In a series of experiments reported last week in the journal Science, a team of Dutch psychologists found that people struggling to make complex decisions did best when they were distracted and were not able to think consciously about the choice at all.
The research not only backs up the common advice to “sleep on it” when facing difficult choices, but it also suggests that the unconscious brain can actively reason as well as produce weird dreams and Freudian slips.
Psychologists have known for years that people process an enormous amount of information unconsciously — for example, when they hear their names pop up in a conversation across the room that they were not consciously listening to. But the new report suggests that people take this wealth of under-the-radar information, combine it with deliberately studied facts and impressions and then make astute judgments that they would not otherwise form.
Between Jimmy Carter’s agonizing search for the optimum allocation of tennis court time at the White House, and George W. Bush’s flashes of divine inspiration — which resembles the “distracted…not able to think consciously” model described above — there must be a happy medium for making important decisions.
But on the other hand: In life, we all have known people whose “gut instincts” were more reliable than most. Are such people in better touch with their subconscious reasoning power? Or do they just have bigger brains?
So, from now on, if you ask a colleague a question, and they say, “I’ll get back to you on that,” maybe you should thank them for not thinking about your problem.
P.S. Thanks to Ann Althouse for the link. Writing as a law professor, she applies this study to her field in a fascinating way:
What does this (study) say about judicial decisionmaking? Judges take in a lot of information. They make a decision and must put their reasons in a piece of writing that we sometimes casually call the “decision,” but we know they can’t transcribe their actual decision. You can try to reconstruct how you made a complex decision, but you can’t really even know the answer yourself. That’s one of the reasons it’s so endlessly fascinating to read judicial opinions. You know the real reasons exist at some deeper level, no matter how forthright the judge is.
Let’s face this fact: Appellate judges probably know what decision they want to render, and then find the citations to justify it. They will all say their decisions are rooted in the law and the constitution. How could they call themselves judges if they didn’t believe that? But it’s their gut that drives them. That’s why appellate court decisions are only occasionally unanimous.
If this kind of research becomes commonly accepted wisdom, maybe all job interviews and judicial confirmation processes will become efforts to probe the applicants’ subconscious mind.
I’d also be curious to hear what marketing/PR people think about this study. Perhaps it confirms Edward Bernays’ original conception of public relations as propaganda — social science and psychology applied to the art of subtle persuasion. To boost sales, or get votes, don’t try to reason with people. Approach their subconscious minds, and do your persuading there.