Think different: the merits of unconscious thought in preference development and decision making

J Pers Soc Psychol. 2004 Nov;87(5):586-98. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.87.5.586.


The role of unconscious and conscious thought in decision making was investigated in 5 experiments. Because of the low processing capacity of consciousness, conscious thought was hypothesized to be maladaptive when making complex decisions. Conversely, unconscious thought was expected to be highly effective. In Experiments 1-3, participants were presented with a complex decision problem in which they had to choose between various alternatives, each with multiple attributes. Some participants had to make a decision immediately after being presented with the options. In the conscious thought condition, participants could think about the decision for a few minutes. In the unconscious thought condition, participants were distracted for a few minutes and then indicated their decision. Throughout the experiments, unconscious thinkers made the best decisions. Additional evidence obtained in Experiments 4 and 5 suggests that unconscious thought leads to clearer, more polarized, and more integrated representations in memory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attitude
  • Choice Behavior / physiology*
  • Consciousness / physiology
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Recall / physiology
  • Students / psychology
  • Thinking / physiology*
  • Time Factors
  • Unconscious, Psychology*