Study participants were asked to identify an oddly rotated symbol on a screen of more than 650 identical symbols. Those who made quick, instinctive decisions did better at correctly identifying the symbol than those who gave a longer, more thought out answer.
“This finding seems counter-intuitive,” said Li Zhaoping of the University College London, one of the authors of the study published online in the journal Current Biology. “You would expect people to make more accurate decisions when given the time to look properly. Instead they performed better when given almost no time to think.”
The researchers detected when subjects had found the target symbol by tracking their eye movements. Once a participant's eyes located the rotated symbol, researchers turned off the screen, limiting the amount of time the subject’s eye could linger on the object from zero to 1.5 seconds. Participants then had to state whether the rotated symbol was on the left or right-hand side of the screen.
Those who had only a small fraction of a second to look at the symbol identified it more accurately than those who had more than one second.
Zhaoping attributes this result to the difference in the abilities of the subconscious and conscious minds to recognize the rotated symbol as different from the original. While the subconscious can spot the difference between an apple that is rotated and one that is not, the conscious mind sees them both as only apples.
When given time to engage the higher-level processes of the conscious mind, participants guessed wrong because their conscious brain overrode the decision of the lower-level subconscious.
“If our higher-level and lower-level cognitive processes are leading us to the same conclusions, there is no issue,” Zhaoping said. “Often though, our instincts and higher-level functions are in conflict and in this case our instincts are often silenced by our reasoning conscious mind.”
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