February 21, 2006
Let Subconscious Handle Complex Decision Making?

Conscious analysis of problems works best for simpler problems. But for more complex problems it may be best to absorb the facts and then distract your conscious mind while giving the subconscious time to work out the best choice.

One group was given four minutes to pick a favourite car from a list having weighed up four attributes including fuel consumption and legroom.

The other group was given a series of puzzles to keep their conscious selves busy before making a decision.

The conscious thought group managed to pick the best car based on four aspects around 55% of the time, while the unconscious thought group only chose the right one 40% of the time.

But when the experiment was made more complex by bringing in 12 attributes to weigh up, the conscious thought group's success rate fell to around 23% as opposed to nearly 60% for the unconscious thought group.

A large number of facts can exceed the conscious mind's capacity to analyse them.

Instead, the scientists conclude, the best strategy is to gather all of the relevant information -- such as the price, the number of bathrooms, the age of the roof -- and then put the decision out of mind for a while.

Then, when the time comes to decide, go with what feels right. ''It is much better to follow your gut," said Ap Dijksterhuis, a professor of psychology at the University of Amsterdam, who led the research.

For relatively simple decisions, he said, it is better to use the rational approach. But the conscious mind can consider only a few facts at a time. And so with complex decisions, he said, the unconscious appears to do a better job of weighing the factors and arriving at a sound conclusion.

Dijksterhuis thinks the subconscious is doing a lot of work outside of the awareness of the conscious mind.

Dijksterhuis and his team also propose that, although we are unaware of it, our brains are churning through the mass of information involved in a complex decision and sifting out the best option.

The study ties in with a growing trend in psychology research over the past 15 years, suggesting that our unconscious mind is more important than we once thought. "A lot of complicated processes occur without our being aware of it," says Daniel Kahneman, an authority on decision making at Princeton University, New Jersey.

I wonder whether people with higher levels of intelligence have higher thresholds of complexity of problems before it makes sense to let their subconscious handle a problem.

Too much conscious thought reduces the brain's capacity to analyse complicated problems.

Prof Dijksterhuis said: "Your brain is capable of juggling lots of facts and possibilities at the same time when you let it work without specifically thinking about the decision. But when you are specifically thinking about a problem, your brain isn't able to weigh up as much information. I sit on things and rely on my gut."

Whether the conscious mind does best will also depend on the nature of the problem. For example, I doubt the subconscious can compete with the conscious mind when a problem requires mathematical analysis.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 February 21 09:03 PM  Brain Enhancement


Comments
Ivan Kirigin said at February 22, 2006 11:22 AM:

I'm reading a fun productivity-boosting book called "getting things done". A large part of it is about getting a system to move all the stuff you need to do out of your head and into an objective, physical storage system.

Repeatedly, the book gives anecdotes about people experiencing waves of inspiration and new ideas after getting all their work out of their heads. I'm sure it is somewhat related.

Also, another folk meme of "sleeping on it" before making a big decision probably comes from a similar effect.

Anthony Kendall said at February 22, 2006 6:18 PM:

Very interesting research! I'll keep this in mind in the future.

Jim said at February 23, 2006 7:53 AM:

cool, so there may be a legitimate benefit to surfing the web at work!?

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