Sunday, June 30, 2013

Our Unconscious Plays An Active Role in Problem Solving

In the previous blog post we learned about incubation - “the process whereby a problem is consciously ignored for a while after which the unconscious offers a solution.[1]” We learned that distraction plays a role in incubation by fading the memory of the heuristics (or mental set) [2] that led to a dead-end. 

Today we embark on a bolder explanation on the mechanisms of incubation. Consciously ignoring a problem does more than decrease associative connections to incorrect strategies. Indeed, our unconscious also plays an active role in problem solving by continuing to work on the problem when we are not thinking of it.[3]

Our unconscious thought is powerful and can solve many problems more efficiently than our conscious thought. We can even start and complete goals to a desired outcome all completely outside of consciousness.[4] Look out for the theme of unconscious vs. conscious thoughts throughout my upcoming posts. We shall further explore which decisions are better suited for our unconscious, versus which situations require the guided effort of our conscious attention.                                          

[1] Ap Dijksterhuis, Think Different: The Merits of Unconscious Thought in Preference Development and Decision Making, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2004, 588.
[2] "Mental Set" is defined as "the tendency to solve certain problems in a fixed way based on previous solutions to similar problems." See Michael Ollinger, Gary Jones, and Gunther Knoblich, Investigating the Effect of Mental Set on Insight Problem Solving, Experimental Psychology, 2008, 269.
[3] See Dijksterhuis, supra note 1. In pertinent part:
Other evidence for unconscious thought processes comes from research by Bowers, Regehr, Balthazard, and Parker (1990). Their participants were asked to identify words while from time to time they were given a hint, such as an associated word. After each hint, they were pressed to guess. When people solve such problems, they “feel” as if they suddenly know the answer. Indeed, the answer suddenly pops up in consciousness (“red . . . bowl . . . fresh . . . of course, they mean fruit!”). However, people’s successive guesses indicated that the process is not quite as sudden if seen from the perspective of the unconscious. Successive guesses converged, and the unconscious seemed to be closing in on the right answer quite a while before the answer was accessible to consciousness. Related findings come from research on tip-of-the-tongue phenomena. Yaniv and Meyer (1987) offered participants definitions of rare words they could not recall but felt they knew. In a lexical decision task, the target tip-of-the-tongue words were highly accessible. Although the words were inaccessible to consciousness, the unconscious had found and activated them.
[4] See Generally, John Bargh, P. Gollwitzer, A. Barndollar, R. Trotschel, The Automated Will: Nonconscious Activation and Pursuit of Behavioral Goals, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001.

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