Sleep on it and trust your feelings
Recently I needed to make a decision. It was a pretty complex one as decisions go: as a new member of a student organisation, I had to choose a mentor from among those more experienced. Now there's a fair number of people who had been around for a while. If seniority had been the main criterion for selection, I could have just looked at their joining dates and gone with the oldest. I wish. Obviously, experience with the organisation was important, but more than the number of semesters of membership it mattered what a person had done with that time. I wanted someone who'd been active enough to know the way things work really well. However if the person was overly busy, he/she would hardly have much time for me. Also, personal compatibility mattered. Where among the hundreds of potentially relevant variables would I start? Was a good sense of humour more or less important than a sense of responsibility? What about mutual interests? What about his/her attitude to euthanasia or gay marriage?
As you can imagine, I was getting pretty confused by this point. I'd had a chance to speak to most members of the organisation and I could see myself getting along with most of them. I tried to think of the most relevant criteria for judging compatibility, but one person would score higher on one and another on another. There was also one who I kept thinking about as my potential mentor, but there didn't really seem to be an obvious reason for choosing him.
Oh yes, those gut feelings. People must've wondered about the value of those for probably as long as rational thinking has been around. Should I go with the hunch or should I try to come to a good solid consciously made decision – or, in more simple words, listen to the heart or the head? Romantics and the spiritually minded folk have generally had faith in the former, those of a more rational inclination in the latter. After all, you don't do arithmetics or calculus with your heart, do you?
In case you had any doubt, psychologists have by now established quite firmly that it is in fact the brain that does the math – and the vast majority of other information processing that goes on in humans. Also, it's the conscious mind that weights the various attributes of various options, coming to a sound decision after some thorough deliberation. Being a volunteer counsellor on the website lahendus.net, I have repeatedly suggested that my clients do just that when they've had a difficult decision to make. Get a pen and a sheet of paper, write down the options, write down the positives and negatives of each, consider the relative importance of the various points, choose the best one.
Cause you can figure out the criteria that matter. Right? Even when there's a lot of information to be considered. Especially then. I mean, when you've got a complex decision to make, your conscious mind can definitely do a better job than your unconscious. Right? Right?
Wrong. At least that's what Ap Dijksterhuis and his colleagues would tell you – with plenty of experimental data to prove their point. (Bos et al, 2008; Dijksterhuis et al, 2006; Dikjsterhuis et al, 2009; Dijksterhuis & Aarts, 2010; Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006; Dijksterhuis & Olden, 2006; Strick et al, 2010) What they're saying is that with complex decisions, conscious deliberation doens't help at all. In fact, it can actually hurt you.
That's what 113 University of Amsterdam undergraduates experienced first hand. Dijksterhuis and Olden (2006) sat them each in a separate cubicle with a computer and showed them five different digital art posters. Some of the students were then immediately asked to choose their favourite. Another group was asked to think hard about which one they like the most and why. They were given a total of seven and a half minutes to do this and shown the posters again, each for a minute and a half. Only after that did they have to make a decision. Yet others were asked to spend those 7,5 minutes solving anagrams – and select their favourite after that. Also, all the participants were asked to rate each picture according to how much they'd liked it. Once they'd done that, they were told they could take the poster they'd chosen home with them. A few weeks later, they were called and asked how satisfied they were with their choice. (Dijksterhuis & Olden, 2006)
The results? One would expect 450 seconds of conscious contemplating to do some good. After all, the lucky bunch got to spend 90 seconds of quality time with each poster: examine it, think about their preferences, compare the picture to those preferences, and so on. Surely they have an advantage over the other two groups?
As you can already guess by now, that's not exactly what happened. The actual results showed no difference between the group that spent 450 seconds thinking about the relative merits of the posters and the one that had to choose immediately. All that deliberation, all that weighing of the pros and cons didn't lead to a better decision than simply going with the first impression. (Dijksterhuis & Olden, 2006)
On the other hand, satisfaction was significantly higher for the group that spent their seven and a half minutes solving anagrams. Yes, that's right, spending time on a completely irrelevant task made their eventual choices better than those of the other groups. The key point was that before tackling those word problems they were told they'd be asked about their poster preferences later. They knew they had to choose one (Dijksterhuis & Olden, 2006). As Bos et al (2008) have later shown, that was the bit that made the difference.
You see, our conscious processing abilities are terribly limited. As George Miller pointed out in his classic article, the magical number is seven items, plus or minus two (Miller, 1956). But what if you have dozens of criteria to take into consideration? You're out of luck: you can only be aware of so many things at a time. Inevitably, you settle for comparing a few aspects that you think matter most – or simply happen to remember best. As far as you're concerned, the rest of the information simply goes down the drain.
However, that's just the conscious mind we're talking about. Dijksterhuis and Nordgren (2006) point out that those infamous processing limitations do not apply to the unconscious. We can deal with large amounts of data – group little bits of info into meaningful clusters, distinguish overall good options from overall bad ones, form impressions, make decisions – without ever becoming aware of it. Until, of course, the processing has been completed and the result pops into our mind as that all- familiar gut feeling. You only need to set your mind working on a choice to be made.
Of course, one could argue that art doesn't belong in the domain of pragmaticism and logic, any way. Rational conscious thinking might not help with choosing a favourite picture, but that might be as far as it goes. And of course, Dijksterhuis and colleagues didn't stop at that one experiment. They had subjects choose between cars and various supermarket products (Dijksterhuis et al, 2006), apartments (Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006) more cars and potential roommates (Bos et al, 2008), and even predict soccer matches (Dijksterhuis et al, 2009). No matter where they turned, they just kept getting the same results.
They did find that unconscious thought (as they call the phenomenon) has its limitations. It definitely doesn't do our math for us. In general, decisions with relatively few criteria to consider and ones that need high precision are best made consciously (Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006). Payne et al (2008) have added that unconscious processing has quite limited sensitivity to magnitudes.
Still, even with limitations, UTT (Unconscious Thought Theory) is pretty controversial material. You can't expect a few researchers to throw this bomb of a news on the scientific community and not be received with some skepticism. Lassiter et al (2009) and Waroquier et al (2010) did their own experiments and suggested that the data could be explained more parsimoniously by the distinction between on-line and memory-based judgment. According to them, the „unconscious thought“ subjects simply made their mind up already while acquiring information.
Stringer et al (2010) have already replied with an article explaining how according to their latest data there's definitely some unconscious thought going on. The choices made by people after a period of distraction are in fact considerably different from those made immediately after information is presented. However, while they're gathering the facts, people do need be aware it's for making a choice eventually. The initial process of acquiring and encoding information has to be conscious – and the information needs to be sufficient for making a good decision. (Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006)
The debate is likely to continue for some time and more research needs to be done before anyone can say much with full confidence. As we stand, though, we're definitely seeing one of our basic assumptions about decision making called into question. Even the critics of UTT are not claiming conscious thought to be necessarily superior – they're just saying its problem is limited memory rather than anything else.
After a few weeks of unsuccessfully trying to choose my mentor the good old comparing-the-pros-and-cons-consciously way I could definitely see that wasn't working.
So what do the proponents of UTT have for us as a solution?
Apparently, not throwing away that pros-and-cons list. In fact, they say deliberate information-gathering is an integral part of the way to good decisions. The initial steps are exactly the same we've come to expect: try to find out as much about the options as possible, set yourself the goal to choose the best one. Once you've done that, however, take your mind off the issue and go do something else for a while. Eventually, you're going to get a hunch you want to go for a certain option. That's your unconscious saying it's now finished working, please receive your requested results here. (Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006)
Sounds a bit strange? Then again, remember the well-known saying how mathematicians get their best ideas in the three B's: bed, bath, and bus. Archimedes is a well-known example of the ideas-in-bath instance – probably because he then proceeded to run around naked on the streets of Syracuse shouting „Eureka“. My flatmate who's a computer scientist also believes in the inspiring effect of soaking in warm water (so far, no public nudity included). Watson saw the structure of the DNA in a dream.
Might the little voice whispering „choose that guy as your mentor“ be correct after all? Having acquainted myself with the latest research on UTT, I decided I might as well listen to it. With my conscious mind seriously struggling to reach any sort of conclusion, the idea seemed reasonable enough. So that's what I did. I don't yet know all the long-term implications of this choice – just like I don't know what the truth is in the matter of unconscious thought. I do know, however, that Dijksterhuis and colleagues have lifted gut feelings out of the realm of the mystical and into serious science. Where their research will lead, remains to be seen.
Bos, M.W., Dijksterhuis, A., van Baaren, R. B. (2008) On the goal-dependency of unconscious thought. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 1114-1120
Dijksterhuis, A., Aarts, H. (2010) Goals, Attention, and (Un)Consciousness. Annual Review of Psychology, 61, 467-490
Dijksterhuis, A., Bos, M.W., Nordgren L.F., van Baaren, R. B. (2006) On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect. Science, 311, 1005-1007
Dijksterhuis, A., Bos, M.W., van der Leij, A., van Baaren, R.B. (2009) Predicting Soccer Matches After Unconscious and Conscious Thought as a Function of Expertise. Psychological Science, 20, 1381-1387
Dijksterhuis, A., Nordgren, L.F. (2006) A Theory of Unconscious Thought. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 95-109
Dijksterhuis, A., van Olden, Z. (2006) On the benefits of thinking unconsciously: Unconscious thought can increase post- choice satisfaction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 627-631
Lassiter, G.D., Lindberg, M.J., Gonzales-Vallejo, C., Bellezza, F.S., Phillips, N.D. (2009) The Deliberation-Without Attention Effect: Evidence for an Artifactual Interpretation. Psychological Science, 20, 671-675
Miller, G. (1956) The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity of processing information. The Psychological Review, 63(2), 81-97
Payne, J.W., Samper, A., Bettman, J.R., Luce, M.F. (2008) Boundary Conditions on Unconscious Thought in Complex Decision Making. Psychological Science, 19, 1118-1123
Strick, M., Dijksterhuis, A., van Baaren, R.B. (2010) Unconscious-Thought Effects Take Place Off-Line, Not On-Line. Psychological Science, 21, 484-488
Waroquier, L., Marchiori, D., Klein, O., Cleeremans, A. (2010) Is It Better to Think Unconsciously or to Trust Your First Impression? A Reassessment of Unconscious Thought Theory. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1, 111-118