Intuition, the Unconscious Mind, and Trust

This month’s HBR has the annual list of breakthrough ideas. It is always a great read.

One of the ideas (number 9, to be exact) is about decision making, and it talks about intuition and unconscious thinking. The author did experiments to determine whether or not more time to deliberate on a decision led to better decisions. It turns out, more time can be a hindrance.

We found that the longer our participants thought about their answers, the more likely they were to include irrelevant information…at the expense of relevant information…. And the more information they factored in, the less accurate their predictions became. 

But here’s the catch: more time is only a hindrance when you use it consciously deliberating about the subject. If you take time to allow your unconcscious mind to do some of the work, you’ll do better.

Don’t think hard about the decision, and after a while your unconscious mind, which is known to have a far greater processing capacity than your conscious mind, will tell you what you should do. Such an unconsciously generated preference is usually referred to as intuition or a gut feeling—a conviction that one alternative is better than another, even when we can’t verbalize why.

In another experiment, the author gave people a decision to make based on a set amount of information, but also a choice: decide immediately with no deliberation, take time to deliberate, or let the unconscious mind do the work (in which case they were given all the information, but then given a separate task that distracted their conscious mind, and then they had to decide). The author stated that the unconscious thinkers made better decisions than those who chose the other two options from a normative perspective, a subjective perspective, and an objective perspective.

His moral: use your conscious mind to gather all the data, but let your unconscious mind carry the load of the analysis. At that point, what your intuition tells you is “certainly going to be the best choice.”

But will you trust that? Would you trust your own intuition? Imagine you have a big decision, and you are going to your boss, or the Board, and you tell them your decision, but you can’t articulate your analysis fully, since your (more powerful) unconscious mind did the work. Can you imagine doing that? What if a direct report did that to you?

This research challenges some core assumptions we have about the way organizations should work. In our hierarchies, we demand that people below us prove to us that their decisions are going to be right before we can sign off on them. We don’t trust. Because we need proof, we force people to use their conscious mind so they can articulate all the arguments. And in doing so, we let a more powerful resource (the unconscious mind) go untapped.