The Subconscious Choice

Every single day, your brain makes an almost unquantifiable number of decisions. In the last five minutes alone, it decided where, how, and why you would sit or stand where you currently are. This decision was based on information about your mood, your current responsibilities, and your perception of the temperature and atmosphere of your location. It then decided the precise moment at which you would reach for your copy of TSL, and after that, it chose (although it was an easy choice) which article it would begin reading.

But why exactly did you choose to do what you’re doing over the literally infinite number of other things you could have chosen to do? You could have read a professional science column, or crept on some of your Facebook friends, or tweeted something regrettable. Despite all these options, you settled on reading TSL at this exact moment.

You may object that these decisions were ones that you thought about, which means you had a reason for them. This may be true. But recall all the decisions you’ve made in order to inhabit the precise physical space that you’re currently inhabiting, doing the precise thing that you’re currently doing. Maybe you’re leaning against a wall. Maybe you’re lying down. Maybe you’re enjoying some cheese ravioli at Frary Dining Hall. How were all of these decisions made? Did you deliberate over every single one of them? Chances are you simply did them. They just happened. And you may be able to assign reasons behind your choices now that you have deliberated over them, but an entire host of your decisions probably just organically occurred.

Again, you may object; these all seem like incredibly insignificant decisions. But what if I told you that the arbitrary and oblivious nature of these “insignificant” choices may actually apply in rather significant decisions as well?

Take a 2007 paper published by researchers at the National Institutes of Health. In the study, participants in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, which shows how intensely brain areas are firing, sampled and rated wines they believed to be of varying quality. The wines were actually identical. Half were told the “price” of the wines before they tasted, while the other half were not. When subjects were told the wine cost $90 a bottle, they reported they liked the wine significantly more than the $10 wine. When they were not told the price, there was no difference in subjective rating.

Even more surprising than this result are the brain areas that lit up during the act of tasting. Subjects that believed the wine to be more expensive showed greater activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which is associated with the pleasure and subjective liking response. That means the participants didn’t just rate the ostensibly more expensive wine higher because they believed they were supposed to; they actually enjoyed the “expensive” wine more than the “cheap” wine.

So, arbitrary facts, like the phony price of wine, can affect our decision-making processes as well as our behavior. But what about objective economic decisions? These, too, seem to be equally as affected. A study published by Dan Ariely at Duke University, also in 2007, illustrates this point. Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were asked to choose between two subscriptions to The Economist: an online subscription for $60 or both an online and print subscription for $125. In this group, the online subscription alone was preferred by 68 percent of students.

Let’s say we added in a choice that literally nobody wanted. This should have no effect on the objective value of either of the two choices, right? It seems as if this is not the case. Another group of students was asked to choose between an online subscription for $60, a print subscription for $125, and a print and online combination for $125. Nobody chose the print only subscription. And yet 84 percent of the participants chose the print and online combination.

Simply offering a choice that was obviously undesirable made another option seem like a better deal, and, as a result, more desirable. Adding another alternative didn’t change anything about the other choices, but it did change participants’ subjective experience of those choices.

If these examples haven’t already convinced you that behavior is subject to unconscious effects, maybe this one can. A 1996 study at Yale University had participants take word tests; half the tests were filled with rude and angry words, the other half were filled with positive words, but the real experiment happened when the participants left. As they entered the elevator on their way out, an accomplice to the study who was in the elevator dropped their things. Participants who had taken the positive word tests were much more likely to help the person clean up their stuff as compared to those primed with negative words.

Unconscious factors in decision-making are all around us. They color everything from our subjective experience to the way we treat other people. And while we can never erase these unconscious aspects of our reasoning, we can be aware of them. We can recognize that the people, ideas, and beliefs that surround us affect our mood, thoughts, and behavior. Especially in a world in which we are overrun by constant novel stimuli each and every day, we must understand that these stimuli change us, whether they reach us through the articles we read, the YouTube videos we watch, or the Facebook statuses we read. All of these bits of information have the power to transform us, whether we accept them or not.

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