This is the continuum most of us have in mind when we think about the decision process. I teach a decision-making session at Kellogg’s executive education program, and I start off by asking, “How do you approach decisions?” Without my having to bring it up, most people put themselves somewhere on this continuum. Most tend to be rationalists, but a sizable minority favor the intuitive approach.
But there’s actually a third way that we can think about decisions, a way that doesn’t neatly fit on this continuum. And this third way, at least in many situations, will lead to more innovative ideas and more effective solutions.
S+B: And that third way is...?
NORDGREN: It’s a combination of conscious and unconscious thinking. The processes of the mind can be divided up in a lot of different ways, but one very useful distinction is between conscious and unconscious mental processes. I often use an iceberg metaphor to describe the mind. Conscious processes are those that people observe, above the waterline. People can access them introspectively. For example, when writing a letter to someone and choosing a word, you are aware of your thinking process.
Below the waterline, there are many unconscious mental processes, such as those that regulate breathing, sensory perception, and the storage and retrieval of memory. These processes are part of you, but you’re really a stranger to them because you can’t observe them; you can’t communicate with them. You have no introspective access to them.
For a long time, scientists and philosophers viewed the conscious thought processes, above the surface of consciousness, as the really important stuff. They said that while basic behavior gets regulated behind the scenes, the things that make us uniquely human—the higher-order functions—are conscious, deliberative processes.
However, we know from contemporary neuroscience and cognitive science that a lot of things that were once thought to be higher-order functions are really unconscious. One example is learning. Suppose you got into a really contentious interaction, let’s say a fistfight, with a man who is an amnesiac—someone who can’t form new memories. When you meet him the next day, he will have no conscious awareness of you, no matter how hard you press him to remember, no matter how many times you say, “Have we met before?” But if we could measure his heart rate, or other relevant physical responses, we would see indicators of a sense of threat. The unconscious still remembers. It has coded the negative interaction.
There’s a fascinating literature called person perception: the study of how people evaluate others. You tend to do this very, very quickly—within minutes of meeting a person, you’ve already sized him or her up. More than 90 percent of the evaluations you make are based on just two dimensions. The first is your perception of people’s competence. Do they seem to know what they’re talking about? Are they on time and reliable? The second is warmth: essentially, how much do you like them? Elements like posture and all kinds of other things that you might say don’t matter to you will inform that judgment.
Value of Unconscious Thought
S+B: Doesn’t this depend on context? A shirttail being out could be evidence of slovenliness in one context, but evidence of genius in another.
NORDGREN: Absolutely. It’s very contextualized. Exuberant joy might seem like warmth in some contexts, but if you’re with a group of jaded hipsters, that kind of sincerity won’t be appreciated.
So Ap Dijksterhuis and I started wondering, if unconscious operations do so much mental heavy lifting, can we harness that power in the decision-making process? That initial insight led to our work on unconscious thought. We have concluded from our empirical studies that unconscious thought is always involved in decision-making processes. Even when your conscious attention is involved, the mental processing of information—evaluation, weighing, aggregation, consolidation, and so on—occurs while your conscious attention is directed elsewhere.