When psychologists try to understand the way our mind works, they frequently come to a conclusion that may seem startling: people often make decisions without having given them much thought—or, more precisely, before they have thought about them consciously. When we decide how to vote, what to buy, where to go on vacation and myriad other things, unconscious thoughts that we are not even aware of typically play a big role. Research has recently brought to light just how profoundly our unconscious mind shapes our day-to-day interactions.
One of the best-known studies to illustrate the power of the unconscious focused on the process of deciding whether a candidate was fit to hold public office. A group of mock voters were given a split second to inspect portrait photographs from the Internet of U.S. gubernatorial and senatorial candidates from states other than where the voters lived. Then, based on their fleeting glimpses of each portrait, they were asked to judge the candidates. Remarkably, the straw poll served as an accurate proxy for the later choices of actual voters in those states. Competency ratings based on seeing the candidates' faces for less time than it takes to blink an eye predicted the outcome of two out of three elections.