When our unconscious minds make better decisions than our conscious ones

The most important thing mindfulness can teach us is that we aren’t always aware of what’s going on in our minds. No matter how well we train our minds or how much we practice mindfulness, there will be thoughts and influences on our behavior that we simply can’t be aware of as they happen.

One of the most famous studies in the arena of unconscious influences on behavior is the famous “Warm Hands, Warm Heart” project that was widely reported in the popular press because the findings seemed so impossible: People who held a hot cup of coffee rated a stranger as being more generous and caring than people who held an iced cup of coffee. The fun dating tips people could report (take your date to the sauna! at least make sure they order the soup!) do not quite overcome the sense of disbelief that something so simple and so unimportant could have any influence over our behavior. It is at once fascinating and terrifying that so much could be going on in our minds without our awareness.

Some comfort comes from the knowledge that our unconscious minds can be quite helpful. I might not want my perceptions of a date or a new acquaintance to be unduly influenced by my choice of beverage that day (although fortunately for them, I tend to prefer hot coffee even in midsummer), but there are other decisions that I will happily leave to my unconscious mind. I’m probably better off leaving any complex decision to my unconscious mind, instead of trying to weigh all the pros and cons deliberately.

The fancy name for this is the “deliberation-without-attention effect“, or you could call it “insight” or “gut instinct”. Consider the challenge of deciding which of four cars to buy. In a real-world scenario, there may be a dozen different factors to consider: newness, mileage, environmental friendliness, legroom, sunroof, sound system, service options, and so on. There’s a lot of personal preference contributing to the “best” car in the real world, but researchers can set up more precise scenarios, where one car has 8 out of 12 “better” features (newer, or having the add-ons) the others only have 4 or 6. College students were presented with all of the features of these four cars, and then were allowed to either deliberate between the cars for 4 minutes, or distracted by solving anagrams for 4 minutes.

You’d think that the students who actually got to consider the cars would make the better decision, but actually they were far worse: Only 20% who actually got to think about the car options found the best car, while about 60% of those who occupied their conscious thoughts with something else did. Conscious deliberation fared better when the decisions were simpler, and students were only comparing 4 different features of the cars…but it still wasn’t actually better than the distracted students. The unconscious mind found the best car whether it was based on 4 features or 12, but the conscious mind seemed to get overloaded once there were more than 4 features of the cars to compare.

I have not yet had to buy a car, but I did spend several weeks choosing between three excellent graduate school offers. I had a spreadsheet listing all of the factors I could think of – location, expense, advisor, qualities of the research I would be doing – but in the end I could not tell you that this is the reason I picked my ultimate school, the University of Colorado, over the others. I was certain that it was the best choice for me – and I’m quite confident that I was right – but it took some time after the decision was made to come up with a pat answer for all those who asked why I picked that one. A complex decision, and every appearance of the unconscious mind at work.

The fact that thinking can happen without awareness, that better decisions might be made without awareness, does not necessarily mean mindfulness is a bad idea. If you know that your body temperature can influence your perception of other people, and you’re aware of bodily sensations like temperature (which most of us ignore until we get truly uncomfortable), you at least have a chance to recognize that your perceptions are being biased by your surroundings. Or if you know that complex decisions are best made by the unconscious mind, you can use mindfulness training to put those decisions out of your conscious awareness.

But I doubt that even the most intensive mindfulness regimen could let us actually feel these things as we happen; the unconscious mind will remain largely unconscious, and all we can hope to do is guess when unconscious processes might be at work.

Dijksterhuis, A., et al. (2006). On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect Science, 311, 1005-1007 DOI: 10.1126/science.1121629


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