Citekey: @Dijksterhuis2006

Dijksterhuis, A. (2006). On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect. Science, 311(5763), 1005–1007. doi:10.1126/science.1121629


A nice article reporting on four studies on the “Deliberation-Without-Attention” hypothesis; that is, simple choices (such as between different towels or different sets of oven mitts) indeed produce better results after conscious thought, but that choices in complex matters (such as between different houses or different cars) should be left to unconscious thought.

If one goal of education is to help people make sound decisions, how educators could draw on this hypothesis to help students engage with unconscious thinking to make decisions? This work is directly linked to “promisingness judgments”—judgments made when working to achieve creative knowledge goals. Should we work to replicate the studies in the promisingness context?


First, conscious thought does not always lead to sound choices. (p. 1)

Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not always advantageous to engage in thorough conscious deliberation before choosing. On the basis of recent insights into the characteristics of conscious and unconscious thought, we tested the hypothesis that simple choices (such as between different towels or different sets of oven mitts) indeed produce better results after conscious thought, but that choices in complex matters (such as between different houses or different cars) should be left to unconscious thought. Named the ‘‘deliberation-without-attention’’ hypothesis, it was confirmed in four studies on consumer choice, both in the laboratory as well as among actual shoppers, that purchases of complex products were viewed more favorably when decisions had been made in the absence of attentive deliberation. (p. 1)

Two reasons why conscious deliberation sometimes leads to poor judgments have been identified. First, consciousness has a low capacity (17, 18), causing choosers to take into account only a subset of the relevant information when they decide (13, 19). Second, conscious thought can lead to suboptimal weighting of the importance of attributes (13–16): We tend to inflate the importance of some attributes at the expense of others, leading to worse choices. (p. 1)

Common knowledge holds that thorough conscious thought leads to good decisions and satisfactory choices. Whether purchasing a new car, a desktop computer, or a pair of shoes, people generally believe that serious conscious deliberation increases the probability that they will make the Bright[ choice. (p. 1)

The scientific literature has emphasized the benefits of conscious deliberation in decision making for hundreds of years (2, 3). The idea that conscious deliberation is the ideal (if not always attainable) way to approach a decision forms the backbone of classic (4, 5) as well as contemporary perspectives on decision making (6, 7) and attitude formation (8, 9). (p. 1)

Conversely, unconscious thought, or thought without attention, can lead to good choices (13, 14). (p. 1)

A second pervasive idea is that the quality of a choice benefits from Bsleeping on it.[ Rather than (or in addition to) thinking consciously, people usually feel that Bunconscious thought[ is useful for making sound decisions. (p. 1)

Conscious thought is hypothesized, due to its precision, to lead to good choices in simple matters. However, because of its low capacity, conscious thought leads to progressively worse choices with more complex issues. Unconscious thought (i.e., deliberation without attention) is expected, because of its relative lack of precision, to lead to choices of lower quality. However, the quality of choice does not deteriorate with increased complexity, allowing unconscious thought to lead to better choices than conscious thought under complex circumstances, this latter idea being the kernel of the deliberation-without-attention hypothesis. Quality of choice was operationalized both normatively (studies 1 and 2) as well as subjectively (as postchoice satisfaction, in studies 3 and 4). (p. 2)

Study 2. For the second study we made one change (25). Rather than asking for a choice, we asked participants about their attitudes toward each of the four cars. (p. 2)

Recently, we formulated the Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT) (21) about the strengths and weaknesses of conscious thought and unconscious thought, that is, of deliberation with and without attention. Two characteristics of conscious and unconscious thought are important in the current context. First, conscious thought is rule-based and very precise (22, 23). Unconscious thought can conform to rules in that it detects recurring patterns, as the literature on implicit learning shows (24). (p. 2)

Study 3. In a pilot study, undergraduate students were asked how many aspects of a product they would take into account in the purchase of 40 different products. (p. 2)

Study 1. Participants were subjected to a 2 (mode of thought: conscious versus unconscious) 2 (complexity of choice problem: simple versus complex) factorial design (25). All participants read information about four hypothetical cars. (p. 2)

Second, as alluded to earlier, conscious thought suffers from the low capacity of consciousness, making it less suitable for very complex issues. Unconscious thought does not suffer from low capacity. Indeed, it has been shown that during unconscious thought, large amounts of information can be integrated into an evaluative summary judgment (13). (p. 2)

These characteristics of conscious and unconscious thought led us to postulate the Bdeliberation-without-attention[ hypothesis, on the relation between mode of thought or deliberation (conscious versus unconscious) and the complexity and quality of choice. (p. 2)

The opposite was true for the IKEA customers (complex products), in which case unconscious thinkers showed more postchoice satisfaction than conscious thinkers EF(1,25) 0 6.12, P G 0.02^ (Fig. 4). (p. 3)

In sum, in four studies we demonstrated the deliberation-without-attention effect. Conscious thinkers were better able to make the best choice among simple products, whereas unconscious thinkers were better able to make the best choice among complex products. (p. 3)

We regressed the amount of thought and the average number of aspects on postchoice satisfaction. As expected, thinking does not make people more satisfied, nor does complexity (t_s G 1). However, the interaction of the two parameters significantly predicted postchoice satisfaction Et(48) 0 2.13, P G 0.04^. (p. 3)

Correlations were calculated between amount of thought and postchoice satisfaction for three categories of products: complex, medium, and simple. For products of medium complexity, no correlation was found Er(18) 0 –0.03^; for simple products, a positive correlation was found Er(15) 0 0.57, P G 0.03^; and for complex products, a negative correlation was found Er(16) 0 –0.56, P G 0.03^. As expected, the more people thought consciously about simple products, the more satisfied they were with their purchase. Conversely, the more people thought consciously about complex products, the less satisfied they were with their purchase. (p. 3)

Study 4. On the basis of the pilot study to study 3, two shops were selected: one where people generally buy complex products (IKEA, which sells mainly furniture) and one where people generally buy simple products (p. 3)

We divided participants (Bthinkers[) on the basis of a median-split procedure into those who engaged in much conscious thought (conscious thinkers) and those who engaged in little conscious thought (unconscious thinkers). (p. 3)

As expected, conscious thinkers reported more postchoice satisfaction than unconscious thinkers for Bijenkorf products (simple (p. 3)

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