When Unconscious Thought Is Superior To Conscious Thought – APA Study

APA, Science Directorate, Volume 23: No. 10, October 2009

The Beautiful Powers of Unconscious Thought

by Ap Dijksterhuis

“When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters however…the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves.”

Sigmund Freud

When you are facing an important decision, others will sometimes tell you to postpone your decision and “sleep on it” first. In my case it was often my grandmother who gave me this advice. It is a belief many people intuitively share: It helps to put a problem aside for some time in order to arrive at a better decision. Somehow, waiting seems to help us to differentiate between the vital and the futile. Postponing a decision helps us to base our decisions on the appropriate reasons.

But does this “folk belief” hold in a scientific experiment? A few years ago, we conducted an experiment in which we had people choose between four hypothetical apartments. The information was constructed in such a way that one of the four apartments was objectively more desirable than the other three, in that it possessed more positive and fewer negative qualities. However, this was not immediately evident as the apartments were described with a great deal of information. After our experimental participants read all the information about the apartments, they chose their favorite one either immediately or after a period of distraction during which they did some other things. Our hypothesis was that the latter group would continue to “unconsciously think” about the apartments while they were distracted. Indeed, our findings showed that 37 % of the participants who decided immediately chose the appropriate apartment, whereas 60 % of the unconscious thinkers chose the best one (see Dijksterhuis, 2004; Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006). Postponing a decision helps, even if one does not consciously think about it anymore.

The next question was whether unconscious thought could be even more helpful than an equal period of conscious thought. Traditionally, most scholars on decision making have assumed that thorough conscious thought is the best strategy to arrive at sound decisions. This is without doubt sometimes true, but as a general principle it needs to be qualified. We know that under some circumstances (e.g., Wilson & Schooler, 1991), conscious thought deteriorates the quality of decisions. In another experiment we conducted (Bos et al., 2009), our participants chose between six houses that were on sale in our home city, Nijmegen. We simulated the website on which these houses were advertised but removed the asking price. Our participants were given a few minutes time to navigate our “website,” and some participants were then given as much time as they wanted to think about the houses, and to further browse through the information. Others were distracted for about 45 minutes (they actually did other experiments) before they decided. Finally, participants chose their favorite house and they were asked to estimate the asking price for each of the six houses based on the information provided. The unconscious thinkers – that is, the ones that were distracted – performed significantly better than the conscious thinkers, a finding that has now been replicated a number of times (see Strick et al., 2009, for a meta-analysis).

In other experiments (Dijksterhuis, Bos, van der Leij & van Baaren, 2009), we asked immediate decision makers, conscious thinkers, and unconscious thinkers to predict the results of soccer matches that were to be played in the near future. The accuracy of the predictions did not differ much for people who didn’t know much about soccer. For fans, however, the results did differ. Fans who thought unconsciously made better predictions than fans who thought consciously or fans who guessed immediately. Interestingly, for both immediate decision makers as well as for conscious thinkers, knowledge of soccer did not correlate with the quality of the predictions. Only among unconscious thinkers was this correlation obtained, indicating that the benefits of expertise, at least within the confines of the present paradigm, become apparent when one thinks unconsciously rather than consciously.

For the entire article, including when, how and why unconscious thought may be better than conscious thought, click here to go to the APA site.

Become more aware. Cultivate mindfulness. Have an enjoyable weekend!

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Guide To Self, Inc.

Executive Coach

Danville CA 94526


New Method To Diagnose Depression Could Work In Under An Hour

From PhysOrg.com…

‘An innovative diagnostic technique invented by a Monash University researcher could dramatically fast-track the detection of mental and neurological illnesses.


Monash biomedical engineer Brian Lithgow has developed electrovestibulography which is something akin to an ‘ECG for the mind’. Patterns of electrical activity in the brain’s vestibular (or balance) system are measured against distinct response patterns found in depression, schizophrenia and other Central Nervous System (CNS) disorders.


The vestibular system is closely connected to the primitive regions of the brain that relate to emotions and behaviour, so Lithgow saw the diagnostic potential of measuring and comparing different patterns of electrovestibular activity.


Monash has teamed up with corporate partner Neural Diagnostics to develop and patent electrovestibulography, or EVestG™. It is hoped the simple, quick and inexpensive screening process for CNS diseases will eventually become standard practice in hospitals around the world.


“The patient sits in a specially designed tilt chair that triggers electrical responses in their balance system. A gel-tipped electrode placed in the individual’s ear canal silences interfering noise so that these meaningful electrical responses are captured and recorded,” the Monash researcher said. “The responses are then compared to the distinct biomarkers indicative of particular CNS disorders, allowing diagnosis to be made in under an hour.”


Neural Diagnostics CEO Dr Roger Edwards said the implications of the new technique were huge.


“We are doing the necessary research and development and getting independent expert reports done, but results so far are cause for great optimism,” Dr Edwards said.’


For full article, please click here.

Stay happy!

John Schinnerer, PhD

Executive Coach

Danville CA 94526

Bullying Bosses Driven By Feelings of Inadequacy and Being Overwhelmed – UC Berkeley Study

From ScienceDaily (Oct. 15, 2009) — ‘Bosses who are in over their heads are more likely to bully subordinates. That’s because feelings of inadequacy trigger them to lash out at those around them, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Southern California.


In a new twist on the adage “power corrupts,” researchers at UC Berkeley and USC have found a direct link among supervisors and upper management between self-perceived incompetence and aggression. The findings, gleaned from four separate studies, are published in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science.


With more than one-third of American workers reporting that their bosses have sabotaged, yelled at or belittled them, the new study challenges previous assumptions that abusive bosses are solely driven by ambition and the need to hold onto their power.


“By showing when and why power leads to aggression, these findings are highly relevant as abusive supervision is such a pervasive problem in society,” said Nathanael Fast, assistant professor of management and organization at USC and lead author of the study.


During role-playing sessions, study participants who felt their egos were under threat would go so far as to needlessly sabotage an underling’s chances of winning money. In another test, participants who felt inadequate would request that a subordinate who gave a wrong answer to a test be notified by a loud obnoxious horn, even though they had the option of choosing silence or a quiet sound.



“Incompetence alone doesn’t lead to aggression,” said Serena Chen, associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and co-author of the study. “It’s the combination of having a high-power role and fearing that one is not up to the task that causes power holders to lash out. And our data suggest it’s ultimately about self-worth.”



That said, flattery may not be the best way to soothe a savage boss, the study points out: “It is both interesting and ironic to note that such flattery, although perhaps affirming to the ego, may contribute to the incompetent power holder’s ultimate demise — by causing the power holder to lose touch with reality,” the study concludes.

Journal reference:

1.      Nathanael J. Fast, Serena Chen. When the Boss Feels Inadequate: Power, Incompetence, and Aggression. Psychological Science, 2009; DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02452.x


University of California – Berkeley (2009, October 15). Bosses Who Feel Inadequate Are More Likely To Bully. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 15, 2009, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2009/10/091014102209.htm


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For full article, click here.


John Schinnerer, Ph.D.