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Unconscious Thought Theory: This is Why Teacher Intuition Matters

By Dave Stuart Jr.

In a simple thought experiment (described in this post and in the second chapter of These 6 Things) I've asked several thousand teachers over the years what it is that makes a student likely to succeed. By asking participants to think quickly (“Who's the first student that comes to mind…?”; “What's the first descriptor that comes to mind?”), I remove their chance to consciously deliberate, instead asking them to give me what's in their gut.

Overwhelmingly, they suggest that long-term student flourishing comes not primarily from academic mastery, but from noncognitive factors. Today, I'd like to focus not on noncognitive factors, but on the thought experiment itself.

It’d be easy to sit there, listen to me explain the thought experiment, and say, “Well, okay. Nice parlor trick, but that’s not rigorous science. It’s just a bunch of people and their random intuition.”

That’s good pushback. I want more teachers to think harder about research; this would help to reduce how the phrase “research-based” is used too lightly in education today.

But the thought experiment is more valid than it might seem. Let’s talk about Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT).

In 2006, Dutch researchers Ap Dijksterhuis & Loran F. Nordgren proposed UTT in an article for Science. The researchers hypothesized that it’s not always advantageous to use “conscious deliberation” in decision-making. (They tested the hypothesis using various experiments [1].) Some decisions, they argued — particularly those with lots of variables, especially conflicting ones — are actually best left to the unconscious mind.

In other words, intuition is a thing.

Cal Newport provides an apt analogy in his Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World:

Your conscious mind, according to this theory, is like a home computer on which you can run carefully written programs that return correct answers to limited problems, whereas your unconscious mind is like Google’s vast data centers, in which statistical algorithms sift through terabytes of unstructured information, teasing out surprising useful solutions to difficult questions.

Now for the practical part. As it turns out, UTT suggests a few applications to my immediate classroom practice.

  • It’s one more reason to leave work at work. When I’m “distracted” (to use Dijksterhuis and Nordgren’s language) with non-teaching things like husbanding and fathering, I get to use UTT to wrestle with the problems facing me in the classroom.
  • It’s support for the teacher meetings practice of “walk away questions.” This is language we use in my district. It helps meetings stay focused on the problems at hand (i.e., problems best handled via conscious thought).
  • “Let me sleep on it” is an actual thing. We do figure things out when we're not consciously trying to.

So the next time you have a hunch about a kid or a curricular decision or a strategy, maybe try it out. You might just be onto something.


  1. Here's a brief description of the methodology of one of the Dijksterhuis et al studies. Participants were given information about four apartments — this one is larger, has a friendly landlord, is on a bad street, and so on. Lots of information — 12 pieces of information for each apartment, for a total of 48 pieces of information. They then had to choose which apartment was best — and, of the four, one was best, one was worst, and two were neutral. After reading the information, participants were placed into three groups: one group had to immediately decide which apartment was best; another was given time to consciously think it through and decide; and the third was given a game to play to distract them from consciously thinking about the apartment decision, thereby enabling only unconscious thought. The results? Immediate choosers and conscious thinkers didn't accurately identify the best choice apartment — only the unconscious thinkers did.

2 Responses to Unconscious Thought Theory: This is Why Teacher Intuition Matters

  1. Maureen Keefe February 23, 2019 at 10:25 am #

    Bravo Dave! Intuition is an innate ability and skill to be developed. It will become our most critical tool for successfully navigating these times of great change and information overload. I applaud you for bringing this to the table in academe. Your students and academic institution are lucky to have you!

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