“Claims by behavioural economists that our unconscious mind rules our behaviour lack sufficient scientific evidence”

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Claims by behavioural economists that our unconscious mind rules our behaviour lack sufficient scientific evidence

Magda OsmanPsychologists and behavioural economists have been successfully arguing that the unconscious, intuitive part of the mind, as opposed to our more considered, analytical side, is what drives our behaviour. While the story sounds plausible, the evidence is worryingly unconvincing, writes Magda Osman. You can also listen Wise Choices, a recent public lecture at the LSE featuring Magda.

Recent popular science books and documentaries such as the BBC’s Horizon programme ‘How you really make decisions’ argue that our unconscious rules, by making our choices. Is this true?

Several influential thinkers; such as Daniel Kahneman, Dan Ariely, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, argue that the reason …is because we have two minds; one intuitive (unconscious) and the other which is analytical (conscious). The one that rules the roost is the intuitive one, which often makes us fail to do the things we should do but in some instances can help us make wise choices.

It’s a nice story and it sounds plausible, but the evidence to back it up is worryingly unconvincing. A case in point is a study by Dijksterhuis and colleagues, published in 2006 in the prestigious journal Science. This study was taken as a shining example of the kinds of two-minds view that many researchers like to promote. The study is very neat…The study created a storm. It basically suggested that if you let your unconscious mind wander it would help you make a better decision for complicated problems than if you spent time thinking about the problem. The down side to this kind of finding is that scientists want to know how reliable it is. If it could be replicated then it would be very significant. To date, in twelve independent labs, none have been able to replicate the finding that Dijksterhuis and colleagues reported.

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