Preconscious Influences on Decision Making about Complex Questions

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There is evidence that the most widely accepted theories and models of judgment, decision making and reasoning are inadequate because they do not accurately describe what people do or are able to do when making decisions. One shortcoming of existing theories and models may be that they do not account for the potential influence of preconscious processes on decision making and conscious reasoning.

The present study investigated whether preconscious processes influenced decision making about complex questions based on interviews with 41 state legislators and 18 doctoral students. This inquiry also examined whether participants' decision making processes differed by issue and whether legislators and doctoral students differed in how they made policy decisions.

Participants were asked to make two educational policy decisions and were asked follow-up questions about each decision. These follow-up questions were designed to collect data concerning the source and quality of participants' evidence, their ability to generate counterarguments, their certainty in the accuracy of their decisions, whether the policy questions evoked an affective response, and how much participants reported knowing about each decision topic. The study also measured and compared how quickly participants made decisions and provided reasons to support their decisions. To complete the interview, participants were asked to review two decision-making models, a traditional purely-conscious model and a second intuitive model that incorporated preconscious processes, and to select the model that better described how most people and how the participants themselves made political decisions.

Based on the data collected there is reason to believe that preconscious processes may influence decisions about policy and other complex questions. Participants made decisions quickly, with little external evidence to support the decisions. They were quite certain about the accuracy of their decisions even though many reported having little or know knowledge about the decision questions. Participants' comments also suggested that one or both decision topics evoked an affective response to the policy question. And most participants described their own decision making using the decision model that depicted the influence of preconscious processes. These findings do not support the accuracy of traditional, purely conscious models of judgment and decision making.