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.”
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.
Danville CA 94526