Can the Unconscious Outperform the Conscious Mind?

There’s an interesting article on Psyblog offering evidence that powerful claims for unconscious thought in complex decision-making are overblown.

A team at the University of New South Wales and the University of Essex, writing in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, describe four separate experiments searching for the fabled power of unconscious thought (Newell et al., 2009). One of these was a straight replication of Dijksterhuis’ study and the other three were variations on the theme. All four experiments pointed towards the same conclusion:

"In stark contrast to the claims in the literature and the media we found very little evidence of the superiority of unconscious thought for complex decisions." (Newell et al., 2009; p.19).

Indeed in more naturalistic conditions conscious thought was sometimes superior to unconscious thought.

Two other recent papers published in the journal Judgement and Decision Making also failed to find the purported benefit for unconscious thought. Acker (2008) analysed the results of 17 attempted replications of the unconscious thought effect. These studies showed that it was conscious thought that was most effective in complex decision-making and indeed unconscious thought tended to muddy the waters.

I haven’t read "Blink," which is the book whose evidence is being challenged here, so I can’t say whether its premise is overstated, but there does seem to be a trend of over-simplification of complex issues to fit a neat thesis, as evidenced by criticism of books such as The Long Tail and Free.

But in general, I find in my own practice that the power of mindfulness is that it allows us to check out the validity of hunches, intuitions, and gut feelings, which aren’t necessarily to be relied on.

3 thoughts on “Can the Unconscious Outperform the Conscious Mind?”

  1. That’s interesting. Would say my experience with what I have thought of as intuition seems to be mostly unreliable. But then again I think that the word ‘intuition’ can sometimes be used to point to do a sort of deeper wisdom – being in touch with a more complete sense of experience – and that seems to be much more reliable (and ignored at my own peril!). Do you think this research would lump the ‘deeper wisdom’ in with hunches and intuition?
    (Am also curious about what this would mean for things like hypnotism – or is that something different to what the research is looking at?)

    1. Maybe it depends on what you mean by intuition. To me it’s any knowledge delivered to the mind through feelings, which includes a lot of day to day stuff, like knowing that another person is upset (that’s not something we work out logically), or having a sense as we leave the house that there’s something we’ve forgotten. I find intuition is often accurate and useful. I use it a lot in my writing — for example I’m reading over a draft of something I’ve written and I notice a sense of awkwardness, and that gives me an opportunity to look closer at the writing and see why that is — perhaps a poor choice of words or an idea poorly expressed. And that’s an example of intuition telling me there’s something to pay attention to, and then I can check it out on a more conscious level. I think one way intuition can go wrong is when we start inventing stories to explain why we feel what we feel, rather than checking things out. So, often people will be absolutely certain that they know what someone else is thinking or what their motivations are in doing something — and of course this isn’t something we can directly know. We can guess, and sometimes we may be right, but it’s the kind of thing we need to check out. I guess that’s an example of where we can over-think. People call that kind of “mindreading” intuition, and of course that’s often highly inaccurate. Or we look at a menu and we have a feeling that there are certain things on it that we will like and others that we won’t like, even though we’ve never tried the foods. But unless there’s something reliable to go on — like we really hate broccoli — I find those kinds of “intuitions” aren’t very reliable and it’s worth experimenting.

      That’s an interesting question about what the scope of the study is. I doubt the researchers allowed for the possibility of any kind of deeper wisdom and the example given, although unclear in its details, seems very mundane. I’d imagine they would lump all kinds of intuition together, but that’s just mindreading on my part and so I really don’t know.

      And I’m also not sure about hypnotism. Actually I’m not sure what you mean by the question…

  2. Well, to start with – I don’t even understand my own question about hypnotherapy now that a few days have passed. I think maybe I was thinking about how hypontherapy can affect craving/behaviour – the decision or not to have a cigarette, say, if you’re getting hypnotherapy to give up smoking. Anyway, perhaps a bit oblique.
    I liked your definition of intuiton – about knowledge delivered to the mind through feelings. That’s a more satisfying way of looking at it (to me).

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