In a series of experiments reported last week in the journal Science, a team of Dutch psychologists found that people struggling to make complex decisions did best when they were distracted and were not able to think consciously about the choice at all. The research not only backs up the common advice to “sleep on it” when facing difficult choices, but it also suggests that the unconscious brain can actively reason as well as produce weird dreams and Freudian slips. “This is very elegant work, and like any great work, it opens up as many questions as it answers” about the unconscious, said Timothy D. Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and the author of the book “Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious.” He was not involved in the research.
Psychologists have known for years that people process an enormous amount of information unconsciously — for example, when they hear their names pop up in a conversation across the room that they were not consciously listening to. But the new report suggests that people take this wealth of under-the-radar information, combine it with deliberately studied facts and impressions and then make astute judgments that they would not otherwise form.