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100 Things You Should Know About People: #17 — Your Unconscious Knows 1st



You are shopping for a new computer and the salesperson you are talking to is offering you what seems to be a good deal. And yet there is a part of you that feels uncomfortable and isn’t sure if this is the right computer, or the right deal, or the right store for you. If you had to articulate why you felt uncomfortable you might not be able to say why, or you’d make up a reason, but that might not really be the reason. So what’s going on?

Your unconscious mind is faster than your conscious mind — One of my favorite pieces of research is the study by Bechara and Damasio. It’s a little complicated to explain, so a few months ago I put together a short video “re-enactment” to help describe the research. I have a summary below as well:

A card game — The subjects in the study played a gambling game with decks of cards. Each person received $2,000 of pretend money. They were told that the goal was to lose as little of the $2,000 as possible, and to try to make as much over the $2000 as possible. There were four decks of cards on the table. The participant turned over a card from any of the four decks, one card at a time. They continued turning over a card from the deck of their choice until the experimenter told them to stop. They didn’t know when the game would end. The participant was told that every time they turned over a card, they earned money. They were also told that sometimes when they turned over a card, they  earned money but also lost money (by paying it to the experimenter).

The participants didn’t know any of the rules of the gambling game. But here are what the rules actually were:

  • If they turned over any card in decks A or B, they earned $100. If they turned over any card in decks C and D, they earned only $50.
  • Some cards in decks A and B also required participants to pay the experimenter a lot of money, sometimes as much as $1,250. Some cards in decks C and D also required participants to pay the experimenter, but the amount they had to pay was only an average of $100.
  • Over the course of the game, decks A and B produced net losses if participants continued using them. Continued use of decks C and D rewarded participants with net gains.
  • The rules of never changed. Although participants didn’t know this, the game ended after 100 cards had been “played” (turned over).

The unconscious figures out first what is going on — Most participants started by trying all four decks. At first, they gravitated toward decks A and B because those decks paid out $100 per turn. But after about 30 turns, most  turned to decks C and D. They then continued turning cards in decks  C and D until the game ended. During the study, the experimenter stopped the game several times to ask participants about the decks. The participants were connected to a skin conductance sensor to measure their SCR (skin conductance response). Their SCR readings were elevated when they played decks A and B (the “dangerous” decks) long before participants consciously realized that A and B were dangerous. When the participants played decks A and B, their SCRs increased even before they touched the cards in the decks. Their SCRs increased when they thought about using decks A and B. Their unconscious knew that decks A and B were “dangerous” and resulting in a loss. We know that because we see the spike in the SCR. However, that’s all unconscious. The conscious mind didn’t know yet that anything is wrong yet.

The conscious mind starts to catch up — Eventually participants said they had a “hunch” that decks C and D were better, but the SCR shows that the old brain figured this out long before the new brain “got” it. By the end of the game, most participants had more than a hunch and could articulate the difference in the two decks, but a full 30 percent of the participants couldn’t explain why they preferred decks C and D. They said they just thought those decks were better.

The old brain is afraid of losing — In my book, Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? I talk about this study in the context of fear of losing. The “old” brain (unconscious) is always on the look-out to protect us from losing. It will detect potential loss in our environment and steer us to take less risks.

What do you think? How do you think you can apply this knowledge? What would you do if you were the person buying the computer at the beginning of this post? What if you were the salesperson trying to sell the computer to the person?

(Thank you goes to Cole Bitting for coming up with a better and shorter title for this post than I originally had!)

And if you like to read research, here’s the original study:

Deciding Advantageously Before Knowing Advantageous Strategy
Bechara et al.
Science 28 February 1997: 1293


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3 responses to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #17 — Your Unconscious Knows 1st”

  1. […] This post was Twitted by marinic […]

  2. StevieB Avatar

    Am enjoying perusing this website. In this particular article I’m pretty sure the intended word was “subconscious.” “Unconscious” means the person is asleep and incapable of participating in the experiments. Otherwise, good stuff!

  3. Susan Weinschenk Avatar
    Susan Weinschenk

    Thanks for writing in StevieB. I understand what you are saying about the word “unconscious”. When I first started writing my book I did not use the term unconscious, but after reviewing the literature on this, including a lot of research articles, and even a book called “The New Unconscious”, I decided that the term is used in psychology and research circles to mean mental processing that is not conscious. So I joined the consensus and I am using the term unconscious.

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