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Unconscious Thought Theory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 3402 words Published: 9th Nov 2021

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In 2004, Dutch behavioral psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis published early research on the roles of conscious and unconscious thought in preference development and decision-making. Two years later, in collaboration with L.F. Nordgren, Dijksterhuis refined his ideas in a seminal work on the theory of unconscious thought. The paper fundamentally expanded the field of behavioral psychology, bringing into contemporary research new questions regarding thought patterns and decision processes. At its core, UTT postulates that decisions about simple issues can be better made utilizing conscious thought, while decisions about complex matters can best be approached with unconscious thought (Dijksterhuis, 2006). UTT distinguishes between unconscious and conscious thought, and denotes the differences in characteristics that make each mode preferable under certain circumstances elaborated in Dijksterhuis’ work (Dijksterhuis, 2006).

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Since the creation of unconscious thought theory (UTT), scholars have developed the topic to be applicable to processes such as more complex decision-making, problem-solving and problem discovery, and creativity. Current research within the field has been conducted that yields both supporting and opposing data regarding the superiority of unconscious and conscious thought in distinct deliberation scenarios. Since 2004, researchers in behavioral psychology have been investigating new ways in which unconscious thought informs simple and complex decision-making.

The Foundations of UTT

The first publication to formally introduce the concept of the Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT) to contemporary behavioral psychology was Ap Dijksterhuis’ 2004 journal article on the merits of unconscious thought (Dijksterhuis, 2004). The article was the predecessor to what would eventually become the official UTT. In 2006, Dijksterhuis, in collaboration with L.F. Nordgrend, published “A Theory of Unconscious Thought”, which outlined UTT as a new theory about human thought and decision-making. The paper proposed UTT as a new topic of study in the field of behavioral psychology, defining critical terms such as “conscious thought”, the “capacity principle” and the “deliberation-without-attention hypothesis” which underlie and support UTT. Dijksterhuis’ work additionally discussed relations between the theory and decision strategies, and between the theory and intuition, among other endeavors. In these ways, the paper established UTT within behavioral psychology and provided a foundation for future research.

The core of Dijksterhuis’ initial paper was a carefully crafted experiment that sought to determine the power of unconscious thinking in decision-making scenarios. Participants in the study were presented with descriptions of three different fictional apartments and asked to determine which was the “best” overall (Dijksterhuis, 2006). The descriptions were often highly detailed and contained large volumes of information that might be classified as extraneous when making such a choice. Some participants were then distracted with an entirely unrelated task, such as talking about a different topic or examining a puzzle, before being prompted to assess the relative qualities of the apartments. Other participants were asked directly after being given all of the available information. In this way, the former group represented individuals engaged in unconscious deliberation, while the latter were those who were consciously considering the features of the apartments. The data from the study indicated that individuals who spent time away from the directed task were better able to determine the apartment indicated as “best” according to the information, while those who were prompted immediately struggled to sort out the vast quantity of available data. Dijksterhuis (2006) therefore showed that unconscious thought is often superior to conscious thought in relation to meditating on known information, but conceded that conscious thought processes are better during the earlier stage of information acquisition. Furthermore, Dijksterhuis (2006) generalized the findings of the study to conclude that consciousness should be used when gathering information, while the unconscious should be used after to assess it.

Assessments and Reexaminations of UTT

One commonly cited source in which UTT failed to adequately describe observed phenomena involved complex decision-making. Specifically, the work of Waroquier and Marchiori et al. (2010) expanded on research based on unresolved hypotheses stemming from Dijksterhuis’ (2006) study, and thereby reassessed UTT. Waroquier and Marchiori et al. (2010) suggested, contrary to the notion that complex decisions are best made after a period of distraction, that instead the superiority of such decisions results from the fact that conscious deliberation tends to deteriorate impressions formed during the information acquisition stage.

Waroquier and Marchiori et al. (2010) conducted an experiment that replicated earlier findings regarding decision-making after distraction periods. Their methodology consisted of a study design in which 294 participants were randomly assigned to one of six possible conditions based on relevant decision modes, and then assessed on their formations of opinions of four apartments. Each apartment was described on the basis of 12 unique attributes, with each being shown to participants for 8 seconds. One apartment was implicitly described as the “best” and another was described as the “worst”, while the remaining apartments were described as approximately average. After the presentation of information, participants were placed into “deliberation” or “distraction” conditions, and were accordingly instructed to either carefully consider their decisions or solve anagrams respectively.

Based on the results of their study, Waroquier and Marchiori et al. (2010) explained that decisions made immediately after acquiring new information were equally as satisfactory as those made after a brief distraction. This finding relates to the “deliberation-without-attention hypothesis” that constitutes a fundamental principal of Dijksterhuis’ UTT. The hypothesis states that conscious thought is most successful when matters of consideration are simple, and becomes worse as the complexity of the decision problem increases (Dijksterhuis, 2006). Waroquier and Marchiori et al.’s 2010 study found that it is unlikely that decision-relevant processes occur during the distraction phase, as originally suggested by Dijksterhuis’ UTT. Furthermore, while participants in the study reported a first impression formed after a distraction period, conscious thinking was proven to deteriorate decisions that were already made, or improve decisions in the absence of a high-quality first impression or available information.

Waroquier and Marchiori et al.’s (2010) work thus expands UTT by suggesting that people may often tend to make their decisions during information acquisition, that the “deliberation-without-attention” hypothesis does not occur during the distraction phase, and that ruminating about one’s initial impressions can actually deteriorate decision quality.

Recent Challenges and Future Inquiry

Ding and Han et al. (2019) further developed the topic of UTT by showing that previous studies were narrow in scope, as they only focused on creative problem-solving. To answer previously unexplored hypotheses, Ding and Han et al. (2019) created a new study to determine the role of unconscious thought as it relates to “Creative Science Problem-Finding”. They defined CSPF as a part of the problem-solving process that plays a critical role in creatively determining new problems and opportunities for analysis. Ding and Han et al. utilized a famously described research method known as the “unusual uses task” (UUT) to extend UTT and demonstrate the importance of unconscious thought–or lack thereof–in proposing creative problems.

Ding and Han et al.’s (2019) methodology focused on measuring the ability of CSPF on metrics of fluency, flexibility and originality. Specifically, they utilized the UUT method, which required 137 randomly selected Chinese high school seniors to generate a list of possible unusual uses for a given object, such as a brick, in a certain amount of time. Some of the participants were allowed to think for three minutes about the possible uses before writing, while others were made to continuously subtract numbers. In this way, the former group was made to consciously focus on the problem, while the latter was set up to unconsciously meditate on the task while being distracted. Ding and Han et al. (2019) then had raters assess the fluency and originality of the lists and answers generated according to an index of creativity. For this, they utilized a seven-point scale, with one being the least creative uses and seven being the most creative. The raters’ scores were then averaged to yield an overall measure of originality and creativity among the participants.

Based on the statistical analysis and associated results collected, Ding and Han et al.’s study using UUT demonstrated that unconscious thought did not show any significant advantage over conscious thought with regard to the creative task activity. Therefore, unconscious thought was not assessed as being better than conscious thought when attempting to generate creative problems in CSPF. Ding and Han et al.’s (2019) research is extremely valuable to the development of UTT, as it presents a new trajectory for future studies and provides additional evidence on existing matters from a new perspective.


The search for an objective theory to describe the importance of unconscious thought as it relates to our everyday decisions has continued to develop throughout contemporary behavioral psychology. The further exploration and acceptance of newer and more refined theories relies on future research being done in two specific fields: unconscious creativity and unconscious intelligences. Research on creativity, such as that being conducted by K. J. Gilhooly (2016) and Howard Gardner (2011), seeks to determine the potential importance of the role of unconscious processes which can lead to intuitive insights during incubation periods for creative problem-solving. This notion of “unconscious work” is supported by experimental studies involving the Immediate Incubation paradigm, while other explanations for similar incubation effects are also considered. More recent studies of divergent and creative thinking have been conducted in labs that seek to discover potential support for unconscious thought when meditating on creatively oriented problems.

It should be noted, though, that these research directions and theories are based on the shared notion that unconscious thought must necessarily be valuable beyond the prototypical applications. In other words, behavioral psychologists are searching for additional uses and methods to explain why their versions of UTT are particularly useful at predicting and describing decision processes. This presents a fundamental issue regarding the inevitable necessity to prove concepts regarding how we make decisions in our daily lives that may not be further generalizable to phenomena such as creativity or insightful bursts. This challenge does not disqualify such a course of study from consideration, but instead brings together the fields of behavioral psychology and neuroscience to answer questions of what truly influences our decision processes and how we can be foundationally creative.

For example, ongoing research efforts by neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen (2011) seek to elucidate the largely unknown relationships between unconscious thought and the neural basis for creativity. Andreasen (2011) studied 60 highly creative artists and scientists, and 30 normal individuals, and used fMRI imaging to demonstrate that the creativity of artists and scientists is the same in the brain regarding the use of unconscious thought. By continuing to conduct research and experiment across disciplines and within deeper levels of topical inquiry, behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists alike can grapple with these questions of conscious and unconscious thought, spurring the creation of new and innovative ways to deduce how we make simple and complex decisions.


Abadie, M., Waroquier, L., & Terrier, P. (2017). The role of gist and verbatim memory in complex decision making: Explaining the unconscious-thought effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 43(5), 694–705. https://doi.org/10.1037/xlm0000336.

Andreasen N. C. (2011). A journey into chaos: creativity and the unconscious. Mens sana monographs9(1), 42–53. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-1229.77424.

Dijksterhuis, A. (2004). Think different: The merits of unconscious thought in preference development and decision making. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(5), 586-598. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.87.5.586

Dijksterhuis, A., & Nordgren, L. F. (2006). A theory of unconscious thought. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(2), 95-109. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6916.2006.00007.x

Ding, R., Han, Q., Li, R., Li, T., Cui, Y., & Wu, P. (2019). Unconscious versus conscious thought in creative science problem finding: Unconscious thought showed no advantage! Consciousness and Cognition, Volume 71, 109-113. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2019.03.010.

Gardner, H. E. (2011). Creating minds: An anatomy of creativity as seen through the lives of freud, einstein, picasso, stravinsky, eliot, g. (pp. 19-45). Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com.

Gilhooly, K. J. (2016). Incubation and Intuition in Creative Problem Solving. Front. Psychol. 7:1076. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01076.

Waroquier, L., Marchiori, D., Klein, O., & Cleeremans, A. (2010). Is it better to think unconsciously or to trust your first impression? A reassessment of unconscious thought theory. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1(2), 111–118. doi: 10.1177/1948550609356597

Post-Draft Outline

Rhetorical Situation

Proposition: Since 2004, researchers in behavioral psychology have been investigating new ways in which unconscious thought informs simple and complex decision-making.

Audience: My main readership will consist of academics, scholars, and others interested in unconscious thought, decision processes, and creativity, including those in the fields that are exploring the intersection of these topics. I believe that these groups will be particularly interested to learn about what scholars in these fields have concluded regarding how the power of unconscious thought influences commonplace decision-making and shapes how individuals express their creativity. My shadow audience includes the students in my seminar, my professor, and outside readers.

Genre: Literature Review

Motive of Author: I am interested in unconscious thought theory and also in behavioral psychology, and thus I am personally motivated to research and write about this topic. The topic is also of personal interest regarding thinking about my own choices and decision processes in my everyday life and past experiences, along with learning about the importance of unconscious thought in my creative process.

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Motive of Reader: Those who are doing scholarship in behavioral psychology would be motivated to read this literature review to learn more about what other scholars are doing in this area of unconscious thought theory, either to learn about this specific topic or to supplement their knowledge of it. Parents, teachers, and non-academic readers may be motivated to read this review out of curiosity, or to help them understand the psychological bases of the everyday decisions that they make. Negotiators and judges may glean interesting new ideas from reading this literature review as well.

Author’s Goal: I seek to provide a meaningful and comprehensive overview of the cross-disciplinary research and data found relating to unconscious thought theory, what the scholars within the field and topic focus on, what methods they are using, how their findings differ or are shared, and what conclusions they draw. I hope that my readers can use this review of literature for their own introduction to this field, or to obtain a deeper understanding of it.

Author’s Plan: I plan to begin by defining “unconscious thought theory” (UTT) and outlining the fundamental principles that make up the topic as a course of study. I then plan to elaborate on research done on the power of unconscious thought by presenting the work of the main scholars within the field of behavioral psychology on UTT, beginning with Ap Dijksterhuis, the scholar responsible for originating the theory and bringing it into study.

Rhetorical Strategies: I seek to make my literature review accessible to non-academic readers and nonspecialist academics. Thus, I will define all key terms and use interesting examples related to everyday life and common decision-making as much as possible. I am not certain how I will organize these ideas for the final draft to ensure effective comprehension, but I will begin by writing my first draft in chronological order.

Keywords: Unconscious thought theory (UTT), unconscious thought, conscious thought, intelligence, cognition, thinking, development, decision-making, problem-solving, creativity.

Logical Outline

Paraphrase of Proposition: Recent research in behavioral psychology continues to expand notions of Unconscious Thought Theory.

P1-2 (introduction section): Ap Dijksterhuis created the Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT) based on research regarding decision-making and problem-solving in everyday life. The theory has since sparked a large volume of recent research within the field.

Function: 8 premises that lead to the proposition.

Revision: Streamline introductory explanations? Remove unneeded premises?

P3-4 (section 1): Dijksterhuis’ 2006 paper explored UTT using an experiment to systematically determine the importance of unconscious thought in decisions. This led to the creation of the deliberation-without-attention hypothesis, which has been subsequently challenged by more recent research.

Function: Reason 1 (how)

Revision: More discussion of specific data and methodology?

P5-7 (section 2): Waroquier and Marchiori et al. (2010) expanded the topic of UTT and developed the theory by replicating and refining prior findings. They revised the deliberation-without-attention hypothesis and suggested novel reasons for their results and future research.

Function: Reason 2 (how)

Revision: Bring in additional studies that similarly expanded UTT?

P8 (section 3): Ding and Han et al. (2019) further developed the topic of UTT, and conducted a new study focused on demonstrating the role of unconscious thought and its importance in creative science problem finding.

Function: Reason 3 (how)

Revision: Decrease wordiness and remove certain aspects?

P9-10 (conclusion): UTT is a relatively new topic of study within the broader field of behavioral psychology. While scientists have gleaned numerous valuable findings, future research in neuroscience on creativity and the neurological basis for decision-making is necessary to further develop the theory.

Function: Conclusion and reassessment.

Revision: Refine ideas about specific directions for UTT research?


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