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When Thoughts Pop Into Your Head

When a random thought pops unbidden in your head, do you ever have the feeling that this occurrence reveals some meaningful insight about you? Then you’re far from alone. Yet according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and Harvard Business School, that notion is not based in fact and can sway your judgment.

A release from Carnegie Mellon quotes Colleen E. Giblin as saying, “The perception that a thought popped into mind out of nowhere can lead people to overvalue their own insights. When considering a thought that came to mind spontaneously, it may be useful to ask yourself the following question: had the same thought come to mind after careful deliberation, would it seem just as meaningful? If you realize that your interpretation of a particular thought depends on whether it came to mind spontaneously, that’s an indication that your beliefs about these different kinds of thoughts might be affecting your judgment.”
The release explain that team set out to determine how people perceive their own spontaneous thoughts and whether those thoughts or intuitions have any influence over judgment. The findings, published in May 2014 in the “Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,” showed that spontaneous thoughts are perceived to provide potent self-insight and can influence judgment and decisions more than similar, more deliberate kinds of thinking – even on important topics such as commitment to current romantic partners.

“We are aware of the output of spontaneous thoughts, but lack insight into the reasons why and processes by which they occurred,” said lead author Carey K. Morewedge. “Rather than dismiss these seemingly random thoughts as meaningless, our research found that people believe, precisely because they are not controlled, that spontaneous thoughts reveal more meaningful insight into their own mind—their beliefs, attitudes, and preferences—than similar deliberate thoughts. As a consequence, spontaneous thoughts can have a more potent influence on judgment. People often believe their intuitions, dreams and or random thoughts reveal more insight than the result of more effortful thinking and reasoning. This research helps to explain these curious beliefs. ”

Gbilin, Morewedge and Harvard University’s Michael I. Norton ran five studies. The first three were designed to test the hypothesis that the more spontaneous a thought is, the more it is believed to provide meaningful self-insight. Participants rated the extent to which different thought categories are spontaneous or controlled and the extent to which each provides self-insight. They recalled either a pleasant or unpleasant childhood event and evaluated the degree that the recollection would provide meaningful self-insight if it happened spontaneously or deliberately. They also generated thoughts about four strangers through a deliberate or spontaneous process and rated how much those thoughts provided them with valuable self-insight.

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