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

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Introduction :[edit]

The concept of the unconscious was developed in the early twentieth century by founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Freud adopted the analogy of an iceberg to explain the tripartite structure of the mind: the conscious, preconscious and unconscious[1]. Defined as the ‘reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories outside of our conscious awareness', he proposes that the ‘unconscious’ guides and justifies most of human behaviour[2].

Diagram of Freud's Psychoanalytic Theory of Personality .webp

Freud's conceptions of the unconscious 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"[3]

Specifically, we focus 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"[4]. In our work, we discuss the power of the unconscious within various fields, such as Neuropsychology, Economics and Sociology; as well as address its implications in Law.

A Neuropsychological Perspective of Decision-making[edit]

Overview of Decision-making: A complex brain process[edit]

Experiments on brain activity have demonstrated that decision-making behavior was mainly associated with the prefrontal cortex (front part of the frontal lobe). When making a choice, two processes come into play: Evaluation and Classification. The former includes a judgment based upon different options, compared to a set of normative goals. These judgments find themselves divided into two categories: plain facts referring to unconditional truths ‘independent of human perception of them’ which rely on the lateral prefrontal cortex; and evaluative judgments, implying subjectivity, which depend on the medial prefrontal cortex. Meanwhile, classification involves comparing and evaluating the possible outcomes of the available options.

There are four levels to decision-making:

The first level is called the recognition-primed decision. The decision is reached automatically, without involving the decision-maker’s value system.

The second defines a decision based upon one’s values, built upon salient attributes to promote one option rather than others. It involves an elicit activation within the orbital and ventromedial PFC, partially dedicated to extracting the emotional significance of occurrences.

The third incorporates long-term or contextual information, adding more or less conscious justifications of the value-system to the assessment, opening for emotional weight. The latter is primarily drawn on anterior-medial and dorsomedial prefrontal areas.

Finally, the last consists of unprecedented, surprising decisions, leading new options to be created.

Role of the Unconscious in Decision-making[edit]

Naturally, we are led to think that every single choice we make in our daily lives are the result of an elaborate conscious process taking place in our brain. However, several neuropsychological studies have proven the contrary. The American brain scientist Benjamin Libet conducted an experiment[5] aiming at discerning the inner brain activity when one is taking 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 the neuroscientist’s results were debated, this experiment challenged our perception of “free will”, as from this perspective, humans’ consciousness is not responsible for making a decision, our brain is.

Sociological Perspective: Unconscious Decision-making in the Social Context[edit]

While decision-making is often associated with rationality, 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]. A large body of work emphasizes the importance of social interaction in understanding the role of the unconscious in choice-making processes, such as motivations and actions. Constructed environments and human interaction in that specific environment are identified as two contributing social contextual factors.

Constructed Environments[edit]

Socially constructed environments include, for instance, school and neighborhood. Studies have revealed that people’s choice is highly sensitive to “features of choice environments.” [8] Recent research explores how conditions of scarcity— with regards to time, resources, and energy— can mold an 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 making up the unconscious part of our 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 itself, 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 we notice that 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]

Behavioural 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 decision makers. Behavioural economists tend to anticipate and understand irrational decisions by dissecting the unconscious decision making process through a psychological lens, the aim being to understand how a consumer’s brain proceeds in order to adjust marketing strategies.[13]

Unconscious consumption patterns[edit]

Accordingly, several patterns have been highlighted by behavioral economists through experiments. As per to David Brooks in The Social Animal, and Dan Ariely, individuals proceed to a choice architecture before taking 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 (the smell, 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: The Criminal Justice System[edit]

The novel concept of an unconscious bias was introduced as “the new science of unconscious mental processes that has a substantial bearing on discrimination law”[15]. More specifically, implicit biases are associations and beliefs about a certain social group that develop outside of a person's conscious awareness. As these stereotypes are deeply concealed in one's unconscious, people act on them without meaning to do so [16].

Procedural fairness has long been at the heart of the justice system. While fairness is striven for, implicit bias and its implications on decision-making inevitably compromises this right. As racial disparities pervade the system, discussions about bias in this context mostly surround implicit racial biases. Across studies, there is general consensus that people of colored skin are victims of inequality arising from bias. For example, studies have found that 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 this concept is fundamental to eliminating discrimination and reshaping power dynamics in our society.

Evaluation of Power[edit]

The development of the idea of the unconscious within decision making in several disciplines have raised a serious philosophical debate around the idea of free will, where individuals are self-determined.

Accordingly, 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 thinking 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]. Furthermore, for humanistic psychologists, this notion contradicts and confronts their belief of free will as a "human need"[22]. Similarly, in economics, mass consumers could "blame" marketing strategies for manipulating their unconscious.

Overall, unconscious decision making have powerfully impacted disciplines' study and ways of thinking.


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