"Let's Just Sleep On It Tonight"

Friday, June 23, 2006

By Wray Herbert

You have some decisions to make. You must let your travel agent know if you will be vacationing in the hills of Tuscany or at a Jamaican beach resort. You also have to choose between those two job offers you’ve just received: A sales job and a government position each has its own appeal. Three people--Chuck, Kate and David--have all expressed interest in being your new roommate. And while you’re at it, what’s for dinner tonight, pasta primavera or swordfish? Oh, and you need to decide all these things right now.

Well, you simply can’t do it. It’s too much. You can only think about one big thing at a time realistically, and each of these decisions has so many variables to weigh. Your mind’s awhirl: sunburn, Euros, hijacking, 401-K, cubicles, squalid bathroom, rap music, calories, fresh basil, omega fatty acids. So what do you do with all this information? You throw your up your hands and flip on Playstation.

As odd as it sounds, this may be your wisest strategy. After half an hour of Grand Theft Auto, you suddenly drop the controller, shake your head, and there it is, clear as could be: Tuscany, sales, Kate, pasta. Effortlessly, it seems, you have made four complex decisions, and you know--know!--in your gut that these are all the right choices.

Some might say that you punted on your responsibilities. Psychologists would argue that you let your unconscious do the difficult work of sorting through plusses and minuses. Ab Dijksterhuis and Loran Nordgren of the University of Amsterdam have conducted a long series of experiments comparing conscious and unconscious thinking, and their experimental evidence adds up to the conclusion that the unconscious is often superior to the rational, conscious mind.

Many of the experiments use the same basic approach as this one: People were given 12 bits of information about four different apartments and asked to make a choice. Some had to decide immediately, with no time for analysis. Others were asked to reason the problem through, while still others were distracted for a while, then asked for their choice. This last group was presumed to be thinking unconsciously, while distracted. The real life equivalent might be playing Grand Theft Auto, or otherwise "sleeping on it." Dijksterhuis and Nordgren had designed the experiment so that there was a clear best apartment to choose, and the unconscious thinkers consistently arrived at that choice more often than the others. They repeated this experiment with roommates and other similar life choices, and the results were always the same.

(Before you protest, yes, people are idiosyncratic and sure, someone might prefer a slob for a roommate or a home without AC. There are deeply disturbed apartment hunters out there. But Dijksterhuis and Nordgren anticipated this, and in another experiment proved that unconscious thinkers arrive at the optimal choice for them, as defined by their personal tastes.)

What’s more, the experiments reveal why the unconscious mind might be superior to the conscious mind for many decisions. One of the most compelling explanations, as spelled out in the June issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, is simple capacity. The conscious mind is very good at some things, like following clear rules. In fact, it’s superior in applying concrete rules: If it’s a hard and fast rule that you can pay no more than $1745 a month for an apartment, you don’t need your unconscious mind to intervene. But the conscious mind cannot handle many bits of information at one time, unlike the unconscious, which has a huge capacity for information processing.

Because of its limited capacity, the conscious mind defaults to certain ways of thinking that aren’t always ideal. For example, the researchers found that—contrary to common wisdom—the conscious mind is more likely than the unconscious to deal in stereotypes. That’s because stereotypes are efficient and readily available when there is too much information to process. The scientists found that conscious thinkers, even though they felt like they were reasoning through a mass of information, in fact were selectively cherry-picking the information that confirmed distortions they already had in mind. Put another way, they couldn’t help “jumping to conclusions.”

Why? Well, for one thing, the unconscious mind appears to make better use of memory. Consider Jeroen. Jeroen is a hypothetical man with 18 traits: Six of the traits have to do with his intelligence, six with his idealism, and six with his outgoing personality. When Jeroen was described to the participants, his traits were listed randomly. But when they were asked to recall as much as they could about him, the unconscious thinkers were much more likely to have the traits clustered in their memory—all the indicators of intelligence together, and so forth. The unconscious mind had organized the 18 traits, whereas the conscious thinkers’ recollections were random. Such consolidation would obviously help with practical decisions as well, like choosing a vacation spot.

There is much that remains to be learned about the unconscious, Dijksterhuis and Nordgren quickly concede. For example, it’s not at all clear why the unconscious chooses to deliver its intuitive judgments when it does. The experiments had time constraints, but in real life things sometimes percolate an hour, sometimes overnight, sometimes a week. And what’s the best kind of distraction? It may indeed be playing video games or something equally “mindless,” or perhaps sleep is the best incubator. And how do we ready ourselves for the summary judgment from the churning unconscious mind? We don't know. One famous physicist summarized the creative opportunity as “bed, bath and bus.”

What is clear from this extensive research is that people are often handicapping themselves in life. The more important and complex a decision, the more people tend to study and analyze and deconstruct its every nuance--or try to. Despite the natural appeal of this approach, in fact it seems to hinder the kind of holistic thinking that works best. As Dijksterhuis and Nordgren conclude: “As decision makers, people are bad managers of their own minds. They behave like a conference organizer who asks the janitor to deliver the keynote address and the highly accomplished professor to fold up the chairs.”

For more insights into human nature, visit the Association for Psychological Science website at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 12:35 PM