by CarlD

It turns out that when we’re undecided we may not be. Science reports a study by Canadian and Italian researchers who used image and word association to tease out self-declared undecided people’s political precommitments with 70% accuracy.

According to Denise Gellene of the L.A. Times (via the N&O) “[t]he researchers said it’s all part of an unconscious decisiveness that manifests itself in the hundreds of mundane, snap decisions people make every day, such as choosing which shoe to put on first or which seat to take on an empty bus.”

Yah. And we don’t even need a fancy theory of the unconscious to explain habituated pseudo-intentionality, although we do need a cultural theory to explain why some people are so resistant to the unremarkable observation that much of our living and thinking is automated for ease of handling.

If, as the study suggests, we’ve all mostly made up our minds already, I wonder about the conditions (psychological, sociological) under which people are inclined to defer or not defer their moment of bringing decision to consciousness. A vulgar behaviorist might wonder if there are rewards and punishments for some people for being, or appearing, decisive, deliberate, open-minded or accommodating. A good study would probably find that these conditions are highly situated, so that people who are inclined to defer decision in one context may be much more decisive in others. The great speckled ditherer is probably a rare bird. Power is certainly in play, but there’s power in both deciding and not deciding, so that’s another situated analysis.

And if undecisive people have already decided, what does this say about decisive people? It may be that only in cases of fundamental ignorance or complete disinterest is persuasion possible. Otherwise, as William James said, when we think we’re thinking we’re merely rearranging our prejudices.


12 Responses to “Undecision”

  1. I prefer peanut butter and banana, but today I chose peanut butter and jam. On food, I place a lot of faith in my body telling me what to eat next… so my decisions are based on how my body is responding, and of course what foods it knows can fulfill my current needs. Since I’m a lifelong vegetarian my body never asks for meat although had I eaten it I’m sure it would start asking for it when I’m low protein. So it really is hard wired to my past experience, which greatly informs my decisions.

    so many kinds of decisions…

    On being decisive, I used to feel pressure to have an opinion. In high school, I remember shopping with friends and they would ask “hey do you like this” and I would say “no opinion”. Now I find it easy to have an opinion… I’m expected to know what I like and don’t like.

    I wish it was easier to not have an opinion. Yes? No? I vote for /dev/null

  2. Hi Owen! Congratulations. You’re the first commenter in the new ‘monster avatar’ regime. I like yours a lot.

    I like peanut butter and honey. Mom made jelly so that was also good, although when I was younger I was frustrated that my home-made sandwiches had zero barter value in the market for lunch luxuries like HoHos and Twinkies. I had no choice about that or what was in my lunchbag.

    I hear you about not having an opinion. I especially would rather not have the kind of opinion people ask for without really wanting. Is this a good paper? Will this curriculum change make the world a better place? Do I look fat in these jeans?

    The thing that’s striking but not surprising to me about this study is that it shows ‘big, serious’ political decisions to work just the same as ‘little, trivial’ tastes and preferences.

  3. Indecisiveness isn’t a native characteristic of mine but it is expected as a way to defer to authority in our culture, I find. You’re not supposed to SHOW that you’ve decided. My theory is that this is some sort of dance designed to defer to authority.

  4. You’re right, so it’s a situated response to real or perceived gradients of power, and tends to be best mastered by those whose power is structurally least. In that context indecisiveness is also a strategy of manipulation.

  5. What is the advantage in not knowing your own mind? So that your groveling is all that more convincing?

  6. It sounds as if the researchers used some version of the Implicit Association Test. There’s an online version measuring implicit attitudes at implicit.harvard.edu. Anybody can take it online. According to the test, I have an implicit prejudice against the elderly. Who knew. I hope AARP doesn’t find out; they might revoke my membership.

    If the researchers can predict the attitudes of undecideds with 70% accuracy, that’s still not very good. If opinions were divided 50-50 on the issue, they only improved the accuracy of determining people’s opinions from 50% to 70%. It sounds as if there are still a fair number of people who really were undecided.

  7. I like this study because I wasn’t sure I was sure I wanted to leave a comment. Philosophical decisions, gardening decisions and decisions to go to war are all of the same nature. Perfect. Such “undecision” sort of takes the whole Sartrean heroic choice out of the picture, doesn’t it? Us philosophers love to talk about deciding. Some annoying, but somehow endearing Slovenians love to talk about “I’d prefer not to.” I wonder if the notion of decision/deciding forces us always to presuppose some sort of conception of the subject defined in terms of an active, engaged will. Or, perhaps, is it better to think of the subject as taken over (or in this case always already beholden) by the decision? In fact, as some pointed out above, there certainly seem to be political ramifications here too, for it seems to me that how we think politics may just depend on how we understand the nature of decisions/deciding. Then again, who knows, for Kierkegaard told us that the instant of the decision is madness, and I just read Carl’s blog so he can tell me what to do and how to do it…

  8. Noen, that’s definitely one advantage. It also keeps us from noticing what a collage of mismatched fabrics our minds are. The fiction of self is easily torn, and we’re well-defended against that.

    Bob, sorry to hear about your unconscious self-loathing. It must irk you to inhabit such a cliche’. 😉 I also share your suspicion of glib quantitation; I only find it convincing when it confirms some prejudice of mine, which this one does. So I’d interpret its value slightly differently. Although we might guess that undecideds as a group would break 50/50, we don’t know which ones would go which way. This study therefore offers an improvement from 0% to 70%, which is quite good. And you’re right, that still leaves a substantial remainder of 30% ‘true’ undecideds. I wonder if they ever do decide.

    Shahar, I’m inclined to ascribe far less of our decision-making to active, engaged will than my white, male, middle-class, U.S. American default libertarianism programs me to. I’ve even managed to overcome my ill-spent youth as a nietzschean existentialist in this respect. Maybe disproving my own point.

  9. It also keeps us from noticing what a collage of mismatched fabrics our minds are. The fiction of self is easily torn, and we’re well-defended against that.

    That seems contradictory. It’s easily torn but well defended? Anyway, I’m very aware of how malleable my self is but that’s just me. Everyone else seems to be pretty firm about things.

  10. You’ve caught me in my usual metaphor problems. So here’s another one: imagine a hard shell around a soft, gushy center. Or how about a sea urchin?

    We all put on a coherent front. You look pretty firm to me. Goffman called this ‘face’, following the East Asian usage. It’s a performance, and the backstage is quite a bit more messy.


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