Research suggests the conscious experience of choice may be constructed after we act

May 3, 2016 by Bill Hathaway, Yale University
Research suggests the conscious experience of choice may be constructed after we act
Credit: Michael S. Helfenbein. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Sometimes, decisions we believe we make consciously, such as clicking on a link on a webpage or reaching for a cup of coffee, have already been made — a trick of the mind that may happen more than we think, new research by Yale University psychologists suggest.

"Our minds may be rewriting history," said Adam Bear, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology and lead author of the paper published April 28 in the journal Psychological Science.

Bear and Paul Bloom performed a couple of simple experiments to test how we experience choices. In one experiment, participants were told that five white circles would appear on the computer screen in front of them and, in rapid-fire sequence, one would turn . They were asked to predict which one would turn red and mentally note this. After a circle turned red, participants then recorded by keystroke whether they had chosen correctly, had chosen incorrectly, or had not had time to complete their choice.

The circle that turned red was always selected randomly, so probability dictates that participants should predict the correct circle 20% of the time. But when they only had a fraction of a second to make a prediction, these participants were likely to report that they correctly predicted which circle would change color more than 20% of the time. In contrast, when participants had more time to make their guess—approaching a full second—the reported number of accurate predictions dropped back to expected levels of 20% success, suggesting that weren't simply lying about their accuracy to impress the experimenters.

What happened, Bear suggests, is that events were rearranged in subjects' minds: People subconsciously perceived the color red before they predicted it would appear, but consciously experienced these two things in the opposite order. The conscious experience of choice may be constructed after we act—even when it feels like it is the cause of our behavior, say the researchers.

Bear and Bloom's research builds on past work suggesting that many decisions seem to be under more conscious control than they actually are. In many cases, consciousness may simply be window dressing, note the researchers.

Bear said it is unknown whether this illusion is caused by a quirk in perceptual processing that can only be reproduced in the lab or whether it might have "far more pervasive effects on our everyday lives and sense of free will."

Explore further: Expectation may be essential to memory formation

More information: A. Bear et al. A Simple Task Uncovers a Postdictive Illusion of Choice, Psychological Science (2016). DOI: 10.1177/0956797616641943

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5 comments

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dirk_bruere
1 / 5 (1) May 03, 2016
So, real conscious choice takes time. Otherwise it's akin to a mindless reflex. No news there.
Jim4321
not rated yet May 03, 2016
I agree with bruere -- unless there is something in the article that's not reflected in the press release. Presumably, the conscious part of the brain has some kind of minimum processing time. As the stimulus and response gets closer and closer to this minimum time -- we can expect instances of confusion to result. In particular, the subject may confuse the order of events. How do the authors discount these kinds of explanation and fix on their favored hypotheses. The most one can say is that the data are not inconsistent with their hypothesis or with the hypothesis of confusion.
Protoplasmix
not rated yet May 03, 2016
...the reported number of accurate predictions dropped back to expected levels of 20% success, suggesting that participants weren't simply lying about their accuracy to impress the experimenters.
It's unclear why the participants weren't simply instructed to physically select their prediction (by click or keystroke). I think it's this kind of subjectivity that opens the door to erroneous conclusions like, "it's not torture, it's enhanced interrogation and it's legitimate science." It looks more like pseudoscience.
In many cases, consciousness may simply be window dressing, note the researchers.
Consciousness is just a dresser of windows, your mind is not capable of critical thinking, your mind rearranges things and tricks you, you must rely on us to tell you what you're really thinking. As if...
RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet May 03, 2016
It is more likely that the same process as is seen in similar phenomena occurs, that is, initially the mind models both conditions before selecting one. If this superposition of states exists at the time the lights change then the actual condition makes the choice and so the person feels like they made the correct choice.

This is what leads gamblers to believe that they can predict the outcome of events. The correct outcome is highlighted *after* the event in the memory of the *before* condition. This is why nobody can utilise this 'subtle' ability...it isn't real.

The authors should consider the association with gambling even if just using their own model of the phenomena as studied.
drmudd
not rated yet May 04, 2016
Making a conscious "choice," by using a supposed independent ability to pick something specific, in relation to one or more other options, is really just simply acknowledging which option we are attracted to the most, and then heading in that direction. Desire has to already be present or the idea of making a choice won't even come to mind. Desire must also be there or the options will simply fade away.

And have you noticed that we always head in the direction of the strongest desire and that we aren't consciously creating desire? It arises on its own, as do all thoughts and feelings.

Consciousness is late to the party, so to speak, after options arise, desire arises, and the direction forward becomes clear. Saying, "I chose it!" is just not an accurate description of what actually is happening, but simply a boost to the ongoing creation of the illusory ego, which is what most people seem to think they are. Or more accurately, what Consciousness is tricked into thinking it is.

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