Subconscious - Decision Making

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Subconscious - Decision Making

Most experts believe the majority of decisions occur in the subconscious mind, though complex decisions often show multiple factors (conscious and subconscious) at work. Subconscious decisions have shown to be both more effective in some cases, and less sound when emotions or issues with self-awareness come into play. Risk preferences appear to be born in the subconscious, while distractions during decision-making can improve decision-making efforts in one’s subconscious.

INSIGHT: Some Experts Believe 95% of Decision-Making Happens in the Subconscious

  • Research from Goldsmiths’ College (London) and the University of Houston showed that a person’s brain actually solves a problem (or makes a decision) “up to eight seconds” before the person is aware of it. The research highlighted what researchers called the “transformational thought” which determines the decision (or solution) and occurs before the person is consciously aware of the determination.
  • The basis of this research stems from the 1980s research of Benjamin Libet at the University of California, San Francisco, who proved that simple decisions were made “about three-tenths of a second before the brain owner is aware of them,” and that the “roots of such decisions can be seen up to ten seconds before they become conscious.”
  • The Wellness Universe details multiple studies that have proven a person’s subconscious mind makes decisions then informs the conscious mind of those decisions, including the clock-face study and the portrait study.
  • In research published in 2012, Daum asserted that “people make tens of thousands of decisions daily, many of which are subconscious.” Sahakian & Labuzetta’s 2013 research backed this up that most decisions are made “at varying levels of consciousness, or sub-consciousness.”

INSIGHT: Subconscious Decisions Are More Sound than Conscious Decisions

  • Choice Compass outlines how it has become “universally accepted that the subconscious mind impacts many of our cognitive process,” and that the subconscious mind is “a better judge than the conscious mind when two or more options are presented.” This also demonstrates that, while most people believe their choices are made from their rational (or conscious minds), decisions “are predominantly governed by subconscious mechanisms.”

INSIGHT: Distractions Help the Subconscious Make Better Decisions

  • A Carnegie Mellon University study showed that people who were provided with an unrelated distraction made better decisions overall. The research used neuroimaging to prove that the prefrontal cortices of people given information about a decision activated and stayed activated during the unrelated distractor task, “even though the brain was consciously focused on” the task at-hand.
  • The results of their research showed that those given the unrelated task were still processing the determinants of the decision during the other activity - and that they ultimately made sounder decisions than those not provided the distraction (and whose sole focus was conscious decision-making).
  • Multiple experiments from Dutch psychology expert Ap Dijksterhuis proved that people “who had the time for their subconscious minds to analyze the options while they were otherwise engaged, made the most accurate selections” in a decision-making dilemma.

INSIGHT: Emotions Play a Major Role in Decision-Making

  • Emotions, run by the subconscious, have been shown to “play a dominant role in decision-making” by research conducted in 2012 by Schore. Additionally, LeDoux’s 2015 research demonstrated that “while conscious control over emotions is weak, emotions can flood consciousness,” and significantly affect decision-making.
  • Since the subconscious is the part of the brain that responds to “conditions, emotions, images, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch,” it can act on reflex triggers, which influences decision-making.

INSIGHT: Lack of Self-Awareness Can Lead to Poor Decisions

  • Social scientists, like Kiverstein in 2012, demonstrated that people are “quite ignorant of their motivations,” and that their reasoning minds fill in this information later “without insight or self-awareness”. This lack of self-awareness can lead to poor decision-making, and often self-defeating behaviors.

INSIGHT: Risk Preferences Are More Subconscious Than Conscious

  • Research from 2002 by Erb, Bioy, and Hilton demonstrated that “the formation of risk preferences can be based on preconscious processing … rather than rely[ing] on deliberative mental operations.” In layman’s terms, risk preferences are born in the subconscious rather than in a person’s conscious mind.

INSIGHT: Multiple Brain Efforts Are In-Play in Complex Decision-Making

  • Results of a 2019 study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports showed that “arousal and cognitive load were significantly related to subsequent stated travel preferences, accounting for about 20% of the variation in preference,” while “subconscious emotional and cognitive responses are not identical to subjective travel preference.” In layman’s terms, this means that both conscious and subconscious factors are at play during complex decision-making tasks like determining travel preferences for a vacation (as demonstrated in this study).

Research Strategy

We began by exploring the studies outlined within the initial research to determine what had been presented already, so we could ensure we were not duplicating findings. From here, we moved into a direct search for research studies published in the last decade or so related to the differences between the unconscious, conscious, and subconscious minds during decision-making, and especially those focusing on the role of the subconscious mind. From this research, we gathered multiple studies which presented varying sides of this long-time debate. Some of these are outside Wonder’s standard two-year window, but are still relevant today. From this collection, we pulled insights relevant to how people make decisions and what happens in the subconscious mind during these times and synthesized them into our findings.

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Decision Making - The Human Brain

Each person’s process for making decisions is different based on the type of decision, as well as how much stock the person puts in conscious or unconscious (“gut feeling”) reasoning, and scientists have yet to nail down exactly how decisions are made in the brain. Different types of decisions are made in different parts of the brain, though the physical processes are generally similar. Experts argue whether decisions are more often made by the unconscious mind or the conscious mind, as well as which one of these provides the best decision-making overall, and the answer generally depends on a variety of factors.

Physical Decision-Making in the Brain (Stages)

  • Research shows that people’s brains go through similar physical processes during decision-making times, though these vary based on the types of decisions being made.
  • A study from Caltech in 2012 identified the area of the brain’s frontal cortex associated with decision-making. Their research identified different brain areas used in different kinds of decisions like for behavioral control “(refraining from ordering a chocolate sundae)” and decision-making that is reward-based “(trying to win money at a casino)”.
  • A study by the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) in February 2015 identified the striatum as the center for decision-making in the brain; it “appears to operate hierarchically within its three different sub-regions.”
  • In the brain, the striatum “is part of the basal ganglia, which makes up the inner core of the brain and processes both decision-making and subsequent actions.” The striatum is divided three ways: the ventral striatum, which factors into motivation; the dorsomedial stratium, which factors into adaptive decision-making; and the dorsolateral, which plays a part in routine actions and decisions. Researchers identified that although these sub-regions “have distinct roles, they ultimately harmonize and work together in different phases of decision-making.”
  • The Okinawa study found that the ventral striatum “was most active at the beginning of the decision-making process,” while the dorsomedial striatum came into play next in the process during the evaluation of possible rewards and consequences. The dorsolateral striatum gets involved next firing “short bursts at varying times throughout” the decision-making process, “suggesting it is gearing up the motor movements required once a decision is made and action is taken.”
  • A 2014 study from Switzerland found that the brain prefrontal cortex is active during all decision-making and self-control processes (similar to previous studies). However, researchers noted that the dorsolateral striatum and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex are active during both goal-directed decision-making behaviors and flexible decision-making processes, which refutes earlier findings “that activation of the prefrontal cortex occurs when self-control is required during decision-making between conflicting preferences.”

How Decisions Are Made In the Brain (Processes)

  • Experts in the fields of psychology and brain studies have studied how the brain makes decisions from ethological and theoretical perspectives, as well as through neuroscientific studies. Despite the mountain of research, experts still cannot pin down the exact processes involved in decision-making. In 2008, Montague noted they are “still far from being able to comprehend the sinuous path from decision to action, because even the most mundane decisions involve many brain areas and cooperative actions between many cells.”
  • Notably, researchers at Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon are working to determine (through computational models) the various aspects involved in the human decision-making process. They’re using innovative techniques, like fibre photometry, which allows for the detection of “very small signals in the reward system, such as dopamine release,” and technology that allows them to “the conversation between neurons in multiple frontal areas” by recording the electrical activity of the neurons firing during decision-making. These researchers hope to further nail down the exact processes (stages) the brain goes through during decision-making, but they have not yet reached this goal.

The Unconscious Mind in Decision-Making

  • Dutch psychologist Dijksterhuis’ expert opinion is that “decision-making is much older than human consciousness as we know it, and as with all such ancient abilities, we are generally quite good at them if we rely on our unconscious.” [S4] He describes two reasons why the unconscious mind is helpful during decision-making: [A] Conscious processing takes time, “works in a serial fashion,” and has a small capacity for processing multiple items, whereas unconscious processes “have the capacity to work on different things in parallel and can integrate a large amount of information” at once. [B] The unconscious mind has proven to be “better at weighting the relative importance of different attributes” during decision-making.
  • Dijksterhuis’ 2009 research demonstrated that “unconscious thought leads to an automatic weighting process that continues at least for a while as time passes.” This leads to understanding that a person’s unconscious mind lets more-unimportant factors fall by the wayside rather than letting them clutter up the decision-making process.
  • University of Rochester researchers published a study in the journal Neuron outlining how the human brain “is actually hard-wired to allow us to make the best decisions possible with the information we are given.” This research contradicted the standard rationales of scientists after the 1979 research by Kahneman and Tversky which “argued humans rarely make rational decisions.”
  • University of Rochester’s Alex Pouget found that people make the best choices for themselves, “but only when their unconscious brain makes the choice.” The research also showed that this type of “probabilistic decision-making system … has several advantages,” including allowing a decision-maker to process information and “reach a reasonable decision in a reasonable amount of time,” as well as gaining a sense of certainty when a specific threshold-of-certainty is met during the decision-making process.

The Unconscious vs Conscious Mind in Decision-Making

  • A study published by the American Psychological Association (APA) in October 2009 written by psychology expert Ap Dijksterhuis detailed a variety of his experiments into how the unconscious mind works during decision-making. The results of these experiments contradict common Western thinking that “conscious deliberation is the holy grail of decision-making.” Dijksterhuis’ analysis shows that “sometimes conscious thought is more helpful, but sometimes unconscious thought is better.”
  • Dijksterhuis’ and others’ research showed that the conscious mind is sometimes more precise than the unconscious mind, which can be instrumental in sound decision-making. When a person is faced with a decision “for which the weaknesses of conscious thought are not very relevant conscious thinkers can actually outperform unconscious thinkers.”
  • A literature review published in Sage Journals in March 2019 details the “benefits of conscious and unconscious thought in complex decision-making” processes. The review notes how some experts believe that a distraction is necessary before a big decision can be made to allow the unconscious mind to work on the decision first and how this “distraction period is more useful when meaning-based gist representations of the alternatives are accessible.” The review also showed how other experts believe that “conscious deliberation helps people make good decisions when people have in mind precise verbatim information about the exact features of the alternatives.”

Research Strategy

We began by exploring the studies outlined within the initial research to determine what had been presented already, so we could ensure we were not duplicating findings. From here, we moved into a direct search for research studies published in the last decade or so related to the differences between the unconscious, conscious, and subconscious minds during decision-making. From this research, we gathered multiple studies which presented varying sides of this long-time debate. Some of these are outside Wonder’s standard two-year window, but are still relevant today. Of note, in this response, we didn’t provide information on the subconscious mind during decision-making, as that is covered in the companion request.

During the course of our research, we also found information on the parts of the brain that interact during the stages of the decision-making process, and provided this information to further outline the factors involved in this process.