall problem)

Truth is, I almost always add level of “coolness” or how comfortable I am with a decision as part of my logic process. Not factoring those feelings means you aren’t factoring in all of the data you have.
Jason Fuller´s last [type] ..Renaming parts of files in bulk.

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Anonymous January 6, 2010 at 11:26 am

Consider giving credit to your sources.

Much of what you wrote is found in Malcolm Gladwell’s book BLINK (where he extensively references his sources).

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Stephen Mills January 6, 2010 at 12:45 pm

FYI, despite the fact I LOVE Malcolm Gladwell, I have NEVER read the book Blink. It is currently on my list as is Outliers, but I don’t even own a copy of either. I’ve read Tipping Point and part of What the Dog Says. Blink was not the source of any of this. Secondly this isn’t a scientific paper. Aside from the experiment I used, every bit of this came from memory and I didn’t reference any sources to compile it. So it wouldn’t be possible to cite sources that I don’t have. The ideas are all that I remember. I don’t write down and note the source of every idea I read and I am quite sure you don’t either.

Another commenter mentioned getting How We Decide by Jonah Lerher. I read that book earlier last year. I checked it out of the Library. It is on my list to buy but I don’t have a copy of it either. I honestly don’t remember anything from it specifically. I have read most of this stuff multiple times and so obviously they came from different sources.

Get over yourself anonymous. I think the fact that you posted anonymously without email says all we need to know.

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Anonymous January 7, 2010 at 12:12 am

The fact that I posted anonymously simply means I wish to remain anonymous. Believe it or not, I appreciate your thoughts.

However, your post makes over fifteen scientifically declarative statements and references research and experiments nearly half a dozen times, yet you offer ZERO sources, ZERO citations, ZERO references.

That says all we need to know about the integrity of your writing. Well, that’s the cheap shot, but the real issue here is that you should give credit where credit is due. It is not acceptable to simply say you don’t remember where you got the information from.

If you are going to build upon the work of others, there should be a sincere effort to recognize their efforts in your writing. And if you slip up and are called out on it, stand up and admit it, then consider it a blessing that it’s buried in the comments of a blog post.

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Stephen Mills January 7, 2010 at 5:16 am

I totally disagree. Those ideas are in my head now and I’m sharing them with others. When I write a blog post that has ideas I have read from others I share the source if I know it. I reference books repeatedly in my posts. The ideas from this post are a compilation of a lot of reading that I have done over an extended period of time and no longer have the sources to. This is not a scientific or academic paper. It is blog post sharing my thoughts. This is absurd. By your standards I should not have shared this information since I don’t have the sources any longer. I think my readers appreciate the thoughts.

BTW, hiding behind anonymous is something I’m not doing. You are. You’re not even sharing the source of yourself.

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Joe Smith September 3, 2012 at 7:19 pm

Not to bash on you but, I have to agree with anonymous. We need sources or this article will remain an opinion. The search continues…

Stephen Grass June 6, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Actually gang, this doesn’t need to be a flame war.

I find Gladwell to be terrific at consolidating ideas and feelings we all have into working models, and then validating those with supporting stories.

BLINK was the perfect example. Before the book we’d call that “the crack of the bat” from that feeling when you connect in baseball and you know the ball is going over the wall.

Don’t we all have an instinctive sense of the moment when we know “that works” – whatever metaphor we use to express it? I think we do.

Gladwell didn’t invent the blink and he was the first or only one to recognize its existence.

Let’s move on.

Jason Fuller September 16, 2013 at 4:31 am

You seem to be having some cognitive dissonace about the function of a blog. Try cosidering other peoples (especially thouse that are unpaid) blogs about their thoughs as meer disccussions about the chainging world around them rather than a source of accurate and credable information and this should help you understand why the author does not feel the need to cite sources.

Would sources improve the discussion and as a side effect give the author a good reputation as a journalist? — most definitly. However, sources aren’t a requirment for a conversation.
Jason Fuller´s last [type] ..Renaming parts of files in bulk.

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Tim Brownson January 6, 2010 at 11:37 am

@ anonymous – I have read or rather listened to the unabridged version of Blink at LEAST 5 times and I absolutely love it.

SOME of what Stephen discusses does come up there but by no means all of it.

I honestly see no issue in writing about stuff and not referencing the exact source for each specific part, especially as Stephen didn’t claim it as his own work. This isn’t an academic paper it’s a blog post.

OTOH, I do know some bloggers that regularly post stuff as though it were their own and that is way out of line imho.

Just my 2 cents.
.-= Tim Brownson´s last blog ..Call That A Goal? THIS is a Goal! =-.

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Stephen Mills January 6, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Thanks Tim, anyone who reads my blog would know that I frequently list books where I read my ideas. They are all over my posts.

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Trish Scott - LillyotheField January 6, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Well said. This is one of my favorite topics. I teach intuitive animal and nature communication and the only trick is to get the conscious mind out of the way long enough to let knowing pop to the surface. One of my posts on the subject was inspired by a quote from Henry Adams ”…words are slippery and thought is viscous.” http://scottfree2b.wordpress.com/2007/07/02/words-are-slippery-and-thought-is-viscous/ I like the way your post is nice and tight and followed up with studies. I’ll pass it on to my students. I always just shoot from the gut but I pass on a lot of more substantial info to back up my claims :) . Thanks Stephen

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Stephen Mills January 6, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Hello Trish. Thanks a million. I’m going to go check out your post.

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Derrick January 6, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Another great post Stephen!

I love the car story,and it makes me happy to say I have that procedure mastered. Meaning I trust my intuitive sense considering all the different variables. Cool topic, I call it “The wake up call”.

Thanks

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Stephen Mills January 7, 2010 at 5:23 am

Hello Derrick. Thank a bunch again :-)

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Hulbert January 6, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Hey Stephen, very nicely written article. What I learned from here was that the unconscious mind is sometimes better at making decisions for reasons that we may not know yet (and may be revealed in the future). I’ve never doubted this because like your example of the car, I have always trusted my gut feeling on making the right decisions. I think our intuition is related to our unconscious mind in some way. You’re knowledge of the unconscious mind is very informative and I see you as an expert on it. Thank you for writing this. :)

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Stephen Mills January 7, 2010 at 5:25 am

Hi Hulbert. I definitely think the unconscious mind is the source of much of what we call intuition. Thank you for your comments!

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Mike King January 7, 2010 at 9:18 am

Great article Stephen and a super interesting topic. It seems to me that the unconscious decisions will flow into the conscious mind with time. If you can prevent yourself from consciously thinking about it and analyzing it to death, then with some time, the right decisions will just become evident.

Nice experiment ideas and examples.
.-= Mike King´s last blog ..Book Review: The Power of Appreciative Inquiry =-.

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Stephen Mills January 9, 2010 at 11:19 am

Hello Mike! Thank you again. I think you are right that if we just give it a break the answer will usually arrive in the form of a feeling or even words sometimes.

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Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills January 7, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Wonderful article Stephen. I have been working toward greater whole brain engagement rather than using mainly the left or right side (depending on the task). I think that much of what we consider part of our unconscious mind may actually be a feature of our right brain (so to speak). Ideally, simultaneous recruitment of both the logical left side, and the intuitive right side would provide the best ability to make decisions.

Using our whole brain (both sides) in this way is commonly referred to as a state of flow. Currently, I am using the Holosync technology to create new neural pathways between the two sides to hasten the process.

I love it when you write about this stuff. You always do an excellent job, thanks.
.-= Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills´s last blog ..Time to Focus on Abundance Instead of Scarcity =-.

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Stephen Mills January 9, 2010 at 11:21 am

Thanks Jonathan. You may be right about the right brain idea. I wonder of brain imaging technology could answer that?

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Amit Sodha - The Power Of Choice January 8, 2010 at 8:12 am

Hey Stephen,

Fab post and another subject I love to discuss. Have you ever driven and arrived at your destination, or close to, and barely remembered the journey? I know I have and it’s incredible that we can drive from one place to another barely being aware of it all thanks to the power of the unconscious mind.

Although there’s much research to be done, the no substitute for the what the gut has been telling us for years.

Thanks for the great read Stephen.
.-= Amit Sodha – The Power Of Choice´s last blog ..This Film Is Going To Be The Next ‘Secret’ And I’m In It =-.

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Amit Sodha - The Power Of Choice January 8, 2010 at 8:15 am

Oh, I forgot to mention, I read blink a while back and to be honest I wasn’t that impressed. Although I can’t quote it as it’s been a while I just remember thinking that much of it seemed flawed to me. It was all about the ‘gut’ but it wasn’t that persuasive. I only read Tipping Point recently and I found that a much better and informative read. I’ve bought the outliners but I haven’t read it yet.
.-= Amit Sodha – The Power Of Choice´s last blog ..This Film Is Going To Be The Next ‘Secret’ And I’m In It =-.

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Stephen Mills January 9, 2010 at 11:23 am

Thanks, I plan on checking it out from the library and if I like it then I will buy it.

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Stephen Mills January 9, 2010 at 11:14 am

Hello Amit! Thanks for your comment. There is a lot more to be learned and I am very excited about what we are going to learn. And yes, I have had the driving experience you describe.

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Fatibony January 8, 2010 at 10:24 am

Very Interesting post and perhaps a tough topic to discuss. Was reading through the comment thread too and that has been equally interesting. The choosing between the two cars caught my attention and it’s nice to know you felt you have made a good choice , I mean basically not regret it . Its my first time here great blog :)
.-= Fatibony ´s last blog ..21 Feel Good Tips to Help you Kick Start the New Year. =-.

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Stephen Mills January 9, 2010 at 11:25 am

Hi Fatibony! I think I remember you from twitter. Thank you for the comment and it is a topic that needs some in-depth analysis. I’m fascinated by all the new brain information. Hope to see you back. :-)

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Simon Hayes January 8, 2010 at 5:30 pm

Great article ! So, to paraphrase: “our conscious decision making processes tend to gives more weight to easily articulated factors”. Once articulated, this seems obvious – but it had never occured to me until I read this :-)

Simon

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Stephen Mills January 9, 2010 at 11:27 am

Hello Simon :-)

That is an excellent summary. I agree that it seems obvious now, but it is a fantastic insight by those who generated the idea – perhaps with their unconscious minds – LOL!

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Hugh DeBurgh - The Passionate Warrior January 10, 2010 at 6:25 pm

Thanks Stephen for a great post!
We all get so much conflicting advice about whether to “trust our feelings.” This study indicates that our feelings may just be the medium through which our unconscious mind speaks to us.
Things get complicated, however, when your feelings tell you, for example, that this guy or this girl is the one for you, when in fact those feelings may be the result of simple lust or of an instinctive attraction that results in you getting involved with the wrong kind of person over and over.
In other words, how can we discern when to trust our “feelings?” Emotions carry the results of complex unconscious analysis. Yet they also communicate instinctive drives better suited to the environment of the cave man.
How can we tell the difference?
Any insight on this point? I love top hear anyone’s comments on this.
All the best,
Hugh
.-= Hugh DeBurgh – The Passionate Warrior´s last blog ..7 Secrets to Living the Good Life =-.

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Sami Paju January 11, 2010 at 9:29 am

Hi Stephen,

I found this statement to be pretty profound: “So even when you think you are making a rational decision, you are often just rationalizing an unconscious feeling after your unconscious mind has already decided for you, usings reasons of which you are not consciously aware.”

I remember also reading about an experiment where students were given a choice between two photos for hanging on their wall. They were then asked to rate the photos based on how much they preferred one over the other. The thing was, that both photos were rather similar – which of course reflected the results.

However, when the students were asked the same question couple weeks later, pretty much everyone rated their preferred photo higher than they did 2 weeks earlier. They had created some sort of rationale, or simulated preference for their choice, during those two weeks. After all, it would not be good for their psyche if they started to think their initial belief was wrong.

//sami
.-= Sami Paju´s last blog ..Evolving yourself into your best self =-.

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Defying Goliath March 29, 2010 at 9:17 am

Hello Stephen, You are skimming the surface of this sleeping giant. It (the inherent mind), can work for and against you, depending on your emotional intelligence, and will. There are conflicts within us, to be settled first, before there is understanding and balance. This is not mumbo jumbo; it is very real. Look to my book, “Defying Goliath”, and visit my blog, defyinggoliath@blogspot which you can google. I experienced the inherent mind in choas, as it affected my health. What you refer to is as real as it gets and is not just about decision making. The realm goes much deeper and is my more involving in our lives. -David-

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John Faupel March 17, 2012 at 4:51 am

How does the conscious mind control the unconscious mind? After all, it could only have acquired or developed its processing ability from its very limited awareness and understanding of the way the unconscious mind process information. In other words: ‘objective’, ‘rational’, ‘logical’, ‘sequential’, ‘evaluative’, ‘quantitative’ conscius processing must be a simplified way of trying to make sense of ‘subjective’, ‘emotional’, ‘sensual’, ‘biological’ unconscious ‘qualitative’ unconscious processing. Isn’t conscious thinking rather like telling your grandmother how to suck eggs? Perhaps that’s why the more consciously constructed world we are now obliged to live within is in such a mess!

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John Faupel June 7, 2013 at 12:55 am

Stephen Mills seems to have assumed he is free to DECIDE whether to listen to his unconscious or not. I think it’s more likely the unconscious always makes its own so-called decisions and the conscious can check only subsequently to see if the unconscious was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. There’s nothing logical or rational about this process. The factors that affect the unconscious are always more subjective and those that affect the conscious are always less so. To try to decide between, say the emotional appeal of a fancy car, with the practical appeal of a less expensive one is like trying to compare chalk with cheese – it’s not a quantifiable equation. The way I see it is as follows: the unconscious is the ‘player’ and the conscious is the ‘referee’. When the player makes a mistake, the referee blows the whistle but only AFTER the error has been committed – no matter how instantaneously. Experience tells our unconscious how to ‘decide’ and generally does a good job (that is unless we are screwed up emotionally) but it often makes mistakes even if we’re not because the world is changing unpredictably all the time, so our conscious needs to blow the whistle after the event sometime and tell the unconscious to think again.

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