The Boston Globe reports on a study published today in the journal Science, which found that for simple choices — choices with few variables and few interrelated factors — the conscious mind makes better decisions than does the unconscious (or distracted mind); and for choices involving many variables, or complex and entangled factors (such as Peter Sawtell’s example of clashing values and priorities), you might come to a better decision if you let your unconscious, or your gut, be your guide.
The principle researcher comments: “A person can pay attention to only a limited amount of information at once, which can lead people to focus on just a few factors and lose the bigger picture. The unconscious is better, he said, at integrating large amounts of information. Another flaw, he said, is what he called a ”weighing problem.’ The conscious mind can weigh some factors too heavily, and discount others that are important. … When working through a decision consciously, the mind has a tendency to focus on factors that are easy to articulate [or quantify] … at the expense of other factors that are hard to put into words.”
I know that this discrepancy sometimes leads me to make bad decisions, because the choice I may feel pulled towards is often one whose attraction and benefits I can’t articulate even to myself. When I have strongly valued being able to understand my own choices, and to prove it by justifying and defending them, I have instead sometimes made a different choice, one I could understand, justify, and rationalise, though it wasn’t the best choice or even a good choice.