Conscious Thought Leads to Better Decisions

From Eurekalert, a press release titled, “Complex decision? Don’t sleep on it”:

Neither snap judgements nor sleeping on a problem are any better than conscious thinking for making complex decisions, according to new research.

The finding debunks a controversial 2006 research result asserting that unconscious thought is superior for complex decisions, such as buying a house or car. If anything, the new study suggests that conscious thought leads to better choices.

Since its publication two years ago by a Dutch research team in the journal Science, the earlier finding had been used to encourage decision-makers to make “snap” decisions (for example, in the best-selling book Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell) or to leave complex choices to the powers of unconscious thought (“Sleep on it”, Dijksterhuis et al., Science, 2006).

At stake in these conscious/unconscious thought experiments (literally) is a wider philosophical argument about the value of intuition and hunches. We want to think that hunches produce better decisions, and have been taught since we were children that this is an intelligent way to approach reality (“Use the Force, Luke”.) However, it ain’t so. Though hunches may be useful for simple decisions, like when to swing a bat to hit a ball, conscious thought appears to be superior for complex decisions, the ones that really matter.

It appears that the mysteriousness of unconscious thought may be part of its appeal. However, I find that conscious thought can be as mysterious as unconscious thought. Underlying every conscious thought is a bedrock of unconscious beliefs and assumptions. Only through deliberate questioning can we methodically dig up these beliefs and question them for accuracy and relevance. Without regular housekeeping, things can get pretty messy down there. The great project of analyzing our beliefs with conscious thought is far more interesting than the plug-and-play autonomicity and quick fix of unconscious thought.

Some arguments for the infeasibility of AI rest on the supposed mysteriousness and power of unconscious thought. But as I mention, conscious thoughts rest on unconscious ones, so this mysteriousness and power are still retained in consciousness. All that aside, cognition is way less mysterious than it was a few decades ago, and now we know a tremendous amount about the mind. It’s only a matter of time before its structure becomes understood, just like our place in the cosmos, interactions between chemicals, the behavior of electromagnetic fields, and thousands of other phenomena that were once baffling but are now taught in High School.

Of course, investigating the structure of thought in greater detail and coming to understand it may frustrate people like Douglas Hofstadter, who would lose respect for humanity if we come to learn too much about ourselves too soon. According to Hofstadter, reaching the goal of AI in a few decades would make him “fear that our minds and souls were not deep”.

Such spiritualistic language in reference to the human mind only discourages level-headed research and objective question-asking.

Comments

  1. BillK

    I prefer a bit of both.

    Conscious thought first.
    Gather all the evidence, lay out all the options, think about preferences, do a spreadsheet, do several ‘what if?’ runs, get costings, do feasibility checks, etc.

    Then sleep on it to get the initial excitement out of your system (and possibly let your subconscious chew it over).

    Then decide the next day.

  2. Having trouble with this one, Michael…

    Are you saying the unconscious should be disregarded? Or spirituality should be? Or labeling structures as mysterious is bad?

    Hmmmm…

    I do see you making a link between the unconscious and spirituality, which might be interesting to explore at a deeper level. I’d like to hear your thoughts on that.

  3. Conscious, unconscious, and immediate decisions are all useless if the mechanism itself is untrained. With proper training, they can become highly effective in the appropriate settings.

    You don’t use a wrench when you need a hammer, do you?

    There is no one perfect, “superior”, method of decision-making.

  4. Michael,

    I’m not saying that the unconscious should be disregarded, just that it shouldn’t be worshipped as it historically has been. I’m not sure about “spirituality”, depends on how it is defined.

    I’m not saying anything too deep about unconscious thoughts and spirituality, just that the two are linked in the minds of the public, and this finding shows that we should question the usefulness of unconscious thought in complex decisions.

    Ian,

    This finding does indeed suggest that conscious thought may be “superior” to unconscious thought for complex decisions, like renting an apartment or buying a car.

  5. This finding does indeed suggest that conscious thought may be “superior” to unconscious thought for complex decisions, like renting an apartment or buying a car.

    I’m always amazed at how often research has to be performed to determine that water is, indeed, wet. :)

    Of course, I highly doubt that conscious thought is very good at determining what one’s actual values are or how one might genuinely respond emotionally to any given situation; (latter being invaluable to the evaluation of new information.)

    Essentially, what I’m saying is that you have to use the kind of thought for the appropriate function. If you try to brute-force it through with nothing but conscious thought from the earliest of stages you will find yourself paralyzed and effete — in my opinion.

    Intuition is mostly useful when in the hands of experienced/trained professionals when needing to make immediate and necessary calls on things such as, “which part of this pipe will blow up first?” — which is something that conscious thought simply isn’t well suited for, yet still qualifies as a decision.

    I’m sure you are also familiar with the degrading effects of “second guessing” yourself, etcetera, when it comes to information recall.

    Like I said; different tools, different problems. :)

  6. Ah, you’ve convinced me a little more. Still, I think unconscious thought gets too much credit, in general.

  7. The unconscious and conscious minds work in tandem to achieve good thinking; though it is true that the unconscious mind receives far too much credit.

    We learn for that we can automotize knowledge and then learn more knowledge. Right now, my subconscious can spit out the answer to a basic math problems (which allows me to learn more advance math on that foundation); it does most of my walking and driving (for I can carry a conversations and see were I’m going); and lets me type up this comment (for I can better think on what I am saying.)

    There is a certain truth to intuition and “gut-feelings”; but there is also a great deal of fiction.

    A properly trained subconscious can give us useful information (a veteran detective, for instance, can ‘know’ if a person is lying to him based on nuances of behavior that he has grown to recognize; which has been fully automotized into ‘gut-feelings.’)

    But I don’t think these “revelations” come from an almost mystical sub-brain which is toiling away without the conscious brains knowledge.

  8. BillK

    There is a new report in Scientific American:
    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=how-snoozing-makes-you-smarter&print=true

    Sleep on It: How Snoozing Makes You Smarter
    During slumber, our brain engages in data analysis, from strengthening memories to solving problems.

    The latest research suggests that while we are peacefully asleep our brain is busily processing the day’s information. It combs through recently formed memories, stabilizing, copying and filing them, so that they will be more useful the next day. A night of sleep can make memories resistant to interference from other information and allow us to recall them for use more effectively the next morning. And sleep not only strengthens memories, it also lets the brain sift through newly formed memories, possibly even identifying what is worth keeping and selectively maintaining or enhancing these aspects of a memory. When a picture contains both emotional and unemotional elements, sleep can save the important emotional parts and let the less relevant background drift away. It can analyze collections of memories to discover relations among them or identify the gist of a memory while the unnecessary details fade—perhaps even helping us find the meaning in what we have learned.
    ———–

    So this report says ‘sleeping on it’ is a good idea.

  9. Khannea Suntzu

    You don’t need to look far and wide for the flattery brigade. If you wiggle your hands and hum you might be psychic! I mean – *talented* and a *valuable human being*.

    This whole thinking without effort business is just regular instant gratification that has saturated our society. It’s an Ophra-esque bullshit “new age” empowerment orgy intent on making dumb and useless people feel valuable.

    Real thinking takes effort. I know because I tried and failed. I tried study philosophy and it WAS JUST TOO HARD for me, and I *seriously* tried to kickstart my subconscious by sleeping long every morning. Didn’t work. I flunked.

  10. Khannea;

    Stick with the different tools for different problems thing. :)

    Also, as a side note — do you know what kind of learner you are? There are at least six that I am aware of. Secondarily, how much success have you had with developing a cognitive memory architecture? (Personally, I haven’t had much… but then, I also haven’t tried much.)

    I only throw these things out there because it occurs to me that we as humans are really not even close to utilizing the most effective means possible for developing robustly our in-grained cognitive capacities. I find it entirely unacceptable that we as people seem to believe that it’s perfectly okay to let our brains “just rot” without any training regimens, yet we talk all the time about how our bodies need to be fit.

    People such as yourself, I suspect, are the ones who suffer the most from this: you have (or, at least, *had*) the desire to augment your cognitive architecture (“get smarter”) but you were limited by the limited and conflicting toolsets available to the common populace.

    I mean, you wouldn’t expect an endomorph to be an olympic runner or triathlete; you wouldn’t expect an ectomorph to be a shotputter. Why do people think that our minds are homogeneous in their talents?

  11. My heart broke when they zoomed in on Nando’s face at the beginning with the match. He looked so sad. I honestly imagined he’d come in after the 70th minute or so. I’d love for him to see some action in Munich.

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