Your Subconscious May Be Dumber Than You Think

A new study—the largest and most comprehensive of its kind—has thrown doubt on the theory that the mind's subconscious helps work out difficult problems.

A new study—the largest and most comprehensive of its kind—has thrown doubt on the theory that the mind's subconscious helps work out difficult problems while the conscious mind enjoys a crossword puzzle or word game, for example.


Called the "unconscious-thought advantage," or UTA for short, the popular theory is based on a number of studies which found people make smarter choices—when deciding between different new car models or choosing a new home—after giving their rational side a rest.

But researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands dispute such claims after finding no evidence of a subconscious advantage in a study of 399 participants, ten-times greater than the typical number of participants used by studies confirming the UTA. 

"[Participants were asked] to choose between either 4 cars or 4 apartments on the basis of 12 desirable or undesirable features. They incorporated the full list of conditions that UTA proponents had reported as yielding the strongest effect, such as the exact type of puzzle used as a distraction. They found that the distracted group was no more likely than the deliberating group to choose the most desirable item."

A subconscious theory of mind other than UTA that researchers have also called in question is called social priming. Under this theory, behaviors are modified when people are exposed to external stimuli such as looking at an American flag or thinking about money.

In his Big Think interview, Eric Kandel, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, discusses what physiological evidence points in the direction of a subconscious decision making process:

Read more at Nature

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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