Unconscious Influences on Decision Making Maligned

102104strawmanclimbingA paper, “Unconscious influences on decision making: A critical review,” by  Ben R. Newell and David R. Shanks that has been “to be published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences” for over a year, decides that there is no proof of unconscious influences on decision making.   The paper seems to lump Dijksterhuis, Gladwell, Glockner, Kahneman, and Gigerenzer together as seeing unconscious influences where there are none proven.  I see my unconscious mind as a sort of computer for my conscious mind.  Much of the stuff in the computer I consciously loaded in, but about as much came without my conscious effort, and then there are emotions and rules that are just there. Everything gets run through it and the printouts include garbage and some stuff I use.  For Newell and Shanks, maybe this means that my conscious mind is fully in control and that there are no unconscious influences.  From a purely unscientific view, I suggest that the unconscious computer can persuade the conscious mind on occasion.  But let me present some of their arguments.

To what extent do we know our own minds when making decisions? The paper presents a  framework for evaluating these claims and reviews evidence from three major bodies of research in which unconscious factors have been studied: multiple-cue judgment, deliberation without attention, and decisions under uncertainty. The review highlights that inadequate procedures for assessing awareness, failures to consider artifactual explanations of “landmark” results, and a tendency to uncritically accept conclusions that fit with our intuitions have all contributed to unconscious influences being ascribed inflated and erroneous explanatory power in theories of decision making.  Frankly, I agree with the authors on the three shortcomings.  It is not difficult to be critical of the experiments of Dijksterhuis (see Going with your Gut) or the glib Gladwell or the made up stories in Lehrer.

Psychology is concerned with understanding how the mind controls and determines behavior. The authors suggest that fundamental to this goal is whether unconscious influences play a significant role in the generation of decisions and the causation of behavior generally. Everyday notions such as “gut instinct” and “intuition” capture the idea that subtle influences falling outside awareness can bias behavior. ( I have to note that “gut instinct” does not strike me as a “subtle” influence.)

The authors conclude that there is little convincing evidence of unconscious influences on decision making, and that, as a consequence, such influences should not be assigned a prominent role in theories of decision making and related behaviors. The authors are surprised that there remains a pervasive view in the literature that unconscious processes serve an important explanatory function in theories of decision making. Newell and Shanks suggest that this prominence is most obvious in theories that contrast deliberative with intuitive decision making advocate two interacting systems with the following qualities:
System-1 (intuition) is parallel, extracts gist (holistic), and results in affective
states, which are open to phenomenological awareness in their end result but not in their operation (or stages). While, in contrast,

System-2 (deliberation) is sequential, rule-based (e.g., lexicographic), and has access to the stages of processing.

They note that in these explanations many decisions will be a product of these two systems interacting. For example, in a multi-attribute judgment task, system-2 is responsible for sequentially inspecting attributes and alternatives (e.g., Does this car have cup holders?), while system-1 generates an “affective integration of the values”. They note that this approach is similar to that proposed by Glöckner and Betsch  in their parallel-constraint satisfaction model of multi-attribute judgment and choice. I am generally impressed with the approach of Glockner and Betsch so I am unimpressed when Newell and Shanks copout with this explanation “when participants are given adequate opportunities to report the knowledge underlying their behavior, there is little, if any, explanatory role played by a phenomenologically inaccessible affective integration process. While knowledge underlying behavior might not always be comprehensive, it is often sufficient to explain observed performance.”  Are these guys philosophers or scientists?

The authors discredit the well-known global workspace theory of Baars which roughly divides conscious from unconscious processes in terms of events that are or are not in the spotlight of selective attention, by noting that it starts from the assumption that unconscious drivers of behavior exist, and this is the very assumption that they believe is in need of critical scrutiny.

Newell and Shanks use Simon’s  statement that intuition is “nothing more and nothing less than recognition” to tell us that intuition can be thought of as the product of overlearned associations between cues in the environment and our responses. In the same way that firefighters train for many years to recognize cue–outcome associations, the authors suggest that we all learn to make a multiplicity of mundane everyday decisions that may appear subjectively fast and effortless because they are made on the basis of recognition: The situation provides a cue (e.g., portentous clouds), the cue gives us access to information stored in memory (rain is likely), and the information provides an answer (wear a raincoat). When such cues are not so readily apparent, or information in memory is  either absent or more difficult to access, our decisions shift to become more deliberative. The two extremes are associated with different experiences. Whereas deliberative thought yields awareness of intermediate steps and of effortful combination of information, intuitive thought lacks awareness of intermediate steps and does not feel effortful. The authors write: “Again, the simple point is that in neither situation do we need to posit “magical” unconscious processes producing answers from thin air.”   This last sentence might be the final attack on the straw man.

I certainly agree that “going with your gut” and deliberating without attention, are a little too magical, but the authors keep parsing unconscious influences from no unconscious influence all the way to “inflated and erroneous”  and “magical” unconscious influences.  I must laugh when I think of the excellent metaphors for the conscious mind provided by Haidt, the elephant driver, and by Kurzban, the press secretary.  I also believe that you cannot ignore the evolutionary fact that the conscious brain is an add-on module. The authors seem to only be willing to acknowledge unconscious influences as existing at the extreme intuitive end of Hammond’s cognitive continuum.

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