Unconscious Thought

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Unconscious Thought at Unconscious Lab

Our first major line of research focuses on the role of unconscious and conscious processes in decision making and creativity. Starting point for this research was the observation that conscious deliberation is limited in many ways, and that there is the possibility that people can engage in what we call unconscious thought. The easiest way to explain what we mean by unconscious thought is to refer to Schopenhauer. In 1826, he said the following

Decisions After Unconscious Thought

In the past few years, we have found evidence for the fact that people indeed think unconsciously, that unconscious thought leads to increased creativity, and that it improves decision-making. In fact, decisions after unconscious thought are sometimes (often, we believe) better than decisions after conscious thought.

Recently, we published the Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT; Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006; Perspectives on Psychological Science) and the deliberation-without-attention effect (Dijksterhuis, Bos, Nordgren & van Baaren, 2006, Science). Our work received a great deal of attention and was covered by (among others) the New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, BBC and the NRC Handelsblad.

A research proposal about Unconscious Thought Theory was awarded by NWO (the Dutch “NSF”) with a “VICI-grant” the biggest personal grant of NWO. It allows us to do a lot of research on UTT for the forthcoming five years.

Theory of Unconscious Thought

We present a theory about human thought named the unconscious-thought theory (UTT). The theory is applicable to decision making, impression formation, attitude formation and change, problem solving, and creativity. It distinguishes between two modes of thought: unconscious and conscious.

Unconscious thought and conscious thought have different characteristics, and these different characteristics make each mode preferable under different circumstances. For instance, contrary to popular belief, decisions about simple issues can be better tackled by conscious thought, whereas decisions about complex matters can be better approached with unconscious thought. The relations between the theory and decision strategies, and between the theory and intuition, are discussed. We end by discussing caveats and future directions.

Arthur Schopenhauer

“One might almost believe that half of our thinking takes place unconsciously…I
have familiarized myself with the factual data of a theoretical and practical problem; I do
not think about it again, yet often a few days later the answer to the problem will come into
my mind entirely from its own accord; the operation which has produced it, however,
remains as much a mystery to me as that of an adding-machine: what has occurred is,
again, unconscious rumination.”
Arthur Schopenhauer