The Frontal Cortex

The Adaptive Unconscious

Your unconscious brain is better at processing information than you are. Here’s Ap Dijksterhuis:

We gave our subjects information pertaining to a choice–for example, which of four apartments was the most attractive, or which of four cars was the best. They had three options: They could make a choice immediately; they could take time for conscious deliberation; or they could figuratively sleep on it–that is, engage in unconscious thought. The subjects who chose the third option were first given information about the decision in question and then given information about an unrelated task, to occupy their conscious minds while their unconscious minds processed the relevant information.

When the unconscious thinkers were asked to choose one of the alternatives, they made better decisions, almost without exception, than the subjects who decided immediately or those who consciously deliberated. Their decisions were better from a normative perspective (more rationally justifiable), from a subjective perspective (more likely to produce post-choice satisfaction), and from an objective perspective (more accurate, as in predictions of soccer-match outcomes).

The moral? Use your conscious mind to acquire all the information you need for making a decision–but don’t try to analyze the information. Instead, go on holiday while your unconscious mind digests it for a day or two. Whatever your intuition then tells you is almost certainly going to be the best choice.

For more on this type of research, read this book. (It’s like Blink, only better.)


  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    February 1, 2007

    Your unconscious brain is better at processing information that you are.

    I should make you define “you.”

  2. #2 Mark
    February 1, 2007

    It would probably more accurate to refer to different thought processes rather than “unconscious brain” and “you.” After all, the conscious mind is nothing more than a figment of the unconscious mind’s imagination.

  3. #3 Jonah
    February 1, 2007

    My attempt at ironic humor clearly didn’t work. Of course, “you” emerge from an amalgam of unconscious and conscious brain processes. (As Mark notes, the conscious self depends upon the machinations of the unconscious brain.) I was simply trying to point out that there are parts of our brain that we have no conscious access to that can process information and make decisions better than our consciousness.

  4. #4 Jimena Sandoval
    February 1, 2007

    I am very happy to find someone like you that writes about science so well… I was doing research about neurogenesis, and by chance I found your article about Liz Gould. Let me tell you, not even my advisor was able to tell me the story about neurogenesis as well as you did!!

    thank you


  5. #5 tirta
    February 1, 2007

    what is the evidence that the so-called unconscious thought is indeed a thought? i remember gerd gigerenzer once proposed a theory of simple heuristics, which i think could also explain the empirical findings presented here. the moral is more parsimonious: think, but not too much.