Sunday, March 20, 2016

Use Unconscious Thoughts for Complex Problems (Paper Reading Note)


While I was reading “The Shallow”: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, one paper was mentioned. As it suggests that unconscious thoughts offer better decision on complex problem, I am curious about it. Here is my study note of the paper, “Think Different: The Merits of Unconscious Thought in Preference Development and Decision Making”.

Conclusion: unconscious is good at making complex decisions.

  • The problem is that it feels wrong to make such an important decision so quickly.
  • Both conscious and unconscious systems can be very fast, slow, smart, or stupid. It all depends on what they are asked to do.
  • One needs enough processing capacity to deal with large amount of information, and one needs skills sophisticated enough to integrate information in a meaningful and accurate way.

Processing Capacity

  • Maximum amount of information thatch be kept under conscious scrutiny at any given time is about seven units (4060 bits per second), which is low.
  • The capacity of the entire human system is about 11,200,000 bits (including visual system, etc).
  • More elaborate, normative strategies only work well when all information is taken into account.

The Skills to Think

  • That is the integration of information in a meaningful way.
  • Consciousness may suffer from a power cut when too much pressure is put on its limited capacity, but as long as its capacity is enough to deal with a particular problem, it is likely to be a good thinker.
  • Researchers have long recognized the importance of incubation, the process whereby a problem is consciously ignored for a while, after which the unconscious offers a solution.
    • We put things to rest for a while and then suddenly, “Bing,” we feel we know it.
    • Not thinking about a problem for a while may lead people to forget wrong heuristics or inappropriate strategies in general.
    • Successive guesses converged, and the unconscious seemed to be closing in on the right answer quite a while before the answer was accessible to consciousness.


  • A brief period of unconscious thought will lead to a better decision relative conditions under which unconscious thought is prevented.
  • When making complex decisions, conscious thought is inferior relative to unconscious thought.
  • Experiment 13: proofing that unconscious thinking provides better decision in some cases; experiment 45: testing the reason behind

Polarization Hypothesis

  • Distraction can lead to the change of a “mental set”, so, the role of the unconscious is proposed to be passive: putting a problem aside for a while allows for a fresh, unbiased new start.
  • Look into different options.

Clustering Hypothesis

  • Unconscious thought is expected to turn an initial, disorganized set of information into a clearer and more integrated representation of information in memory.


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