The Sunday Leader

Making A Decision The Unconscious Way

By Dr. Marcel de Roos – Psychologist, PhD

The unconcious thought process: a better one?

Recently, psychologists have turned their attention to the best way of making a decision. Why doesn’t thinking really help us to deal with complicated choices in order to make a decision?
We ponder and ponder at the best choice for buying a house or making an important career decision; making endless lists on pros and cons and having sleepless nights. We place the conscious mind on a pedestal and regard it as the crowning glory of evolution. We think it distinguishes us from other animals, it makes us sensible and rational and regard it as the foundation of our brain. We look upon our unconscious brain as the little helper of the conscious.

Nowadays, there is much research that suggests that our unconscious rules our conscious brain (with a processing capacity as 200,000 times bigger than the conscious mind). In a laboratory test situation, participants had to make a certain decision. MRI scanning revealed that it is not the conscious decision that comes first, but the brain activity needed to prepare the action: the unconscious. There are numerous experiments which show the supremacy of the unconscious on our opinions, on our behaviour, on the first impression we have and on taking decisions.

Take for example ‘priming’. With priming, certain knowledge is activated, for example in the form of a quality or a stereotype, without realising it. When in an experiment, subjects read words like aggressive, violent and mean, they subsequently regard persons as more aggressive than when they hadn’t read those words. In another experiment, subjects who were primed with words like ‘insolent’, acted more insolent than when they were primed with the word ‘polite’.

However, the effects of priming are short termed. With first impressions, it is about categorizing people in stereotypes: good-bad, man-woman, young-old, Western-Eastern. On this basis we activate our stereotypes, without knowing we pigeon-hole people. There might be some connection with the history of our species; our ancestors benefitted with a quick assessment whether somebody had bad intentions or not.

Recent studies have shown that decisions taken after an unconscious thought process are often of better quality than those which are taken after a conscious thought process. There are difficult and easy decisions. Most people don’t fret about the purchase of a CD or a coconut scraper. The choice will become more difficult when you have to buy a new car (many variables), you have to make a difficult management decision or you want to start a different career.

The general consent was that one has to think well and consciously before the purchase or decision was made and accurately weigh the pros and cons and a satisfying result is guaranteed. But the conscious mind cannot handle all the different factors needed for a complicated decision process. So it chooses two or three, usually the ones easiest to phrase. But these are not necessarily the most important ones, so it is not certain that the optimum decision is made. The unconscious mind has a much greater capacity and it can process all the needed information: collect all the information and look for some distraction. Do something you enjoy and sleep over it for a night. Put yourself on a deadline and let your unconscious mind decide.


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