Unconscious decision making

family_smOn a sharp summer morning, by the shores of Loch Lomond, my wife and friend of 10 years did a spectacular mental u-turn.

We were staying in Scotland for the wedding of my cousin and had gone for a walk along the shore.  The sun was warm, but the air still cold, and the water in the lake was mirror still.  Julie could not resist it and stripped down to her underwear and dived into the chilly water.

We’d me years before and in all that time of an intense, often charged, relationship, she had always told me that she never, ever, wanted to have children.  I was someone undecided on the issue, but recognised that I could neither force her, nor resist her.

She walked out of the water of the lake towards me.

“I want to have a baby” she said.  I think she was as surprised by what she had said as I was and our lives changed forever from that moment.

Coming to an apparently sudden decision, or suddenly seeing a solution to a complex problem is a common human experience.  We wake in the middle of the night with a certain conviction of how we should proceed on a matter, or with an exciting idea for how to solve a problem.  My wife, now an author, keeps a notebook by the side of her bed to capture those thoughts.

So common is that experience that it is perhaps surprising that we also hold onto the idea that we make important decisions consciously.  Scarily, the psychologists are now coming to the conclusion that we make most decisions unconsciously and then expend our conscious effort in post rationalising those decisions consciously after the fact.

An interesting article from The Economist reports on research by Benjamin Libet at the University of California suggesting that the process of taking an action starts 3 tenths of a second before we consciously decide to do it.   Gerald Zaltman’s book “How Customers Think” references other research including an experiment by Antoine Bechara of the University of Iowa who suggests that we can start to use advantageous decision making strategies, before we have consciously understood what that advantage is.  Other challenges to our assumptions about decisions include the ability to reverse (not modify, but reverse) a participant’s decision based on what is said, or simply what the participant is asked to do, before the question is asked.  How the placebo effect is more pronounced if the physician believes that the placebo is the real medication.  Or, how our frail memory, that experience we are basing our decisions upon, is modified with each recollection.

Understanding how and why people make decisions is so crucial to product design, marketing and wider management that we need to dig further.  Zaltman describes a “new paradigm of an Integrated Mind-Brain-Body-Society” which is a helpful reminder that our decision making will be influenced by a combination of our conscious and unconscious mind, our physical brain, our body and its state of health and the society that we have grown up in and live in.  Understanding all that for one person is probably impossible.

“As soon as questions of will or decision or reason or choice of action arise, human science is at a loss.” –   Noam Chomsky

“We know nothing about motivation. All we can do is write books about it.” – Peter Drucker

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One Response to Unconscious decision making

  1. Chris says:

    For a more coherent and in depth look at this subject, read Malcolm Gladwell’s “blink”. Huge thanks to Stacey for pointing me in its direction.

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