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Unconscious Thought Theory


Explanations > Theories > Unconscious Thought Theory

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 



We can work out simple problems with our conscious minds quite easily, but we have 'bounded rationality' and find complex problems significantly more difficult. If we consciously think too hard about a complex choice, we consequently may well make the wrong choice.

A better way is to let our unconscious mind choose, giving it sufficient information and then letting us decide at a later moment. Unconscious thought can be defined as thought or reasoning that takes place when conscious attention is directed elsewhere.

This is similar to the principle of incubation in creativity, where you ponder the problem and then do something else whilst your unconscious comes up with good ideas.

Conscious thought is linear and convergent, whilst unconscious thought is parallel and divergent, making it far more powerful in considering a wide range of possibilities. The problem is that our conscious mind does not always trust what our unconscious mind thinks, in particular its ability to think rationally.

Conscious thought is not as logical as it thinks and is very liable to bias, effectively weighting decisions according to criteria such as social desirability.


Dijksterhuis and van Olden showed subjects four pictures and then broke them into three groups. One group was asked immediately to choose the one they liked the most. A second group was asked to study the pictures then list what they liked and did not like about them. The third group were given anagram puzzles to solve for five minutes and then asked to choose a picture.

All three groups were presented with a poster of their choice, and then a month later asked how much they liked the poster now and how much they would sell it for. Surprisingly, the third group, who did puzzles and then chose, were most attached to the picture and wanted more money to part with it. 


I am buying a new car and narrow the choice down to five models. Rather than start trading one off against another, I go and play golf, then see which seems to be at the top of my mind.

So What?

Using it

To get people to make the best decision in a complex situation, give them information then distract them. If you want to persuade them of something in particular, give them a logical solution and do not give them time to unconsciously ponder.


If others lead you through a logical thought process, maybe you should step back and tell them you will come back later after you have had time not to think about the situation.

See also

Bounded Rationality, Filter Theory


Dijksterhuis (2004), Dijksterhuis and van Olden (2006), Bongers and Dijksterhuis (2009)




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