Forest for the trees?

On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect — Dijksterhuis et al. 311 (5763): 1005 — Science

I don’t know quite what to make of this. In fact, I just don’t understand what is going on. But I can definitely think of examples from my own life where this is true. Sometimes not thinking about a problem really does lead to its solution and it’s fascinating to think about why this may be.

Also, the authors draw a connection between what they call unconscious thought (as performed in their experiments) and insights that can come “after sleeping on it”; I’m not sure these phenomena are the same. I think sleep taps into deeper organization processes that are not available on the timescale of unconscious thought, as given in the experiment.


Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not always advantageous to engage in thorough conscious deliberation before choosing. On the basis of recent insights into the characteristics of conscious and unconscious thought, we tested the hypothesis that simple choices (such as between different towels or different sets of oven mitts) indeed produce better results after conscious thought, but that choices in complex matters (such as between different houses or different cars) should be left to unconscious thought. Named the “deliberation-without-attention” hypothesis, it was confirmed in four studies on consumer choice, both in the laboratory as well as among actual shoppers, that purchases of complex products were viewed more favorably when decisions had been made in the absence of attentive deliberation.

3 thoughts on “Forest for the trees?

  1. Dear Neville,

    In my opinion, A. Dijksterhuis et al. present interesting results, showing that purchases of complex products were viewed more favorably when decisions had been made in the absence of attentive deliberation. The authors end with the conclusion that it should benefit the individual to think consciously about simple matters and to delegate thinking about more complex matters to the unconscious. According to them there is no a priori reason to assume that the deliberation-without-attention effect does not generalize to other types of choices.

    For my comments:

    Maurits van den Noort


  2. Maurits-

    Thanks for your comment. Let me emphasize first that I find this research really groundbreaking. Even disregarding the points about satisfaction (complex decisions made with less conscious thought lead to greater satisfaction about the decision), I think that the result that people simply make objectively better (“right”) decisions in complex situations without conscious thought is totally revolutionary in that it is quite counterintuitive.

    I’ll clarify what I said before: I was simply criticizing the authors’ decision to mention that this effect is equivalent to “sleeping on it” in their introduction. Aside from the obvious point that their studies did not involve sleep, I think it is clear that sleep is a multifaceted neural process that provides significantly different consolidation and learning than just being distracted for 4 minutes, as the subjects in the study were.

    My guess would be that the deliberation-without-attention effect would be found during sleep but that it might be difficult to disambiguate from all the other things going on during sleep. All of which makes the authors’ result even more astounding, since the distraction was only for a few minutes!


  3. I think it’s an interesting study but I must point out that Study 3 and Study 4 mostly looked at people’s postchoice satisfaction — not whether they had actually made the optimal choice. As people on Maurits’s weblog pointed out, it’s possible that for irrational reasons, how much you think about a decision skews how much you like the result.

    But Study 1 and Study 2 did look at whether or not the subjects made the optimal choice (because they had a toy example in which they knew the optimal choice).

    However, notably, Study 1 and Study 2 didn’t have a condition in which BOTH conscious and unconscious thought took place. My personal intuition is that the best way to think about things is to have short periods of intense, conscious thought, separated by long periods (weeks or months if possible, but at least days) of not (consciously) thinking about that topic at all.

    I would strongly disagree with anyone who says that the best way to say, shop for a car or a mortgage, would be to purposefully rush the decisions to prevent any conscious thought from screwing with your “gut feeling”.

    Even if conscious thought DID impede up part of one’s decision-making process, it may be necessary for other components. For instance, what if conscious thought made you worse at evaluating which car was the best, because complex objects with many features got misweighted. But what if, as the study suggests, it is necessary to think consciously in order to follow a budget. You may end up buying a great car which is $10,000 more than you can afford. Maybe this choice would have been optimal if you had had $10,000 more than you have, but maybe, as is, it will drive you into bankruptcy.

    Another place that conscious thought is necessary is group decision-making. You have to be able to explain your reasoning in order to convince others. On the small scale, imagine a couple considering buying a house and getting a mortgage. If you don’t think you can afford a house, and your partner says, “I just think we should do it”, and then refuses to explain further, it’s likely that you will be unable to come to consensus. When there is disagreement, neither side can convince the other side without verbal discussion.

    One could argue that irrational signals can be transmitted verbally, allowing the group to come to consensus without ever introspecting and figuring out a rational motivation for the decision, however my sense is that history shows that this is not a good way for a group to make decisions.

    Of course, there’s this popular book Blink that talks about this stuff, and I haven’t read it or anything else about this; so I may be underinformed.


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