The Unconscious Executive

Postdoctoral fellow Maarten Bos investigates how unconscious processes improve decision-making. Conscious deliberation, it turns out, does not always lead to the best outcomes.
by Martha Lagace

What strategy do you use when making complex decisions? Do you burn the midnight oil to carefully weigh the pros and cons of each alternative? Or do you take your mind off the decision and follow the age-old wisdom of "sleeping on it"?

“Careful consideration of all the options can be done by our unconscious mind”

Both decision-making methods have strengths and weaknesses, says Harvard Business School postdoctoral fellow Maarten Bos. Our conscious mind is pretty good at following rules, but our unconscious mind—our ability to "think without attention"—can handle a larger amount of information. Studying the unconscious mind offers exciting new avenues for research, including creativity, decision making, and sleep.

Research by Bos and his colleagues suggests that unconscious thought supports the kind of mental organization needed for making complex decisions. In addition, unconscious thought might be more dependable than conscious thought when we are low on energy. Preliminary research also indicates that using odor or sound cues during sleep might activate our unconscious mind and improve creativity and innovation.

Bos, a social psychologist, conducts his research at HBS, in close collaboration with Harvard Medical School. In addition to researching sleep, creativity, and decision making, he studies influence, persuasion, voice and facial categorization, and communication.

Martha Lagace: What do you mean by unconscious thought?

Maarten Bos: We define unconscious thought as a goal-dependent, deliberative process in the absence of conscious attention. Most people attribute a lot of their actions to a conscious process, but there are scores of processes that operate unconsciously. Getting dressed in the morning, for example, is largely an unconscious process. So is driving to work—many people get to work without entirely remembering how their drive was and what they saw on the road.

Lots of processes are automated and therefore very efficient. Our research shows thinking and deciding can also often be left successfully to the unconscious mind.

Here is an example of unconscious thought. Imagine you are listening to a song and can't remember the name of the artist. You try to think hard, but are still unable to come up with it. So you tell yourself, "I'll stop thinking about it, and it will come to me in a minute." This is fascinating. In fact, there is an automatic process that continues to work on your question in the back of your mind. We call that process "unconscious thought."

Unconscious thought can do more than just help you remember facts. It actually has the power to fuel the creative process. Have you ever found yourself struggling with the wording while writing a paper, but after taking time away from it, you're able to quickly find the right words? This is your unconscious mind at work.

While our conscious mind is focused on other matters, our unconscious mind can process the relevant information we need to make important decisions.

Q: As you highlight in an article about one of your research studies, "sleeping on it" is good folk wisdom for making decisions. Yet people often feel the need to carefully ponder all options and thus choose rationally. What does your research suggest about trying to navigate these two seemingly contradictory views?

A: Yes, there seems to be a discrepancy. People think, on the one hand, they should carefully consider all options before making a decision, but on the other hand, we say that we should 'sleep on our decisions.' My colleagues and I think both are true, and that careful consideration of all the options can be done by our unconscious mind.

Both conscious and unconscious thought have strengths and weaknesses. There are decisions where we believe conscious thought outperforms unconscious thought. For example, when a decision requires application of very strict, mathematical rules, we hypothesize that conscious thought is beneficial. But when it comes to integrating a large amount of information, we think unconscious thought, which gives rougher estimates, is more beneficial (see our article in Science for more information).

man sleepingIn recent work, we combined both conscious and unconscious thought and showed exactly that: Conscious thought was very good at selecting options that conformed to a certain decision rule. Since the study was about apartment selection, our participants had been told not to choose an apartment on the ground floor, for instance. It was unconscious thought that proved to be good at selecting options with the best aggregated information. (In the case of this study, participants were asked to choose an apartment with many positive, important attributes.) Yet it was the combination of both unconscious and conscious thought that produced the best results overall. It resulted in participants choosing options that were both compliant with the decision rule and had a high number of positive attributes.

Q: One way you and colleagues have tried to sort out the mechanisms of conscious or unconscious thought yielding better results in particular decisions has been by running experiments that alter blood glucose levels. Could you tell us more about that?

A: We ran experiments where we manipulated the amount of sugar people ingested in a three-hour time period. We showed that while giving people a drink with sugar helps conscious thought—not a strange finding, considering our brain is fueled by glucose—surprisingly, unconscious thought performs better when people receive a drink without sugar in it. It seems that unconscious thought is not as dependent on glucose as conscious thought.

Other research conducted by [Mareike] Wieth and [Rose] Zacks has shown people are very good at making intuitive decisions at times when they are not at their best according to their circadian clock. In this research participants showed greater insight and creative problem-solving performance during nonoptimal times of day compared to optimal times of day. It seems that conscious thought sometimes gets in the way of making good decisions.

Q: You and your colleagues also study sleep and creative performance, as you write in an article in the Journal of Sleep Research. You take the interesting tack of studying odor. Why?

A: We used odor as a cue to reactivate thoughts about a task. This cue has the potential to increase information processing during sleep—a finding with powerful practical applications.

First, the cue is paired with a task, then the cue is repeated during sleep. To give an example: Imagine that you are reading materials for an important meeting right before you go to sleep. While you are reading, a cue is produced—either a smell is dispersed in the room or a distinct sound is played. Then during the night, that same cue is produced. The cue reactivates the reading you did before going to sleep and improves your memory of the information. This strategy could potentially act as a study aid for students and professionals alike.

So far, though, we have only found results for creativity. People were given instructions for a creativity task, paired with a cue, before they went to sleep. Those participants who were given the same cue at night were more creative the next morning.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: These are very exciting times. There is so much to do! One question we are investigating is which sleep phases are most sensitive to these conditioned cues I just mentioned. Replaying a cue all night might make the cue less effective. (Imagine putting on cologne in the morning. After about 20 seconds you don't smell it anymore because you've gotten used to it.) We don't know if this replaying affects the effectiveness of the cue. We also don't know if people get used to sounds or music in the same way. If we find out in which sleep phase these cues are most effective, then we may learn more about memory processing during sleep. We also need to do more research to find out if sleep quality is adversely affected by the cues, but no results so far indicate that sleep is disrupted.

“We could tap into the vast potential of the unconscious, while we're comfortably sleeping in our beds”

Another route we're investigating is whether this cue-activated boost works for decision making like it did for creativity. Creativity can be a very divergent process, while decision making is a more convergent process. We don't know for sure if sleep works the same, or as beneficially, for both of these processes.

I'm also working on various other lines of research that are less related to sleep. But whether it's sleep research (with Harvard Medical School's Robert Stickgold and Harvard Kennedy School's Todd Rogers, HBS PhDOB'08), influence and persuasion research (with my main collaborator at HBS, professor Amy Cuddy), voice analysis research (with Amy Cuddy and Cornell's Tanzeem Choudhury and her student Mashfiqui Rabbi), decision-making research (with Radboud University's Ap Dijksterhuis and Kellogg's Loran Nordgren), creativity research (with Harvard Psychology's Adrian Ward and Catalyst's Anna Beninger), or body posture research (with Amy Cuddy and MIT's Ehsan Hoque), almost all the research I do is about the unconscious and cognitive performance, and I really think it's fascinating stuff.

I'll leave you with this. We sleep about a quarter to a third of our lives. Imagine how powerful it would be if we could make that time more useful? If the reactivation works the way we think it does—and the way our data show it works—then the applications are endless. We could tap into the vast potential of the unconscious, while we're comfortably sleeping in our beds.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.

    • steve savage
    • citizen, US
    When I read the title .. I thought you were going in a completely different direction ... Since at times it does seem that most of them are unconscious .. lol

    Anyway .. Great article !! Thanks
    • Anonymous
    When I have to make tough decisions, I usually grapple with the facts until they seem to "mush" together. Then I put the question aside for a while. Usually a clear solution/decision will seem to just pop into my head later on. I find the same results when I do the NYT crossword puzzle -- step away and forget the puzzle when stuck and then the answers mysteriously come to me the next day out of nowhere. "Forcing" the issue has never worked well for me -- I definitely need some help from my unconscious brain. Takes away a lot of stress, too.
    • Monique
    • Adjunct Leadership Instructor/Executive Coach, FIU Business
    The title caught my attention, as I teach our MBA students to be more conscious leaders in the sense of self-awareness and energy...understanding their patterns, tendencies and "buttons" so they can shift their energy up from catabolic to anabolic.

    In our study/practice, being more conscious means being present, being able to let go of the "black & white"...the way things "should" be done, and allowing the space for ideas and answers to come to us, all energy-building traits.

    Great article. Good luck!
    • Anonymous
    Wow! I like this! I made awesome grades through grad school by sleeping on my materials and then getting up the next morning and writing a 30-page paper in a day. My creativity was definitely fueled by sleep or physical activity. I do the same thing now as a manager -- read everything I can, and then let my mind ponder unconsciously while I'm sleeping or gardening. But, to begin to understand why that works is just fascinating. I can't wait to see more of this research!
    • Sid
    • CEO, Foremost
    The researcher is looking at unconscious thought so consciously. He is missing his own point.
    Telling us that both unconscious and conscious thought are useful - is not useful. It's obvious.
    What would be better is to tell us how we can use our subconscious mind and train ourselves to do it naturally.
    Steve Jobs stopped thinking logically and started thinking "intuitively" (unconsciously) after visiting India. Maybe the researcher needs to visit India too :)
    • Anonymous
    If we are in unconscious tate we cannot make a good judgement since we are not in self-knowledge state ( Unity among thoughts, emotions, and actions)
    • Kamal Hossain
    • Lecturer of Business, London School of Commerce
    Our right brain is responsible for creativity while left is logical. Hence, people with left brain preference are good in logical decisions and are good in jobs like accounting. For right brain preference people, they tend to be good at creative jobs like music and art. However, executives are both types - right brain dominant as well as left brain dominant. In short, intuition (unconscious) vs reasoning (conscious). I suggest that the research acquire brain usage data to see if unconscious decisions stem from the right brain.
    • Sam Chandar
    • CEO, GOF
    The survival instinct is part of one's DNA. Whether in one's conscious or unconscious moments, the sub-conscious is always active. If a cue or trigger which is powerful enough gets to be linked to the sub-conscious, it sets off a chain reaction. This is akin to the visioning process by which dreams get aroused to stand up as realities. The sub-conscious will be at work at times generating different scenarios and bringing up various options. However, whether the individual is able to capture the 'Eureka' moment in a state of receptive consciousness becomes a case of chance, serendipity or perhaps the right thing happening at the right time!
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    I would like to salute Martha for having done a great research and having placed before us some of her findings in this article. I yearn for more on this rather abstract subject.
    What really happens in our dream state is still a mystery. I recall a continuous phase during my adolescence when I would clearly witness in my sleep state most of some movie/drama not at all known at that stage. It would so happen that after some period exactly the same story/action would be witnessed live when a movie was released. None explained the correlation - I used to wonder whether I was being put a time machine that carried me to future again and again !! This went on for about 4-5 years and then stopped abruptly.
    at first look, the title of the article seemed to be something other than it came to be. Notwithstanding the logic put forth by Martha I am still wondering whether business/corporate decisions arrived at in unconscious state can really be as good as those we take in our conscious state. I shall ponder more on this to decide if my present view holds or not.
    • Sekhar Sahay
    • HR, India
    Interesting Article.Thank you.
    In these times, when one of the important dimensions of leadership is to be able to articulate the purpose /goal in a relatable manner , I am curious how this plays out. For the most part building the story/vision is a unconscious thought. How do you then describe why one chose a particular story/vision over the other. In other words how do you articulate a unconscious thought process.
    • Anonymous

    This has exciting possibilities for those with brain damage be it Dementia or MS.

    Is this a line of enquiry that you will be pursuing?
    • Seena Sharp
    • Author, Competitive Intelligence Advantage, Sharp Market Intelligence
    There certainly is a decent argument for decision-making based on conscious or unconscious thought as discussed.... when the situation is largely unchanged.

    In our current business environment, there is so much change (that is not recognized by most companies) that decisions must include a mega-dose of input that's current, accurate, objective, and includes external factors that impact that company.

    Decisions that don't include these changes (uncovered from market intelligence) will be successful in the past ;) but far less likely to get the desired results today.
    • Anonymous
    I am curious about your findings and I would love to know what the researcher thinks about unconscious bias and how to mitigate against our unconscious biases if we rely on our unconscious mind to make decisions.
    • Maarten Bos
    • Post-doctoral research fellow, Harvard Business School
    Thanks to the commenters for their input! For any questions regarding the research, feel free to email me.

    Re Sid:
    I promise, a lot of unconscious thought has gone into this research.
    Activities to do while your unconscious works on a problem: Jogging, other mental tasks, etc. Anything that is not too similar to the problem you're trying to handle unconsciously. Instructions are written here:

    Re Anonymous, the questions of brain damage research:
    We have at some point looked into this, but most of our research has been done with 'healthy' subjects. It is an interesting point though. When we looked into this we were talking about participants with frontal damage (impaired decision making) and the possibility to have them indicate their preferences on scales instead of just making a decision. Ideally this would give them the opportunity to 'choose' without the demand of actually making a choice.

    Re Seena Sharp:
    Information needs to be gathered before we let our unconscious make decisions for us. However, when we have all the information we should put the problem out of our conscious mind and let our unconscious weight the information.

    Re Anonymous, the question of unconscious bias:
    There is a paper about unconscious thought and stereotyping (which is a form of unconscious bias) that shows that under some circumstances, people who make conscious decisions stereotype more than people who let their unconscious do the work (
    • Dr Elizabeth J Muir
    • CEO, Purple Foundations
    If you believe that 'getting dressed in the morning is largely an unconscious process' I question whether you have considered the potential gender differences in your research. Anecdotally I know of few women who dress in the morning without considering a whole host of things: weather, what they are doing, who they will be meeting, what image they wish to project etc. etc. etc.
    • Tricia
    • Senior Geologist, PETROTRIN
    Exciting news to confirm what we always suspected. While both levels of consciousness have their merits in my work. I endorse that the most wholistic results (to me) are best achieved by significant unconscious perspectives & decision-making...what I often term "..stepping away from it"" and giving perspective. My managers seem more satisfied with "fit-to-purpose" results which demand more of the conscious , short-term and short-lead decision-making.
    • David Gross
    • Bussines Consultant, David Gross Consultants
    This great article reminded me former researchs and works of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, lately updated in Daniel Kahneman's excellent book "Thinking fast and slow"
    • Scott Weiler
    • SVP Marketing
    Very useful. The article and research seems to support the need for executives to stay current on best practice information, therefore informing their unconscious decision making on the job. A common scarcity of time issue is that we too often don't "have the time" to keep up with information from outside of our business walls. This suggests we must.

    • Jan Frowijn
    Very interesting research/article: is there any data or research done on possible cultural differences in how conscious and unconscious decissions play or can play a role? Based on my own experience working in an international context differences can be observed between the decission making process in different parts of the world and, or people from various cultural backgrounds. Any thoughts?
    • Santhanam Krishnan
    • Faculty, Bank
    Maarten Bos has reinforced what we already are aware. For example the structure of Benzene flashed in Kekule's dream - as snakes holding each others tail in a circle - as he was tired of extensive attempts to suggest a structure. There is one inner power in all of us that leads us on the desired path provided we are sincere and humble enough to listen to its voice! More often the conscious mind is said to be superior which is a myth. It is apt to recall Samuel Taylor Coleridge's words - " Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter"

    Krishnan Santhanam
    Mumbai, India
    • Ulysses U. Pardey, MBA
    • Managing Director, Am-Tech, S.A., Panama, Republic of Panama
    The Unconscious Executive

    Would it be possible to improve the quality, timing and productivity of our unconscious thinking and how ?

    Thank you for the opportuniy.
    • Maarten Bos
    • Post-doctoral research fellow, Harvard Business School
    Once again, my thanks for the very thoughtful comments. Allow me to respond to a few comments and direct questions.

    Re Dr. Elizabeth Muir, getting dressed as an unconscious process:
    We do not actually study getting dressed, this was merely an example. I agree that there are gender differences in the effort and time it takes to get dressed. That is not to say that actually putting socks on (for instance) is not a largely automated process. People are rarely very consciously aware of how to position their foot or the sock while they put it on their foot. Conscious and unconscious processes work in tandem here.

    Re Jan Frowijn, cultural differences:
    There is no research that I am aware of that studies cultural differences in unconscious thought. Potentially some cultures put more stock in relying on unconscious processes to aid in decision making and that could improve the outcome, but my knowledge on this is limited.

    Re Ulysses U. Pardey, improving unconscious thought:
    There is a guide on how to improve the process in this HBR article:

    Re David Gross, Kahneman's work:
    Kahneman & Tversky studied processes that occur in less or little more than seconds. The work I am describing here if about a much slower process, although there are similarities. Stereotyping for instance occurs when one conscious thought is supported by split second judgments. This is different from a slower process, like unconscious thought.
    • Jackie Le Fevre
    • Magma Effect
    Fascinating article.

    I work a lot with executives of not for profits in the UK and these are challenging times for people who "decided" upon a course of employment through which they could help others. They are now faced with making decisions about coping on declining funding in tandem with rising demand for their services from individuals and families in need.

    One of the main tools I use is the Minessence Values Framework. This enables individuals to understand aspects of the unconscious framework (priority values) they are using in decision making and to explain where their feelings of "rightness" and "wrongness" about Option A vs Option B spring from when they are trying to decide predominantly using conscious thought.

    Do you have any plans to delve into the abstract world of values? If the kind of work I and my colleagues do would be of interest/use please get in touch.

    Look forward to reading more as your work progresses.
    • Moses Opio Ogal
    • Chairman, Board, MIA-Do Solutions Ltd
    I am the Unconsious Executive. The best decisions or even strategy i made in life is while day dreaming. Of course i have learnt to day dream/sleep with a note book by my bed side and note down such innovative, creative ideas/decisions that come to mind and do some due diligence to concretise them with data and hard facts.
    • Paul Nicholas
    • Director, Soul-Chaplain Consultancy
    This is brilliant and important - thank you.
    Accumulating evidence from neuroscience - Antonio Damasio's work particularly appeals to me - shows the central and critical importance of emotion, feeling and unconscious processes in decision making.
    'Gut feelings', intuition, insight and anything like sleep or activity that takes a conscious mind off a problem - all perhaps previously frowned upon as myths or semi-mystical 'senses' - are at last being seen to have a very scientific, and biologically very sound, basis in normal and efficient brain function.
    And if you don't agree, close you eyes and don't think about it - you might change your mind sooner than you expect.
    • Kumar Rajappa
    • Chairman &Managing Director, Navin Housing & Properties (P) Ltd
    Rather than "Unconscious Mind"' which refers to someone not in his conscious state, it would be better to use the term 'Sub-conscious Mind'. Sub-conscious mind works with out a give up to provide answers to questions left un-answered by the conscious mind. You analse options with your conscious mind ..and then sleep over it to let your sub-conscious mind to go to work.