Are rational decisions produced by the conscious or subconscious mind?

Are people capable of making fully conscious decisions? Or does our subconscious play an unforeseen role in influencing our decisions? If our subconscious does play a role, can we still make rational decisions?

The following documentary (referred to us by Geoff McGovern) deals with the "hidden motives" of the mind. It got me thinking about whether we can still claim people are making rational decisions even if we believed they were making those decisions subconsciously.

More after the jump….

The results of the studies discussed in this documentary provide strong evidence (selecting on the dependent variable perhaps?) that people make decisions both consciously and subconsciously. In the second segment of the documentary, Alan Alda subjects himself to a sexism assessment test developed by researchers at Project Implicit. The test determines the existence of sexist attitudes by assessing how long it takes subjects to associate certain words and images with other words such as "Men" or "Women" and "Math", or "Language Arts". As with the authors of the test, Alan Alda was surprised to find out he held sexist attitudes, even if he didn’t consciously acknowledge that such attitudes were appropriate.

In the fourth segment, Alan Alda discusses a unique "Ultimatum" game created by researchers at Princeton University. Subjects were placed inside a MRI machine and shown pictures of their opponents for each round (which included a computer). They were much more likely to accept an unfair offer from a computer opponent than from a person. The creators of the test also indicate that subjects given offers between 30%-70% and 50%-50% had the rational part of their brain triggered, and they were likely to accept those offers. Alternatively, offers between 0%-100% and 20%-80% triggered the emotional part of the subjects’ brain, and they were likely to reject those offers.

These findings suggest that our subconscious plays a role in decision making. The question is- how big of a role does it play? Does it influence ALL our decisions, or only some of them? Can our subconscious make us act rationally as well as irrationally, or are all conscious decisions rational and all subconscious decisions irrational? What do these findings suggest about rationality assumptions in formal models? I do not have the answers to these questions, but I think research surrounding answering such questions is extremely valuable in advancing our understanding why human beings make the decisions they do.

Julie VanDusky-Allen

About Julie VanDusky-Allen

Julie VanDusky-Allen is at Boise State University and received her PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2011. Her research focuses on institutional choice and development, political parties, the legislative process, and Latin American politics.

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