Marketing Leadership May 1, 2009

Too Con­scious to Decide?

Uncon­scious eval­u­a­tion enhances com­plex deci­sion making

Based on the research of

Ap Dijksterhuis

Maarten Bos

Loran Nordgren

Rick van Baaren

For cen­turies, humans have been think­ing about think­ing. In the ear­ly 1600s, Rene Descartes famous­ly assert­ed cog­i­to ergo sum, I think, there­fore I am.” In the late sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, John Locke was among the first to write about con­scious­ness. But while phi­los­o­phy books are thick with such exquis­ite reflec­tions on human cog­ni­tion, we are left to spec­u­late as to whether Descartes’ rumi­na­tions helped him reli­ably choose good bot­tles of wine, or if Locke’s delib­er­a­tions left him sat­is­fied with the shoes he decid­ed to wear. Recent research by Loran Nord­gren (Man­age­ment & Orga­ni­za­tions) and his col­leagues Ap Dijk­ster­huis, Maarten Bos, and Rick van Baaren of Rad­boud Uni­ver­si­ty Nijmegen adds some sur­pris­ing insights to our under­stand­ing of thought and its influ­ence on deci­sion mak­ing. Pub­lished in Sci­ence, the work high­lights the val­ue of uncon­scious thought, sug­gest­ing that when it comes to com­plex deci­sions, many of our best choic­es are made in the absence of atten­tive delib­er­a­tion. Con­trary to con­ven­tion­al wis­dom, there are times when we might be bet­ter off toss­ing the spread­sheets with lists of pros and cons and just switch­ing on autopilot.

I’m inter­est­ed in the bound­aries of uncon­scious process­es in the mind,” said Nord­gren. We read­i­ly accept that most behav­ior is dri­ven by men­tal events that we have no access to. Our heart beats. We pick up a cup or type on a key­board. All are com­pli­cat­ed tasks, but we have no idea how they hap­pen. It takes place in a black box; we have no access to it.”

But we imag­ine that those uncon­scious process­es stop at basic behav­ior,” he con­tin­ued, that more com­plex, high­er-order process­es are sure­ly dri­ven by our con­scious selves. Whether to mar­ry, what job to take, are these the prod­ucts of con­scious machi­na­tions of the mind, or process­es that we have no access to? It doesn’t need to be a pure dichoto­my. But dom­i­nant think­ing hasn’t been open to this idea.”

Arthur Schopen­hauer is thought to have been the first to pro­pose uncon­scious thought, writ­ing in the mid-1800s that per­haps half of all thought occurs with­out us ever know­ing about it. But while thoughts about thought have evolved across gen­er­a­tions, one belief in par­tic­u­lar has remained rel­a­tive­ly wide­spread and unchanged: to make sound deci­sions, peo­ple must con­scious­ly, delib­er­ate­ly, weigh their options. Nord­gren and his col­leagues are chal­leng­ing that belief.

What is con­scious­ness good for?” asked Nord­gren. Lots of ani­mals make com­plex eval­u­a­tions like we do. Some peo­ple grant ani­mals con­scious­ness, but many oth­ers don’t. So my sus­pi­cion is that con­scious­ness, intro­spec­tion, while very unique, may not do all that we think it does.”

Con­scious Delib­er­a­tion has Limitations

Nord­gren and his col­leagues cau­tion against a one-size-fits-all strat­e­gy toward deci­sion mak­ing. Con­scious deci­sion mak­ing cer­tain­ly has its advan­tages and is not with­out its place. Math, for exam­ple, can­not be per­formed with­out pay­ing close atten­tion, because con­scious­ness goes hand in hand with pre­cise, rule-based think­ing. Thus, humankind’s stun­ning advances in fields like sci­ence and engi­neer­ing depend on healthy dos­es of con­scious cal­cu­la­tion. How­ev­er, the researchers’ results indi­cate that con­scious­ness has lim­it­ed capac­i­ty, and only a frac­tion of the rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion can be con­sid­ered for very com­plex deci­sions. More­over, con­scious delib­er­a­tion has been shown to inflate the impor­tance of cer­tain fea­tures at the expense of oth­ers, dis­tort­ing the outcomes.

Explained Nord­gren, Con­scious thought is like a spot­light on a deci­sion. It illu­mi­nates very bright­ly, but only a par­tic­u­lar, nar­row aspect of the prob­lem. It has very lim­it­ed pro­cess­ing capac­i­ty. Uncon­scious thought, on the oth­er hand, is more like a child’s night light, cast­ing a dim light on the entire deci­sion space with­out focus­ing in on any one par­tic­u­lar thing.”

Recent stud­ies show that in cer­tain cas­es, peo­ple who make such night light” deci­sions with­out invest­ing too much con­scious thought come to more sat­is­fy­ing con­clu­sions. Alter­na­tive­ly, con­sis­tent sat­is­fac­tion with choic­es has been shown to suf­fer if too much spot­light” atten­tion is paid to the deci­sion-mak­ing process. Inspired by this grow­ing body of research, Nord­gren and his col­leagues pro­pose their delib­er­a­tion-with­out-atten­tion” hypoth­e­sis. As the name sug­gests, this attempts to describe our abil­i­ty to mull options and make deci­sions with­out aware­ness that we are doing so.

The authors pre­dict­ed that the com­plex­i­ty of a deci­sion would dic­tate whether a con­scious or uncon­scious strat­e­gy of thought should be employed. To explore the rela­tion­ships among these vari­ables, the researchers con­duct­ed a series of exper­i­ments, each of which involved peo­ple con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly mak­ing sim­ple or com­plex decisions.

The researchers first asked sev­er­al dozen peo­ple to pre­tend they were car shop­ping. Half of the par­tic­i­pants read brief descrip­tions of four cars that were con­sid­ered sim­ple,” because only four fea­tures were dis­cussed. Some fea­tures were good (e.g., The Dasu­ka has good mileage”), oth­ers bad (e.g., The Kai­wa has lit­tle legroom”). The sec­ond half of the par­tic­i­pants read about four cars that were com­plex,” because twelve fea­tures were dis­cussed instead of a mere four. In each list of cars, one car was described pos­i­tive­ly on 75 per­cent of its fea­tures, two cars were good and bad in equal mea­sure, and one car was described neg­a­tive­ly for 75 per­cent of its features.

Half of the par­tic­i­pants in each group were then asked to think intent­ly about the cars in antic­i­pa­tion of even­tu­al­ly rat­ing them. The oth­er half were told that they, too, would have to even­tu­al­ly rate the cars, but they were then imme­di­ate­ly dis­tract­ed and asked to solve word puz­zles in order to pre­vent them from con­scious­ly reflect­ing on trans­mis­sions, stereo sys­tems, and oth­er car fea­tures. After four min­utes of con­tem­pla­tion or word games, peo­ple were asked to pick one, favorite car, or to rank all four cars on a scale rang­ing from very neg­a­tive” to very positive.”

Uncon­scious Deci­sions Have an Edge in Com­plex Problems

The results were clear. Con­scious delib­er­a­tion helped iden­ti­fy good cars when the cars were rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple. How­ev­er, when the cars were more com­plex, the dis­tract­ed peo­ple made the bet­ter choic­es. They iden­ti­fied the best cars even though their deci­sion-mak­ing process took place below the radar” of their con­scious atten­tion as they wres­tled with word games.

Encour­aged but still curi­ous, Nord­gren and his col­leagues want­ed to push their delib­er­a­tion-with­out-atten­tion hypoth­e­sis fur­ther. He asked, How well does this extend out­side the lab?”

Know­ing that a make-believe shop­ping spree does not nec­es­sar­i­ly tell us how life’s real deci­sions are made, the team asked peo­ple to rank forty actu­al prod­ucts accord­ing to the num­ber of key fea­tures they would con­sid­er when buy­ing each item. Cars and com­put­ers topped the list, aver­ag­ing around five to nine impor­tant fea­tures, while umbrel­las and dish­wash­ing brush­es were sim­plest, hav­ing only one to three influ­en­tial fea­tures. Oth­er peo­ple were then asked about items on the list that they actu­al­ly bought: How much did you think about the prod­uct between see­ing it for the first time and buy­ing it? How sat­is­fied are you with the product?”

Echo­ing the lab-based study of car buy­ers, these real find­ings showed that cus­tomers who focused intent­ly on a pur­chase were more sat­is­fied when they bought sim­ple objects. Com­plex items were enjoyed most by those who did not put a lot of con­scious thought into the decision.

The authors arrived at sim­i­lar results when they inter­viewed shop­pers from two stores: Bijenko­rf, a Dutch store that sells clothes and small acces­sories, and IKEA, a Swedish pur­vey­or of home fur­nish­ings. When con­tact­ed sev­er­al weeks lat­er, cus­tomers were more sat­is­fied with their pur­chas­es of com­plex prod­ucts such as sofas and desks when they uncon­scious­ly arrived at their deci­sions, and cus­tomers were hap­pi­er with their pur­chas­es of sim­ple prod­ucts such as tow­els and deter­gent when they made their deci­sions consciously.

Hav­ing val­i­dat­ed the the­o­ry both in the lab and in the field, Nord­gren is enthu­si­as­tic about the poten­tial to apply this research. We have con­sumer data,” he said, but we want more than that. Dif­fer­ent lev­els of expe­ri­ence and exper­tise may be impor­tant in dif­fer­ent ways. We’re now work­ing on med­ical deci­sion mak­ing, look­ing at exec­u­tive deci­sion making.”

He con­tin­ued, Usu­al­ly, research about deci­sion mak­ing is descrip­tive. But there’s a pre­scrip­tive aspect to this work. How do you go about mak­ing a good deci­sion? For uncon­scious thought to work, it needs to be goal direct­ed. You need to form an inten­tion to work on a prob­lem, and then divert atten­tion else­where. It’s all about inten­tion and trust. Form the inten­tion to work on the prob­lem, and then trust the part of you to work on it.”

Featured Faculty

Loran Nordgren

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Brad Wible is with the Office of Research, Kellogg School of Management

About the Research

Dijksterhuis, Ap, Maarten W. Bos, Loran F. Nordgren, Rick B. van Baaren (2006) “On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect,” Science, February,  311(5763): 1005-1007.

Read the original

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