The answer to a difficult problem or decision comes to you after a good night’s sleep. You realize a different way to approach a challenging task after going for a run in the park or after seeing a movie with a friend. You remember where you put your keys hours after you’ve given up looking for them.
Sound familiar? These examples are all part of the human condition—the result of the unconscious mind at work.
In her article last month for Psychiatry Advisor, Tafari Mbadiwe, M.D., J.D., revisited an experiment done at Nijmegen University in The Netherlands to illuminate her own discussion of how humans make decisions. More specifically, she examined how the conscious and unconscious minds are used in everyday problem solving. To begin her discussion, Mbadiwe examined a set of experiments done in The Netherlands almost 10 years ago—the results of which, she said, set “academic circles . . . abuzz . . . [because] the studies had produced some curious findings.
According to Mbadiwe, the experiments were done on two groups of students in post-secondary studies. Each applicant was asked to choose the better of two versions of an item they might purchase in real life. The items were “common consumer products” in addition to higher priced purchases—such as a car or apartment. Both groups of participants received the same information about the product before making their choice. However, some students were “given data about a greater number of attributes” of the products Mbadiwe explained.
The results showed that the study participants made better choices and “more frequently selected the superior item” if, prior to making a decision, they were provided with time away from the test situation. “They were subjected to a period of what is known as deliberation without attention,” wrote Mbadiwe.
The students were given such brainteasers as word searches and anagrams to solve for a few minutes. Thus, by focusing on something else instead of fixating only on the assigned problem, “the quality of their decision making improved”. In fact, “the effect seemed to become more pronounced as the complexity of the scenario increased,” she wrote.
Fast-forward a decade, and the discussion of the tangled relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind continues. “When making complex decisions that require us to weigh multiple factors, some researchers believe we can benefit from learning to combine our conscious deliberations with unconscious processing,” explained Rose Hoare in her article for CNN.com. The conscious mind, by comparison, is of “low capacity”, she continued.
Hoare referred to the Theory of Unconscious Thought, the work of Ap Dijksterhuis and Loran F. Nordgren from the University of Amsterdam’s Social Psychology Program. In their research, Dijksterhuis and Nordgren presented their theory about human thinking as it applies to decision making and problem solving, called the Unconscious-Thought Theory (UTT).
The theory “distinguishes between two modes of thought: unconscious and conscious,” they wrote. “For instance, contrary to popular belief, decisions about simple issues can be better tackled by conscious thought, whereas decisions about complex matters can be better approached with unconscious thought."
Hoare explained that according to the UTT, the strength of the conscious mind is in its ability to arrange information according to “rules, and performing precision maneuvers such as those involved with arithmetic”. The unconscious mind, by comparison is able to synthesize “large amounts of information, and [privilege] important considerations over trivial ones”.
The results from the two groups of college students support the Unconscious-Thought Theory—illustrating how the unconscious mind continues to analyze and synthesize even when its conscious focus is distracted or relaxed.
The results from the two groups of college students . . . “stands in stark contrast to what (we think) we know about thinking and problem solving,” Mbadiwe continued. Like members of the medical profession, more specifically—novice professionals--who are called upon to make snap decisions—based solely on “consciously considering the problem”, she suggested that most people have to make high-risk, complex decisions without an opportunity to allow input from the unconscious mind.
“If we could improve decisions simply by replacing conscious deliberation with a brief period of distraction, it would represent a great--and essentially costless--step forward for us,” she said.
Leonard Mlodinow, American theoretical physicist, followed the studies of professionals and scientists with his 2012 publication, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. In it, Mlodinow explained the “two-tiered brain”—a term he coined to explain the relationship between the unconscious and conscious mind. Without realizing it, humans “are constantly shifting back and forth between [the two states],” he said.
In her blog article for HuffPost (UK), anxiety expert Chloe Brotheridge suggested the importance of allowing the conscious brain to “let go” before making an important decision. Anxiety about making the wrong decision, or feeling overwhelmed by the details of both sides of a decision can lead to a standstill.
“I suggest that you go for a walk and get outside to reconnect with nature. If that's not available to you right now, then have an early night tonight. 'Sleeping on it' will help,” Brotheridge wrote. “The aim is to get in a relaxed state then you can hear your inner voice and you can choose, and it will be the right choice.”
Brotheridge, C., (September 28, 2015). HuffPost (UK). Four Ways to Help Decision Making Anxiety. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/chloe-brotheridge/four-ways-to-help-decision-making-anxiety_b_8195830.html
Dijksterhuis, A., & Nordgren, L.F., (2006). University of Amsterdam. A Theory of Unconscious Thought. http://www.alice.id.tue.nl/references/dijksterhuis-nordgren-2006.pdf
Hoare, R., (August 28, 2012). CNN.com. Got a big decision to make? Sleep on ithttps://www.cnn.com/2012/08/27/business/unconscious-mind-sleep-decision/index.html
Mbadiwe, T., M.D., J.D., (December 15, 2017). Psychiatry Advisor. Making a Decision: Using Conscious vsUnconscious Thinking to Solve the Problem. https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/opinion/conscious-vs-unconscious-problem-solving/article/718200/
Smith, J.E., (Retrieved January 29, 2018). PsychCentral.com. Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. https://psychcentral.com/lib/subliminal-how-your-unconscious-mind-rules-your-behavior/