Thinking and Unthinking

Unthinking is the ability to apply years of learning at the crucial moment by removing your thinking self from the equation. Its power is not confined to sport: actors and musicians know about it too, and are apt to say that their best work happens in a kind of trance. Thinking too much can kill not just physical performance but mental inspiration. Bob Dylan, wistfully recalling his youthful ability to write songs without even trying, described the making of “Like a Rolling Stone” as a “piece of vomit, 20 pages long”. It hasn’t stopped the song being voted the best of all time.

In less dramatic ways the same principle applies to all of us. A fundamental paradox of human psychology is that thinking can be bad for us. When we follow our own thoughts too closely, we can lose our bearings, as our inner chatter drowns out common sense. A study of shopping behaviour found that the less information people were given about a brand of jam, the better the choice they made. When offered details of ingredients, they got befuddled by their options and ended up choosing a jam they didn’t like.

If a rat is faced with a puzzle in which food is placed on its left 60% of the time and on the right 40% of the time, it will quickly deduce that the left side is more rewarding, and head there every time, thus achieving a 60% success rate. Young children adopt the same strategy. When Yale undergraduates play the game, they try to figure out some underlying pattern, and end up doing worse than the rat or the child. We really can be too clever for our own good.

Ian Leslie, writing in The Economist