Are we really in control of our thoughts & actions?

August 16th, 2007

There was a really interesting article in the July 7 issue of New Scientist, written by UK writer, Mark Buchanan. It’s all about human behaviours and what influences what we do – the premise being that humans, like other animals, are influenced by their environment and by routines, meaning that a lot of behaviour can be predicted.

It appears that although we think we are reasoning out our decisions and choosing our actions deliberately, we may often just be responding more or less automatically to cues in our environment. Only afterwards do we make up reasons to explain what we did.

There’s also a lot about the role of non-verbal cues – and how we often respond to social signals alone. Others disagree and explore the difference between conscious and unconscious thinking. And this is where it gets really interesting. Research has shown that:

in…simpler tasks, people acting consciously made better decisions, but for more complex choices, acting on instinct proved most successful. The reason…is that conscious thinking cannot cope with evaluating many elements at once, whereas unconscious thinking is more holistic and can. “During unconscious thought,” (Dijksterehuis) says, “people can integrate lots of information together to make an overall judgement.”

When working with scientists in particular, the preference is to gather more data before making a decision. Maybe this is counter-productive, and when facilitating such groups for such purposes maybe we should encourage them to tap into their unconscious thinking.

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