Better Than Conscious?

From Strüngmann Forum Reports

Better Than Conscious?


Edited by Christoph Engel and Wolf Singer

Experts discuss the implications of the ways humans reach decisions through the conscious and subconscious processing of information.





Experts discuss the implications of the ways humans reach decisions through the conscious and subconscious processing of information.

Conscious control enables human decision makers to override routines, to exercise willpower, to find innovative solutions, to learn by instruction, to decide collectively, and to justify their choices. These and many more advantages, however, come at a price: the ability to process information consciously is severely limited and conscious decision makers are liable to hundreds of biases. Measured against the norms of rational choice theory, conscious decision makers perform poorly. But if people forego conscious control, in appropriate tasks, they perform surprisingly better: they handle vast amounts of information; they update prior information; they find appropriate solutions to ill-defined problems.

This inaugural Strüngmann Forum Report explores the human ability to make decisions, consciously as well as without conscious control. It explores decision-making strategies, including deliberate and intuitive; explicit and implicit; processing information serially and in parallel, with a general-purpose apparatus, or with task-specific neural subsystems. The analysis is at four levels—neural, psychological, evolutionary, and institutional—and the discussion is extended to the definition of social problems and the design of better institutional interventions. The results presented differ greatly from what could be expected under standard rational choice theory and deviate even more from the alternate behavioral view of institutions. New challenges emerge (for example, the issue of free will) and some purported social problems almost disappear if one adopts a more adequate model of human decision making.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262195805 464 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


Christoph Engel

Christoph Engel is Director of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods, Bonn, and a member of the Faculty of Law and Economics at the University of Bonn. He is the author of Generating Predictability: Institutional Analysis and Design and other books.

Wolf Singer

Wolf Singer is Emeritus Director of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Founding Director of the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies and the Ernst Strüngmann Institute for Neuroscience in cooperation with the Max Planck Society, where he is also Senior Research Fellow. He is the coauthor of Beyond the Self: Conversations between Buddhism and Neuroscience (MIT Press).


  • An impressive, fascinating, and even amazing book. Among scholars and the general public, there is mounting interest in the unconscious mind and its implications for private and public institutions; this is the state-of-the-art treatment.

    Cass R. Sunstein

    Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor, Law School and Department of Political Science, University of Chicago