Decisions and the Unconscious

by Site Author

A 1-liter bottle of oil costs $25 and a 3-liter bottle of oil costs $80. Which bottle should you buy? Well, if you need a lot of oil, then the 3-liter bottle comes at a lower cost per liter.

That’s a simple decision: it involves a comparison along only one dimension, price per liter. Complex decisions, in contrast, involve comparisons across many dimensions. The decision of what to order at a restaurant is complex: no simple arithmetic is definitive.

One ought to approach complex decisions differently than simple decisions. When handling simple decisions, conscious thought is all you need. But complex decisions are best left to the unconscious.

As Sigmund Freud put it: “When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters however… the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves.”

Freud’s take has since been put to the test. In 2006, Ap Dijksterhuis, a psychologist, wrote an article in Science that tested Freud’s theory. Dijksterhuis and his co-authors came up with a contrived setting in which participants in the experiment encountered both complex and simple decisions. The participants were presented with descriptions of hypothetical cars. In the “simple” descriptions, the cars were described based on only 4 attributes. In “complex” descriptions, the cars were described based on 12 attributes. But in either case, the researchers carefully wrote the descriptions so that one car was always better than the others.

Participants were instructed to read the descriptions carefully. Some participants were then randomly asked to consciously think about which car was best. Other participants were deliberately distracted. For four minutes, those participants were forced to solve simple anagrams.

The figure below summarizes the results of the study. When the descriptions of the cars were complex, distracted participants were more likely to choose the best car. When the descriptions were simple, however, conscious thought led to a slightly better choice.

Screen Shot 2014-08-12 at 10.27.13 AM

Admittedly, the lab experiment amounted to a very contrived setting. And, to further muddy the waters, another group of researchers has failed to replicate these findings. (There’s a lot of skepticism out there regarding tantalizing studies published in Science). One must be cautious regarding how much one can extrapolate from a study like this one.

Still, the results are consistent with Freud’s theory and with—I think—the results of introspection. Some decisions are better made via intuition and others are better made with explicit reasoning.

When choosing a mortgage, it is best to take out a calculator and make a deliberate, conscious decision. But, by contrast, when sitting down at a restaurant and browsing the menu, just trust your unconscious to choose the best dish. People become paralyzed by decisions when they take the wrong approach.