Conscious vs. unconscious thought in making complicated decisions

December 09, 2008

When faced with a difficult decision, we try to come up with the best choice by carefully considering all of the options, maybe even resorting to lists and lots of sleepless nights. So it may be surprising that recent studies have suggested that the best way to deal with complex decisions is to not think about them at all--that unconscious thought will help us make the best choices. Although this may seem like an appealing strategy, new research in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, cautions that there are limitations in the efficacy of unconscious thought making the best decisions.

Duke University researchers John W. Payne, Adriana Samper, James R. Bettman and Mary Frances Luce had volunteers participate in a lottery choice task, where they had to pick from four various options, each with a different, but close, payoff. The volunteers were divided into three groups for this task: one group was instructed to think about the task for a given amount of time, another group was told to think about the task for as long as they wanted and the last group was distracted before making their selection (thus, unconsciously thinking about the task). A second experiment was similarly set up, except that there were substantial differences in the payoffs of the different options.

The researchers found that there are situations where unconscious thought will not result in the best choice being selected. The findings showed that in some instances (when the payoffs were similar), thinking about the task for as only as long as it takes to make a decision was as effective as unconscious thought, resulting in the most profitable options being chosen. However, when there were large differences in the amount of money to be won, mulling over the decision at their own pace led the volunteers to larger payoffs than unconscious thought. The volunteers who were told to consciously think about the decision for a specific amount of time performed poorly in both experiments. The authors explain that those volunteers had "too much time to think" about the task and suggest that their attention shifted "to information of lesser relevance," resulting in less profitable decisions.

These results suggest that although unconscious thought may help us make the right decision in some instances, it is often better to rely on self-paced conscious thought and really focus on the problem at hand.
-end-
For more information about this study, please contact: John W. Payne (jpayne@duke.edu)

Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. For a copy of the article "Boundary Conditions on Unconscious Thought in Complex Decision Making" and access to other Psychological Science research findings, please contact Barbara Isanski at 202-293-9300 or bisanski@psychologicalscience.org

Association for Psychological Science

Related Decisions Articles from Brightsurf:

Consumers value difficult decisions over easy choices
In a paper co-authored by Gaurav Jain, an assistant professor of marketing in the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer, researchers found that disfluency, or the difficulty for an individual to process a message, increases people's attitudes toward that message after a time delay.

Evolutionary theory of economic decisions
When survival over generations is the end game, researchers say it makes sense to undervalue long shots that could be profitable and overestimate the likelihood of rare bad outcomes.

Decisions made for incapacitated patients often not what families want
Researchers from Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University report in a study published in JAMA Network Open that nearly half of the time medical treatments and orders received for incapacitated patients were not compatible with goals of care requested by their surrogate decision makers.

Which COVID-19 models should we use to make policy decisions?
A new process to harness multiple disease models for outbreak management has been developed by an international team of researchers.

For complex decisions, narrow them down to two
When choosing between multiple alternatives, people usually focus their attention on the two most promising options.

Fungal decisions can affect climate
Research shows fungi may slow climate change by storing more carbon.

How decisions unfold in a zebrafish brain
Researchers were able to track the activity of each neuron in the entire brain of zebrafish larvae and reconstruct the unfolding of neuronal events as the animals repeatedly made 'left or right' choices in a behavioral experiment.

Best of the best: Who makes the most accurate decisions in expert groups?
New method predicts accuracy on the basis of similarity.

How do brains remember decisions?
Mammal brains -- including those of humans -- store and recall impressive amounts of information based on our good and bad decisions and interactions in an ever-changing world.

How we make complex decisions
MIT neuroscientists have identified a brain circuit that helps break complex decisions down into smaller pieces.

Read More: Decisions News and Decisions Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.