The search for moderation: does anxiety enhance the unconscious thought advantage?
Whillock, Summer Rain
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When people face a large amount of information on which to base a decision, common sense suggests that they should slowly and deliberatively think about that information. However, Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT) suggests that a slow yet unconscious mechanism can process complex information and output decisions that rival, and perhaps exceed, the quality of decisions that result from deliberative thought (Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006). However, this idea is controversial and research into UTT reveals that an unconscious thought advantage (UTA) over conscious thinking is small and manifests unreliably (Nieuwenstein et al., 2015; Strick et al., 2011). The aim of this thesis was to identify and test a potential moderator of the UTA. Logically, situations that hinder conscious thought but leave unconscious thought relatively unaffected should enhance the UTA. The Attentional Control Theory (ACT) offers one such situation, that anxiety compromises conscious processes that rely upon attentional control and working memory (Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos, & Calvo, 2007). Because conscious thought relies heavily on working memory relative to unconscious thought, experiencing anxiety may lead the two thought processes to diverge. Specifically, anxiety should negatively influence conscious thought but not significantly influence unconscious thought. In the present study, participants viewed information about roommate candidates and made judgments after a period of either distraction or focused deliberation, while under calm or anxious conditions. Results did not support the hypothesis that the experience of anxiety would increase the UTA; participants performed comparably in the conscious thought and unconscious thought conditions. Further, participants in the conscious thought condition performed better under anxious compared to calm conditions. Exploratory analyses and future directions are discussed.