We do make decisions consciously, after all

August 11th, 2008 - 1:53 pm ICT by IANS  


Washington, Aug 11 (IANS) A new study debunks the controversial 2006 Dutch research finding that unconscious or instinctive thought is superior for complex decisions, such as buying a house or car. The Dutch team’s assertion earlier had been used to encourage decision-makers to make “snap” decisions or to leave complex choices to the powers of unconscious thought.

But in the new study, scientists ran four experiments in which participants were presented with complex decisions and asked to choose the best option immediately (blink), after conscious though (deliberation) or after a period of distraction (”sleep on it”), which is claimed to encourage “unconscious thought processes”.

In all experiments, there was some evidence that conscious deliberation can lead to better choices and little evidence for superiority of choices made “unconsciously.”

Faced with making decisions such as choosing a rental apartment and buying a car, most participants made choices predicted by their subjective preferences for certain attributes (for example, safety, security, colour or price), regardless of the mode of thinking employed.

Unconscious thought is claimed to be an active process during which information is organised, weighted and integrated in an optimal fashion. Its benefits are argued to be strongest when a decision is complex - one with multiple options and attributes - because unconscious thought does not suffer from the capacity limitations that hobble conscious thought.

“Claims that we can make superior ’snap’ decisions by trusting intuition or through the ‘power’ of unconscious thought have received a great deal of attention in the media,” said University of New South Wales psychologist Ben Newell, co-author of the new study.

“In stark contrast to claims made by the Dutch research team and in the media, we found very little evidence of the superiority of unconscious thought for complex decisions.

“On the contrary, our research suggests that unconscious thought is more susceptible to irrelevant factors, such as how recently information has been seen rather than how important it is.

“If conscious thinkers are given adequate time to encode material, or are allowed to consult material while they deliberate, their choices are at least as good as those made unconsciously.”

These findings will be published soon in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

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