Unconscious Influences on Decision Making

neuroscienceThe discussion of free will has fascinated many. It was originally thought, by philosophers such as Freud and Jung, that the unconscious mind, comprised of processes we are not aware of plays a role in decision making. This subject raises imperative questions, most notably: how much control do we have over our decisions? Numerous experiments and studies have yielded results suggesting that our conscious decision making, which we do so with awareness, may not always be conscious. This is demonstrated by different processes such as environmental influences on cortical activity, gut feelings, unconscious biases, and finally, slips of the tongue, which reveal the combined workings of the conscious and unconscious mind. These findings could potentially have various implications. Before beginning this discussion, it is important to note that we likely operate under a “user illusion”; we may be under the misconception that we consciously choose our actions [1]. Our brains are designed in such a way that, despite figuring this out, we never feel that anything outside our conscious awareness is actually influencing us. So what is the evidence that suggests that predictive activity can be observed in the brain?

A study conducted by John-Dylan Haynes at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in 2006 involved scanning the brains of volunteers who held a button in each hand and were told to press it whenever they wished [2]. From the scans, the scientists could deduce which hand the participants were going to use as early as ten seconds before the volunteers consciously made up their minds. This is similar to the experiment conducted by Ben Libet in 1985 in which subjects had to flex their wrist spontaneously and deliberately at a time of their choosing [1]. The time of the movement was measured using electromyogram electrodes on their wrist and the start of the readiness potential in their motor cortex by an electroencephalogram. The moment at which they consciously decided to move was measured using a spot revolving on a screen, and they had to say after the movement where the spot was at the moment of willing. The results showed that brain activity began nearly half a second before the will to move. According to Haynes, however, this particular study with the buttons is the first to show unconscious predictive activity in a region associated with decision making: the prefrontal cortex. So if the unconscious influences conscious activity, what kinds of factors may influence it and how might it manifest itself?

The environment or external factors play a role in influencing cortical activity, and consequently conscious decisions, through circumstances or the way information is presented. In England, there was a beverage station in which tea, coffee, and milk were dispensed using an honor system [4]. A sheet of paper was posted on a cupboard at eye level indicating the costs of each. The station was located in an isolated spot, hence no one would know if someone chose to pay or not. Without the knowledge of the people using the station, Melissa Bateson started tracking how much milk was dispensed each week and the money in the honor box for ten weeks. However, she added a twist: she replaced the notice each week, keeping the print the same but changing the picture at the top. On odd-numbered weeks she showed different pairs of watching eyes. On even weeks she printed different flowers. During odd weeks she collected three times as much as she did during even weeks. Moreover, office workers were later quizzed about the notice and no one had been aware that the photo was different each week, illustrating that people are powerfully influenced by things that they do not consciously notice.

The influence of the unconscious mind can manifest itself in the form of gut feelings, hunches, or intuitions, which we often act upon. In his book Gut Feelings, Gerd Gigerenzer describes the term “gut feeling” as a judgment that appears quickly in consciousness whose underlying reasons we are not fully aware of, and is strong enough to act upon. He argues that intuition has its own rationale, which consists of simple rules of thumb (heuristics) that take advantage of evolved capacities of the brain. Rules of thumb allow for quick action and exploit partial ignorance while taking advantage of these capacities. Finally, he says: “the intelligence of the unconscious is in knowing, without thinking, which rule is likely to work in which situation” [4]. For example, a baseball player would not likely be able to provide a very detailed response about how he or she is able to catch the ball. If logic was to be used, the unconscious mind would have to do a series of calculations to catch the ball such as taking into account its parabolic trajectory, estimating the ball’s initial distance, initial velocity, and more, all in a few seconds. Instead, it uses a simple rule of thumb, the gaze heuristic: “fix your gaze on the ball, start running, and adjust your running speed so that the angle of gaze remains constant” [4]. This is how people catch fly balls without thinking about it and consciously decide how to do it. They simply just do.

The unconscious may reveal itself through its biases and prejudices, which impact our decision making and the way we think. Often, we are unaware of these unconscious biases. Shankar Vedantam, author of The Hidden Brain, argues that if he were to show us a photo of a white man and ask us to imagine what the man’s spouse looks like, our conscious minds might say that he could be married to a white woman, a black woman, an Asian, etc. He might be married to another man; he might not be married at all. However, our unconscious neglects this, and the first option that will come to mind will be a white woman. It does not matter that this rule of thumb might be wrong because it is usually right and the answer will be produced instantaneously [3]. This goes for anyone, whether they are in an interracial marriage, whether they are homosexual, or not. The unconscious again makes that generalization, which is true most of the time but not always.

There seems to be a connection between the unconscious and conscious mind. The question is of how they work together. When we are asked to state our views, Vedantam explains that a possibility of what happens is, “our conscious brain and hidden brain sit down for a chat, and our conscious brain wins the debate every time” [3].  He goes on with a very fitting analogy of the conscious and the unconscious in our decisions: “If the conscious mind is the pilot and the hidden brain is the autopilot function on a plane, the pilot can always overrule the autopilot, except when the pilot is not paying attention” [3]. This can be seen in groups of people who have diminished control over their unconscious. This can also be revealed in experimental settings through methods that distract people’s conscious attention and keep them from restraining the associations of the unconscious. This is why, under pressure, people will say or do uncharacteristic things (for instance, “slips of the tongue”) they did not intend to say or do and biases are revealed.

If the unconscious influences us and we cannot stop it from doing so, then why is it even important? We might not be able to stop the unconscious from influencing us, but through understanding it, we can make changes to an extent. Understanding the unconscious and its biases can help us work around some of our tendencies and, furthermore, take responsibility for them. We can try to think about the world and environment objectively to make a decision. Applications can extend to an even greater scope with neurologists being able to cure phobias, which occur outside of conscious awareness by restructuring the thoughts of the unconscious. Perhaps part of the cure for dementia may lie in the unconscious mind. There are numerous possibilities that could arise. Finally, this whole topic helps work towards the ultimate goal of understanding human behavior and the brain. 

1. Blackmore, Susan J. 2006. Conversations on consciousness: what the best minds think about the brain, free will, and what it means to be human. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2. Branan, N. 2008. Unconscious Decisions. Scientific American Mind. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=unconscious-decisions (Accessed October 20, 2013).
3. Vedantam, Shankar. 2010. The hidden brain: how our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, wage wars, and save our lives. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
4. Gigerenzer, Gerd. 2007. Gut feelings: The intelligence of the unconscious. New York: Viking.

Ikreet Cheema is an undergraduate student at the University of Calgary majoring in neuroscience. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.