Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Power of the Unconscious in Decision Making

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The concept of the unconscious was developed in the early twentieth century by Sigmund Freud. Defined as the ‘reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories outside of our conscious awareness', he proposed that the ‘unconscious’ guides and justifies most of human behaviour[1].

Freud's conception of the human mind

Freud's conceptions did not achieve much conclusive support among scientists then. However, today, greater emphasis has been given to unconscious mental processes by “individuals working in different disciplines, on different problems, but linked by a common goal of wishing to elucidate the properties of the mind"[2]

Specifically, this work focuses on the role of the unconscious in decision making, where "a preferred option or a course of actions is chosen from among a set of alternatives based on certain criteria"[3]. It discusses the power of the unconscious within Neuropsychology, Economics and Sociology; and address its implications in Law.

A Neuropsychological Perspective of Decision-making[edit]

Overview of decision making : A complex brain process[edit]

Experiments have demonstrated that the decision-making behavior was mainly associated with the prefrontal cortex. Decision-making comprises of two processes: Evaluation and Classification. Evaluation involves a judgment based upon different options, compared to a set of normative goals. Whereas, Classification involves comparing and evaluating the possible outcomes of the available options.

There are four levels to decision-making:

The first is reached automatically, namely a recognition-primed decision; the second defines a decision based upon one’s values to prefer one option. The third incorporates long-term or contextual information, opening for emotional weight. Finally, the last level consists of unprecedented decisions, leading new options to be created.[4]

Role of the Unconscious in Decision-making[edit]

Scientists have been led to think that choices are the result of an elaborate conscious process. However, neuropsychological studies have proven the contrary. American brain scientist, Benjamin Libet, conducted an experiment[5] aimed at discerning the inner brain activity when one makes a decision. He discovered the so-called "readiness-potential"[6], a brain signal occurring a fraction of a second before the decision was consciously made. Although results can be debated, this experiment challenges our perception of “free will”. From this perspective, humans’ consciousness is not responsible for making a decision, the brain is.

A Sociological Perspective[edit]

Sociologists have increasingly been arguing that 'the social world leaves enduring imprints on individuals' minds which then serve as foundations for these individuals' future actions' [7]. Studies have emphasized the importance of social interaction in understanding the role of the unconscious in choice-making. Constructed environments and human interactions within it are two contributing social contextual factors.

Constructed Environments[edit]

Socially constructed environments include, for instance, schools and neighbourhoods. People’s choices are highly sensitive to “features of choice environments.” [8] For example, research explored how conditions of scarcity— with regards to time, resources and energy— can mold individuals' decisions.[9] Through vast experiments, it is shown that time pressure or poverty tends to lead to fewer humans' subconscious trade-offs. Furthermore, social norms derived from a culture within a context is another significant factor forming the unconscious part of decision-making.

The Group of "Others"[edit]

'The more similar the comparison situation is to one’s own, the more powerful the effect of others’ behavior.'[10]. Other than the environment, the impact of 'other individuals' is also remarkable when understanding unconscious decisions. According to social categorization theory, individuals usually perceive people around as members of one’s “ingroup” (like me) and “outgroup”(not like me), and people tend to support or act like fellow members. [11]. This concept is also revealed in peer influence— individuals show they belong to a group by adopting a taste or an action. The need for a sense of belonging and social approval is the underlying cause of unconscious decision making.

The Unconscious within Behavioral Economics[edit]

Behavioral economics[edit]

While decision-making is unconsciously affected by emotions or external factors, we can perceive humans as unpredictable actors [12] as opposed to classic economists assumption that humans are rational. Behavioral economists tend to anticipate irrational decisions by dissecting the unconscious decision making process through a psychological lens to understand the consumer's brain and thus adjust marketing strategies.[13]

Unconscious consumption patterns[edit]

Several patterns have been highlighted by behavioral economists. According to David Brooks in The Social Animal, individuals proceed to a choice architecture before making decisions, relying on few principles. One of these principles notably illustrates that we make choices based on comparison. He also stated that ‘Every decision gets framed within a certain linguistic context’. Indeed, if the formula ‘Limited Units’ appears next to a product, the consumer is likely to buy more units than he would normally. Likewise, the environment in which we consume (odours, music...) is also highly influential. [14] Therefore, depending on our unconscious emotional state, external factors can seriously influence if not control economic choices.

Overall, the concept of unconsciousness provides economists and market researchers with a new perspective to understand consumer behaviors, empowering them to better coordinate the market and the economy.

Implications of Unconscious Bias in Law[edit]

The concept of an unconscious bias was introduced as 'the new science of unconscious mental processes...(with) substantial bearing on discrimination law'[15]. They are beliefs and stereotypes about certain social groups that develop outside of a person's conscious awareness explaining why people act on them without meaning to[16].

While fairness is striven for, implicit bias and its implications on decision-making compromises this right. As racial disparities pervade the system, discussions about bias in this context mostly surround implicit racial biases. Across studies, there is consensus that people of colored skin are victims of inequality arising from bias. For example, black defendants have a higher possibility of being treated harshly in the courtroom as opposed to their white counterparts. Similarly, juries often exhibit bias against defendants of a race different from that of the majority.[17].

From this, we witness how the unconscious helps perpetuate cycles of inequality. Hence, the awareness and understanding of unconsciouness is fundamental to eliminating discrimination and reshaping power dynamics in our society.

Power of the Unconscious in Decision-Making as an Interdisciplinary Issue[edit]

Developments in the role of the unconscious within decision-making across disciplines have contributed to the philosophical debate around free will, where individuals are self-determined. Accepting the unconscious as the driving force of our decision making process implies that free will is an illusion [18][19]. This view inevitably challenges the foundation of disciplines and their way of approaching issues. For instance, in law, presuming that free will is an illusion undermines the criminal legal system by putting into question the moral responsibility of individuals[20][21].

If we live in a society governed by the unconscious and its biases, what then are the implications for interdisciplinary research? Do experts possess unconscious biases against their counterparts from other disciplines? Do they unconsciously undermine research done by experts of a different ethnicity or gender?

In this wikibook, we have explored how the concept of the unconscious revolutionized ways of thinking across disciplines. Furthermore, we have highlighted how unconscious decision-making can perpetuate inequality in society, and potentially create barriers in interdisciplinary research.


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