Learning and Deciding Under Low Levels of Awareness

Human decision making is frequently sub-optimal and can be influenced by factors of which we are only dimly aware. At times, this sub-optimality produces large social, economic, and health costs. In this project, we address decisions made under low levels of awareness including those typically influenced by advertising and other marketing activities, such as pairing brands with images of attractive people. We examine the cognitive processes invoked by this pairing in order to determine how it competes with the provision of factual information. Our aim is to improve decision making in areas such as food choice and consumer understanding, as well as provide the knowledge base to support policy for regulating marketing communications.

This project provides a unified theory of memory representation and retrieval which integrates research on episodic memory, evaluative conditioning, discrimination learning, semantic memory, and decision making. The central theme is that stimuli and memories are composed of low-level features. These features can drive our symbolic mental life, but they can also be directly mapped onto an outcome (diagnosing skin diseases or priming a classification decision). Features retrieved to a stimulus can also be matched against a set of reinstated features. This use of low-level features at times produces low levels of awareness. These ideas are brought together in this project where we aim to refine and test a unified theory which addresses questions ranging as widely as: “How is it that pigeons can learn to discriminate between paintings by Monet and Picasso?” and “Why is factual information about healthy eating commonly ignored in purchase decisions?”

Both people and animals become sensitive to the structural regularities in everyday experiences through incidental exposure to individual examples; they respond to new items that are of the same style as those previously experienced in a domain, often in the absence of relevant explicit knowledge of the structure of the domain. Thus, we develop sensitivity to the styles in the works of artists and composers, a sense of what does and does not belong to a particular genre of writing, what drivers in the right lane are likely to do that drivers in the left are not, and what a normal interaction with a teller at our bank is like. Often this sensitivity appears to develop effortlessly and without any intention on our part to learn these regularities, and even without any awareness that there are any such regularities to learn. Yet, both common experience and laboratory research alike demonstrate that this tacit sensitivity influences our performance and expectations in virtually every task that we undertake. Many non-human animals, such as chimpanzees, rats, pigeons, and fish can demonstrate similar sensitivities to style in art, music, and even handwriting.

This emphasis on the extraction and use of regularities in our environment seems to contradict other intuitions we might have. That is, it seems obvious that, in our interaction with the world, we rely primarily on symbols and nameable features such as birds, trees, edges, and corners. However, this viewpoint has been challenged by recent work, which suggests that there is a major role for a different kind of information that better reflects the structural regularities (or co-variance) in everyday experiences. This information may also underlie much of what we regard as tacit knowledge.