To Think or Not to Think

Like Malcolm Gladwell in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Jonah Lehrer on his blog The Frontal Cortex recently made a strong case for the value of unconscious thought. His argument was based on evidence derived from one experiment, in a European laboratory, under conditions of unknown generality. This kind of “cherry picking,” which Gladwell also employs, doesn’t do much for the fine art of science writing

Lehrer draws on a recent experiment by the Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis who asked three groups of subjects, a mix of experts and novices, to predict the outcome of soccer matches. The first group was asked to predict the outcome after thinking about it for two minutes. The second group was asked to make a decision immediately without thinking about it at all. The third group was asked to decide after being distracted by an unrelated memory task for two minutes.

The results indicated that experts, regardless of the group they were in, were very poor at predicting the outcome of the matches. So were the groups that thought about the matter for two minutes and those asked to make the decision immediately. In contrast, subjects who were distracted by the memory task for two minutes were “significantly” better than the other two groups. Lehrer concludes from this study that the practical implications are to “trust your gut.”

He then says the question is “what is the unconscious up to. What information is it processing during those two minutes of distraction?” I disagree. The question that seems most important to me is how representative of the decision-making process is this study, one that asked individuals to predict the outcome of soccer matches? How widely does it apply? Under what conditions doesn’t it hold? And let's not forget that the study was conducted under highly-reactive laboratory conditions with unknown relevance to natural situations.

We know that at times we benefit by trusting our gut reactions but at other times we don’t. Is there any way we can know when to trust them and when not to? A recent study by McMackin and Slovic sought to identify these conditions by comparing two decision-making tasks--one designed to favor an intuitive approach, the other a reasoned one.

On the intuitively biased task college students were asked to predict how a group of “experts” would rate the effectiveness of a set of consumer advertisements. The so-called expert ratings were obtained from group of psychology and marketing undergraduate students.

On the reasoned biased task, the students were asked to answer five questions requiring numerical estimates of matters of fact. For example, they were asked to estimate the area of the United States or the length of the Amazon River.

Two conditions of decision-making were compared with one another on each of these tasks—a group that was asked to decide immediately and a delayed responding group that was asked to respond after thinking about their reasons for a few minutes and then writing them down on a form provided by the experimenter.

The results indicated the immediately responding group was more accurate on the advertisement task than the group asked to think about their decision for a bit. In contrast, the immediately responding group (gut reactors) performed less accurately than the thinking group (also asked to provide reasons for their answers) on the more difficult task requiring numerical judgments.

Here then is one situation in which the characteristics of the task can critically affect the accuracy of a decision. Under some conditions, it may be more effective to respond without doing much thinking. In other conditions, a more deliberative, reasoned approach may be more effective.

I think it is essential not to ignore such limiting conditions when discussing the results of any scientific finding. All too often, we emphasize the outcome of a single study, without recognizing other studies that contradict, call it into question or suggest an alternative interpretation.

I fear this is one of the reasons we find ourselves so confused about the research we read or hear about in the popular media. No sooner do we learn that drinking wine is bad for our health, then the very next day we learn that it has no effect on our health and may, in fact, be essential for a long life, the very fountain of youth.