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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