The evidence seems to be that the conscious mind isn’t much use in making hard decisions.
Do you really need that flat-pack wardrobe or would the foldaway futon be a better buy? Why not have lunch and think about it? Then you might need to choose between pickled herring or Swedish meatballs. Everywhere we are confronted with difficult choices. In Luke Rhinehart’s novel The Dice Man, the eponymous hero makes all his decisions by rolling a dice.
Few of us would trust to a life ruled by chance, so we tend to think carefully about the complex decisions (the wardrobe or the futon) but are content to trust our instincts with the simpler things (meatballs or herring). New research by Ap Dijksterhuis and his colleagues at the University of Amsterdam suggests that we would be better off thinking about the simple choices, and leaving the life-changing decisions to our unconscious mind.
Dijksterhuis asked his test subjects to choose between four hypothetical cars on the basis of a set of specifications (whether the car had a sunroof, low mileage, etc) that could be either simple (only four specifications) or complex (12 specifications). One group was given four minutes to consider the problem; the other group was shown the specification and then immediately distracted by another task. Surprisingly, the subjects with plenty of time to think fared better when faced with a simple decision (four specifications) but worse when the problem was more complex (12 specifications).
This and other similar experiments go to the heart of the vexing question of whether consciousness is any use to us. Our brain seems to be split between the actions we can take with little or no conscious control (although scientists prefer to talk about “attention”), such as riding a bike, and those that require conscious attention, such as arithmetic. We tend to think of our unconscious mind as the more primitive arm of cognition, with consciousness in reserve for the hard problems. But Dijksterhuis’s research suggests we have it the wrong way around.
If our conscious mind isn’t much use for making hard decisions, what is it good for? It may seem that our voluntary actions are driven by consciousness, but many scientists believe this is an illusion. Nearly a century ago the evolutionary biologist Thomas Huxley argued that consciousness has no more influence on our actions than a steam whistle has on the locomotion of a train.
This view was boosted in recent years by the neurobiologist Benjamin Libet at the University of California. In an experiment he asked subjects to perform a simple task, eg wiggle their little finger, at a time of their own choosing, and measured accompanying brain activity. Surprisingly, Libet could detect brain activity that predicted imminent finger wiggling nearly half a second before the subjects were aware they had decided to wiggle their finger!
Libet’s experiments suggested that our brain makes up its mind long (in neurobiological terms) before we become aware of any conscious intention to act. Consciousness seems to be a mere bystander with just an illusion of control. Where does this leave free will or personal responsibility?
Dijksterhuis points out that consciousness is good at following precise rules – arithmetic, solving anagrams, etc – but has only limited capacity for handling more complex problems. He proposes the “deliberation without attention” hypothesis, whereby complex problems are best solved by the parallel-computing capabilities of the unconscious mind. So bear this in mind the next time you need to choose between the flat-pack wardrobe and the futon: trust your instincts.
Johnjoe McFadden is professor of molecular genetics at the University of Surrey.
Republished with permission: Original article at the Guardian
It will look like this: Leave Life-Changing Decisions to Your Unconscious Mind