Unconscious Thought Theory

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Conscious and unconscious thought significantly impact the quality of choices we make. Conscious thought is the mental state that encompasses a person’s rational awareness, whereas unconscious thought is an underlying influence that one is typically unaware of and which impacts a person’s behavior. Unconscious thought is best defined as thought or reasoning that takes place when conscious attention is directed elsewhere (Bos, Baaren, Dijksterhuis, 2008).

Many experiments have proven that considerable unconscious thought can improve one’s decisions. Unconscious thought theory (UTT) results from various studies of consciousness and unconsciousness. This theory consists of six principles relating to these two primary modes of thought (Bellezza, Gonzalez-Vallejo, Lassiter, Lindberg, 2008).


Unconscious Thought Principle

The first principle is the unconscious thought principle. This principle states that conscious thought consists of directed attention whereas unconscious thought is more effective when attention is directed elsewhere. The conscious system is the part of our duplex mind that performs complex operations while the unconscious system is automatic and comprises of task relevant operations that we are unaware of.

In an experiment conducted by Dijksterhuis and Nordgren in 2004, participants were given information describing 4 apartments: one with mostly positive features, one with mostly negative features, and the other two with neutral features. In the experiment, participants were asked to rank which apartments they preferred based on three independent variables. Participants made their decisions either immediately after hearing the features, after being given three minutes to think about it, or after being distracted for a period of time thereby engaging in what is called social unconscious thought. The results showed that the participants who made immediate decisions and who were given three minutes to think could not decipher which was the better apartment, unlike those who engaged in social unconscious thought (Dijksterhuis and Nordgren, 2004). It is seen from the results that those who engaged in social unconscious thought made better decisions than those who engaged in conscious thought.

Capacity Principle

The second principle is the capacity principle. This principle describes how conscious thought is constrained by a low capacity of consciousness and is therefore limited. Unconscious thought has a much higher capacity and therefore does not have this constraint. Conscious thought does not take into consideration all the information it should and can only store seven items in short term memory at once as discussed by Miller (1956). For conscious thought, quality indirectly varies as a function of complexity.

Dijksterhuis and Nordgren (2004) conducted the same experiment as before only this time the participants were asked to choose the best apartment rather than rank them. Out of those who engaged in the unconscious variable, 56% chose the best apartment compared to 42% of the immediate choosers and 27% of the conscious choosers. Results showed that consciousness only uses a “subset” of information and inhibits the quality of a choice or a decision.

Bottom-Up versus Top-Down Principle

The third principle is the Bottom-Up-versus-Top-Down principle. Unconsciousness works “bottom-up” or unschematically and consciousness works “top-down” or schematically (Bellezza et al. 2008). This notion deals with how people are typically not consciously aware of applying stereotypes and are therefore activated automatically. Thought guided by a schema typically guides people towards conducting ideas consistent with previous beliefs. Schemas are knowledge structures that represent substantial information about a concept, its attributes, and relationships to other concepts (Beaumeister and Bushman 2008). Thoughts that are inconsistent are either blocked or reinterpreted to make them more consistent. It is through unconscious thinking that we generate more skewed interpretations. Conscious thinking leads people to consider conscious thought more frequently thus making unconscious thought harder to recall and less available. (Bellezza et al. 2008).

Weighting Principle

The fourth principle is the Weighting Principle which explains how unconscious thinking naturally weighs relative elements of a situation. In fact, conscious thought disrupts this natural process and interferes with the weighing principle. Conscious thought disturbs the decision process by letting people put too much or too little weight on various attributes. Conscious thought has shortcomings that can prevent sound decision making and can lead to suboptimal weighting of the importance of aspects of different choice alternatives (Bos, et al. 2008). Unconscious thought “weights the relative importance of different attributes of objects in a relatively objective and “natural” way” (Dijksterhuis and Olden, 2005).

Rule Principle

The fifth principle is the Rule principle. The rule principle describes how conscious thought follows stringent rules and is therefore more precise as apposed to unconscious thought which results in more roughly estimated outcomes. Claxton (1997) believes unconscious thought can be used for logical problems that involve fixed and exact end results.

Convergence Principle

The sixth and final principle is the Convergence versus Divergence principle. Conscious thought is more convergent and unconscious thought is more divergent. Conscious thought is convergent since it can integrate large amounts of information. Unconscious thought is described as divergent due to the limited capacity described in the capacity principle. Unlike conscious thought, unconscious thought does not have the ability to store and incorporate vast amounts of different information. After a period of conscious engagement, it is necessary to undergo a break or phase of distraction in order to successfully engage in incubation which allows other critical cues to surface and unimportant cues to fade from memory. (Dijksterhuis and Olden, 2005). It is also believed, based on studies from this principle, that the unconscious is primarily responsible for creativity.


From the UTT, it is proven that unconscious cognitions typically yield better decisions in complex situations. However, there are always exceptions and every principle has not been proven with 100% accuracy. Therefore, no complete affirmation that the best means of deliberation can be confirmed.

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