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Attention in preferential choice

Article in Progress in brain research January 2013

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Sumitava Mukherjee Narayanan Srinivasan

Ahmedabad University University of Allahabad


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Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

Running Head: Attention in preferential choice

Attention in preferential choice

Sumitava Mukherjee1,2 and Narayanan Srinivasan1

Centre of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, University of Allahabad, Allahabad, India
Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar, India

Address Correspondence to: Dr. Narayanan Srinivasan, Centre of Behavioural and Cognitive
Sciences, University of Allahabad, India. Email:

DRAFT COPY. Subject to minor changes.

REVISED VERSION IS TO BE PUBLISHED IN: Progress in Brain Research, Vol. 202.


Mukherjee, S., & Srinivasan, N. (in press). Attention in preferential choice. Progress in Brain
Research, 202.

Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan


Theoretical discussions and models of preferential choice have significantly improved our
understanding of decision making over the past few decades. Although attention is a key
cognitive mechanism that is often used in these theoretical discussions, formal treatment of
attention is quite nave. We bring to light how attention has been used explicitly and
implicitly to conceptualize some generic modes of thought and results from cognitive
psychological research that has studied ways in which it interacts with decision making. In
the process, we discuss issues with theorizations regarding the role of attention. We suggest
treating attention as a non-unitary mechanism, the possibility of incorporating sub-sampling
as a generic heuristic based on attentional mechanisms and the necessity to consider the role
of attentional scope in addition to the allocation of attention conceptualized in terms of
resources. These discussions also bear upon the conceptual and formal treatment of
preferential choice in particular and the psychology of decision making in general.

Keywords: Preferential choice; Preference; Decision Making; Attention; Sub-sampling;


Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

Attention in Preferential Choice


Preferential choice and revealed preference

Classical decision making research has historically focused on comparisons between an ideal
rational homo economicus and a decision taken by a person which evaluates to a good or
bad decision (Newell and Broder, 2008). Deviations from the predictions of the homo
economius are characterized as biases (e.g., Kahneman, 2003; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974)
or as modular mechanisms evolved to support adaptive behavior based on ecological
necessities (e.g., Gigerenzer, 2008) underlying deeply engrained rationalities (Kenrick,
2011). For the last forty years or so, psychologists have seriously criticized a strict version of
classical economic rationality leading to a disconnection between decision making research
and (cognitive) psychology. As Newell and Broder (2008) aptly points out, this
disconnection is a great pity. Still some connections have been formed between economic
decision research and mainstream psychology in the context of preferential choice.

Theories of preference and choice make a distinction between stated preference

(obtained via enquiries about future choices or behavioral intentions on hypothetical choice
sets) and revealed preference (obtained with observational data where the choice is assumed
to reveal the underlying preference). Of course, in experimental psychology, choice is hardly
revealed through actual decisions but rather studied through stated preferences but many
marketing studies rely both on stated and revealed preferences. In psychological literature,
hypothetical scenarios are constructed and a person is asked to state her preference which is
treated as an approximation for revealing her underlying preferences.

Samuelson (1938, 1948) had suggested that the economic theory of consumer's
behavior can be largely built on the idea of 'revealed preference'. According to Samuelson
(1948), we can infer whether a given batch of goods is preferred to another batch by
comparing combination of goods at different relative price situations. The central idea
underlying Samuelson's theory of revealed preference (1938) is quite simple: All points on a
budget line are equally likely to be bought, but a customer ends up buying only one out of all
the possible goods (and hence chooses one point on that line); thus revealing her preference.
Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

No other reasoning is required (Samuelson, 1948). We will see later that other reasonings
are required - specifically related to conditions of apparent internal inconsistencies of choice,
in situations where all choice options are unavailable or not considered, and when contextual
factors tilt the preferred choices. All these scenarios need to be studied by factoring both
internal cognitive processes and external contexts in the choice function.

The theory of revealed preference (Samuelson, 1938; 1948) is based on the premise
that if two options (x and y) could both be chosen by a consumer (given both x and y is within
her budget), but she chooses x when both {x,y} is available; it is presumed that she has
revealed a preference for x over y. It is important to note that from the perspective of the
consumer, the process runs from preference to choice whereas from the perspective of the
observer, choices are observed first and preferences are presumed from these observations
(Sen, 1973). The same reasoning is true for stated preferences, both in and out of the lab.
Moreover, although formal rational theorists often view the choice function as a set of
mathematically consistent statements, choices are not isolated from the environmental
contexts and internal cognitive variables. If we take into account the effects of context
(Simon, 1956), many apparent 'inconsistencies' in the theory of revealed preference can be
eliminated by moving beyond the choice function (Sen, 1993). Conventionally, choice
models are derived from a classical maximization framework in economics where the
decision maker chooses to maximize utility subject to budget constraints (more like
Samuelsons proposal). Observed departures from the utility function are attributed to errors
or unobservable random aspects of decision making. Although the constraint maximization
framework can in principle be extended to accommodate any cognitive or process constraints,
most prevalent choice models abstract away the cognitive processes as it has been hard to
exactly model the cognitive operations (Otter et al., 2008). Sequential sampling models, on
the other hand are essentially based and derived from underlying cognitive processes and are
psychologically more feasible. The models start in some state of the world and terminates
when the observed choice is reached. These models motivate choice through information
accumulation and incorporate explicit assumptions about attention and deliberation.

Modeling choices: Shifts of attention and information accumulation in sequential


Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

The predominant idea in multi-attribute decision making literature is that initially the
alternatives are valued and then the alternative with the highest value is chosen. To be able to
crisply specify the processes that underlie such a choice, the process which attaches values to
the alternatives and later integrates them needs to be accounted for. Sequential sampling
models of choice attempt to model the integration of values associated with different
alternatives and have been somewhat successful in explaining observed choice by
considering cognitive processes of deliberation and attention. The general idea for sequential
sampling models is that the decision maker continuously extracts and accumulates
information about the choice options until a decision criteria (which specifies the amount of
information required to make a response) is reached after which a decision is made (Otter et
al., 2008). The accumulation rate which is also called drift rate (rate at which information
accumulation takes place) and the decision criteria, together determine response probabilities
and response times (Otter et al., 2008).

There are mainly two big families of sequential sampling models: race models and
diffusion models. In race models (Laberge, 1962), the evidence in favor of the choices are
accumulated in different stores (one for each choice) called accumulators and whichever store
accumulates enough evidence to hit the pre-specified decision criteria or threshold results in a
choice. The amount of time needed for any such store to reach the threshold is the response
time. Diffusion models assume that through a noisy process, relative evidence is accumulated
over time and decisions are made when a decision criterion or threshold is crossed for one of
the alternatives (Ratcliff & Mckoon, 2008). Whichever alternative reaches the criteria or
boundary first determines the choice made and the time taken to reach a boundary is the
response time. Note that this response time includes non-decision processes like perceptual
encoding and response. Although diffusion models were developed to account for binary
perceptual decision tasks, it has been generalized to preferential choice among multi-attribute
alternatives (Rieskamp, Busemeyer, & Mellers, 2006).

To see how diffusion models integrates information about the alternatives across the
dimensions and how attentional shifts are modeled, we take the example of Decision Field
Theory (DFT), which is a diffusion (sequential sampling) model for preferential choice
initially suggested by Busemeyer and Townsend (1993). DFT has been more broadly applied
to decision making compared to other models (Rieskamp et al., 2006). In a sequential
sampling model, when presented with multiple (risky) prospects, the deliberation process
Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

starts (at time t = 0) and preference states for each possible prospects (or options) evolve until
one of those prospects reaches a threshold. Whichever prospect reaches the threshold first is
the choice made and the time taken is the deliberation time. If the threshold is small, then the
decision is reached faster which could sometimes be of lesser quality. The threshold thus
needs to be fixed in a way so that it acts as a speed-accuracy tradeoff. In uni-attribute
decision making in DFT, attention is assumed to shift from one possible event to another
leading to consequences for each action (Busemeyer & Townsend, 1993). In the multi-
attribute version of DFT, attention shifts are from attribute to attribute (Diederich, 2003)
modeled as a markov process.

According to DFT, the decision maker deliberates over the options/actions and thinks
about the possible consequences. At each moment different affective reactions to the
consequences of each option/action are compared and these comparisons are accumulated
over time to form preference states for the options/actions. When the accumulated preference
for any of the options reaches the threshold, a decision is made. The affective evaluations
give rise to motivational values related to the consequences which represents an attentional
process. The decision maker attends to only one possible State/Event at a point in time.
Attention shifts from one event to another and the probability of the decision maker to attend
to one event reflects the underlying subjective probability or belief. To sum up the
deliberation process, as attention switches from one event to another over time, different
affective values are probabilistically selected, and these values are compared across actions to
produce valences, and finally these valences are integrated into preference states for each
action. This process continues until the preference for one action exceeds a threshold
criterion, at which point in time the winner is chosen (Busemeyer & Johnson, 2004).

Hence, attention is used in single-attribute DFT to mean consideration or selection of

alternate possible events. Also note that attention can act on one and only one event at a given
time (McElree, 2004), so either there is attention allocated to or not allocated to an event. In
multi-attribute decision making (Diedrich, 2003), attention shifts (modeled as markov chain
processes) from one attribute to another at a particular rate. The preferences for the options
evolve over time updated by an input valence. In another variation of multi-attribute DFT by
Roe, Busemeyer & Townsend (2001) called multi-alternative decision field theory (which is
a multi-attribute multi-alternative model), attention is assumed to operate on all the attributes
because it is assumed that the attributes are processed in parallel.
Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

What can be observed from the previous discussions is that 'attention' is mostly
treated as a unitary process that simply selects a piece of information. In the remaining part of
the chapter, we review literature pertaining to the role of attention in decision making to
better understand how attention operates and possible ways it could influence decision
making. Research on attention in the last few decades has informed us quite a bit about its
role, types and its consequences. Three key points are highlighted: (a) attention is not a
unitary process; (b) sub-sampling is a viable strategy in multi-attribute multi-alternative
preferential choices; and (c) scope of attention significantly affects preferences in decision

Role of Attention in Decision Making

In addition to being a key psychological variable that affects preferential choices, attention
has also been used as a key concept to draw the boundaries between prevalent dichotomies or
modes of decision making. Attention is typically conceptualized as a process that selects
some information (while ignoring the rest) possibly due to limited capacity available for
information processing (Pashler, 1998). The view of attention as a process of selecting
envisions attention as a perceptual gating or filtering mechanism and the information that
passes through the gate (possibly because of salience of the stimuli) are better processed or
processed in more detail (Pashler, 1998). Alternately, selective attention is characterized in
terms of resources available for processing. Different tasks are said to need different amounts
of attentional resources and differ in terms of the mental effort needed to perform them. The
resource interpretation advocated first by Kahneman (1973) views attention as a resource that
when allocated to an item, is further processed. Apart from attention allocated to one object,
attentional resources could also be differently allocated to objects or thoughts and can be
shared among multiple items.

Even from the point of view of attention as selection, attention is not a unitary
process. Selection processes could be location or object-based and could also differ in terms
of scope, that is attention could be focused or distributed (Srinivasan, 2008; Srinivasan,
Srivastava, Lohani & Baijal, 2009). One useful metaphor for selective attention concerning
scope is that of a zoom lens. If the 'lens' zooms in then attention is 'focused' and although
less information is attended to, the representation is precise whereas if the 'lens' is zoomed
Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

out then attention is distributed where more information is attended to but the representation
is possibly coarse. Current research suggests that the way we perceive objects (as a whole or
in parts) could be linked to other higher order cognitive and emotional processes. Perceiving
objects as made up of constituent units is related to directing attention to a local/focused level
or to a global/distributed level (Robertson et al., 1993). Processing styles (global vs local) and
hence attentional strategies (distributed vs local) could affect cognitive processes beyond
purely perceptual factors.

Focused attention (via local processing) and distributed attention (via global
processing) affect many higher order cognitive and emotional processes differently. In a
typical global-local task (Navon, 1977), participants are shown large letters made up of
smaller letters. In studies manipulating scope of attention, participants are asked to attend
either to the global level (identify the large letter) or asked to attend to the local level
(identify the small letter). Distributed attention (via global processing), is linked with a
promotion focus and approach strategies (Frster and Higgins, 2005), results in higher liking
for atypical objects (Frster & Denzler, 2011), better face recognition (Macrae & Lewis,
2002), positive moods (Gasper & Clore, 2002), processing of happy faces (Srinivasan &
Hanif, 2010) and better memory (Macrae & Lewis, 2002; Srinivasan & Gupta, 2011) possibly
because larger scope of attention is associated with larger working memory capacity, better
cognitive processing, and positive emotions (Cowan, 2005; Srinivasan et al., 2009).

The selection or resource views of attention, and more recently, differences in scope
of attention have been core variables that dissociate modes of thought. Theories have been
built and models proposed which are based on whether attention is less or more, present or
absent and focused or distributed. In the next section, we discuss how attention has been
instrumental in theorizing about different modes of cognitive functioning and certain issues
with its treatment in theory.

Attention and Modes of decision making

Dichotomies and dual-system based conceptualizations abound cognitive science of decision

making. In three predominant dichotomies in decision making, attention is a key factor.
Attention is either hypothesized to be more versus less (deliberation vs intuition), present

Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

versus absent (conscious vs unconscious thought) or focused versus distributed (global vs

local processing).

One of the primary dual system views in decision making is intuition versus
deliberation. Many different results can be accommodated by hypothesizing these two
different modes of deciding (Kahneman, 2011; Sloman, 2002). The two systems came to be
known as System 1 and System 2 (Stanovich & West, 2002) which have different
characteristics. System 1 (intuition) is placed between automatic perceptual processing and
deliberative reasoning, operating as a fast, almost automatic, effortless, associative, implicit,
emotional module governed by habit and hence is difficult to control or modify. System 2
(deliberation) operates as a slower, serial, effortful module which can be consciously
monitored and deliberately controlled and hence is relatively flexible (Kahneman, 2011).
Further, System 1 requires less effort than System 2. Concurrent tasks mostly disrupt the
operations of processes related to effortful deliberation (System 2) whereas effortless
processes requiring less attention (System 1) hardly interferes with other tasks (Pashler, 1998;
Kahneman, 1973). Attention is a prime way to dissociate between these two modes of
thought more effort requires higher amounts of attention and hence is related to System 2
(deliberation) whereas System 1 (intuition) is related to relatively automatic processing
linked with lesser effort requiring comparatively lesser amounts of attention.

Depending on whether attention is present or absent, two other modes of thought has
been proposed conscious versus unconscious. Classical decision theorists suggest that
complex decisions require conscious deliberation and vigilantly attending to the problem.
However, continuing in-line with the intuitionists, some other researchers argue that snap
decisions (which are not based on careful deliberation) produce better quality decisions (e.g,
Gladwell, 2005) in complex scenarios. In contrast to arguments for deliberative mode in
making complex decisions, Dijsksterhuis and colleagues (Dijksterhuis, 2004; Dijksterhuis,
Bos, Nordgren & van Baaren, 2006; Dijksterhuis, Bos, van der Leij & van Baaren, 2009;
Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006) suggest that complex problems be left to the powers of the
unconscious. Here, unconscious versus conscious thought was operationalized directly using
attention as a variable which could be directed away or to the problem.

The Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT) proposed by Dijksterhuis & Nordgren

(2006) as a 'theory of human thought' claims that decisions about simple issues can be tackled

Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

by conscious thought whereas decisions about complex matters can be better approached with
unconscious thought. According to UTT, Unconscious Thought is 'object relevant or task
relevant cognitive or affective thought processes that occur while attention is directed
elsewhere' (termed deliberation-without-attention). After presenting information about the
choice alternatives (information-acquisition period), one group of participants were asked to
carefully deliberate on the problem before deciding (conscious thought; attention directed to
the problem) whereas the other group was asked to do a distractor task before making a
choice (hypothesized to elicit unconscious thought and termed deliberation-without-
attention). Note that we treat the unconscious thought condition simply as distraction without
committing on consciousness or lack of it. More participants made the normatively superior
decision in the unconscious thought condition with complex problems (Dijksterhuis, 2004;
Dijksterhuis, Bos, Nordgren & van Baaren, 2006). News stories published headlines like
Want to make a complicated decision? Just Stop Thinking! (BBC News Online, 2006).
Although efforts to replicate the Deliberation-Without-Attention effect failed to find an
advantage for unconscious decision making, the debate continues (Newell & Rakow, 2011;
Nordgen, Bos & Dijksterhuis, 2011). There also have been intense debates about
methodological and theoretical flaws (Waroquier, et al., 2009) including possible alternate
explanations (Srinivasan & Mukherjee, 2010; Newell, 2012). The decision criterion for a
good decision remains a contending issue (Gonzalez-Vallejo et al., 2008) with some studies
reporting a replication of the unconscious thought effect after considering subjective criteria
of choice (e.g., Usher et al., 2011). Thus attention is again the key to dissociate these modes:
an absence of attention during deliberation is defined as unconscious thought whereas
thought with attention directed to the problem is conscious thought.

Both of the former taxonomies treat attention as a resource. Types of attentional scope
have also been used to theorize about decisions and associated cognitive processes. Studies
on global versus local processing (linked to distributed versus focused attention) have
generated a plethora of research (Frster & Dannenberg, 2010; Srinivasan et al., 2009;
Srinivasan & Gupta, 2011). This is a scenario of procedural priming in which how is
primed (Frster, 2012; Frster & Dannenberg, 2010). Procedural priming is also described
as processing shifts (Schooler, 2002) that can be appropriate or inappropriate to the task at
hand. One systems approach that integrates the findings on global-local processing is the
GLobal and LOcal processing MOdel GLOMOsys (Frster & Dannenberg, 2010).

Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

GLOMOsys suggests that (a) there are two processing systems where the global system is
linked with novelty and the local system is linked with familiar information, (b) perceptual
styles are linked to conceptual styles of processing based on some common psychological
factors, and (c) the styles of processing are elicited by a variety of variables which carry-over
to other tasks. Processing styles carry-over to other non-perceptual tasks possibly without the
participants awareness which in turn affects many processes related to decision making like
selection of information, encoding, memory and preference which eventually affects the
choice one makes.

The cognitive mechanisms associated with the global or local system of processing
(linked with focused or distributed attention strategies) interact with multiple variables
relevant for decision making like creativity, similarity/categorization, psychological distance,
construal levels and also operate across sensory modalities (Frster, 2012). Global processing
(compared to local processing) is linked with positive mood, conceptual approach, promotion
or approach orientation, high power, novelty (Frster & Dannenberg, 2010; Frster, 2012).
Also, global is linked with right and local with the left brain regional activations in line with
neuroscientific studies linking holistic and conceptual processing to right hemisphere and
part-based analytical processing with left hemisphere (Frster, 2012). GLOMOsys suggests
novelty as a psychological glue that binds these results: as people are generally inquisitive,
global processing facilitates promotion, positivity, love, power and some factors immediately
trigger global style because they increase perception of novelty (Frster & Dannenberg,
2010). However, when other goals like self-protection gets activated, attention is immediately
narrowed and the local system takes over. All these moderators affect decision making. For
example, global-local tasks influence category judgments: a distributed attention strategy (or
global style) aids assimilation (or inclusion of exemplars) whereas a focused strategy (or
local style) leads to contrast (Frster & Liberman, 2005) which in turn affect likings or
preferences for objects (e.g., global processing increases liking of atypical objects (Frster &
Denzler, 2012) as they seem more typical due to assimilation. In addition, procedural priming
can affect selection of information that eventually biases a choice (see the discussion on
effect of perceptual scope on preferential choice later in this chapter).

Apart from theoretical work on modes of deciding, a related critical issue is the
amount of information used during a choice. What and how much information is selected and
used is dependent on what kind and amount of attention is used. Attention off course interacts
Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

with memory and consciousness, but here we restrict ourselves to studies dealing only with

Sub-sampling: Attending to a subset of information during decision making

Studies on attentional sets suggest that advance knowledge about the stimuli or options
available helps one process it more effectively (Pashler, 1998). In the context of attention in
perceptual tasks, the idea of sub-sampling has been suggested (Myczek & Simmons, 2008)
that can be linked to other higher level preferential choice scenarios. Attention can be
allocated to a subset of options and can be differently allocated to the choice set. The amount
of information used during deciding is critically affected by how much and in what manner
attention is allocated to it. This in turn affects the information selected, processed and
combined to arrive at a decision.

Many studies have demonstrated that people find it difficult to make a choice when
presented with a large number of options possibly due to information overload. Contrary to
conventional belief that more choices are motivating and desirable, Iyenger and Lepper
(2000) had shown that too many choices result in lesser chances of purchasing an item (i.e.,
making a decision) and reduced satisfaction from a choice. Our working memory capacity is
limited, typically to a small number of items, four to seven (Cowan, 2005). In consumer
behavior, multiple studies have shown that customers consider only a subset of available
options (the 'consideration set') due to attentional/cognitive limits and are generally unaware
of all options. A typical size for the consideration set is around five (Hauser and Wernerfelt,

Building on the idea of consideration sets, Masatlioglu et al. (in press) have developed
a choice theoretical framework to model choices made from a reduced set of all available
options. In their model of 'choice with limited attention', choice is a two stage process: first
the consideration set is formed and then a choice is made from the consideration set (the
consideration set is not revealed directly). An 'attentional filter' allows some alternatives to be
included in the consideration set - those that win the competition to attract the decision
maker's attention. Two criteria need to be satisfied: the chosen alternative should have been

Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

considered by the decision maker and if an alternative is chosen from a large set then that
alternative should also be chosen from a reduced set of the larger set.

Considering a subset of options (or choices) seem to be a pervasive effect in daily life.
Students considered only a subset of about 5 to 6 universities to apply even though they were
aware of around 17 but it also needs to be noted that the consideration set was dependent on
many individual differences like ethniticity and grades obtained (Dawes and Brown, 2003).
Customers are aware of only a few brands and these are the ones considered when purchasing
a personal computer (Goeree, 2004). Users scan web search results of top search engines
(Google, Yahoo, MSN)* in groups of 3 or 4 and only the top few results of a web search page
are clicked most of the time (Hotchkiss, 2006). Only few top brands are in the consideration
set for surfers which are stored as bookmarks (Thakor et al., 2004). Gourville and Soman
(2005) showed that people increasingly chose either the basic model or the completely loaded
model of laptop as number of intermediate models is increased. Apart from evaluation,
memory of a brand (that could be affected by accessibility of the brand) at the time of
consideration could affect which brands are brought to mind during purchase (Nedungadi,
1990), implying both consideration sets and choice sets are somewhat dynamically

It appears that as information available about the choice options is increased, people
start considering even less amount of information. The decision reached by considering a
subset of available options might be irrational or even inconsistent from the viewpoint of
classical preferential choice theory. However, increasing suggestions from empirical studies
stress that in reality, people do not consider all the alternatives (as discussed above). Hence,
although Samuelson (1948) thought no other reasoning is required; various cognitive factors
have to be considered to account for the observed behaviors that are based on information
sampling. If a decision maker forms the consideration set and then decides (rationally) from
that set as modeled in the 'choice with limited attention' model (Masatlioglu et al., in press),
then it would be an error to infer that she preferred the chosen option among all possible
options because all options might have not been processed (or considered) at all.

Sub-sampling applied to unconscious thought

* Google, Yahoo and MSN are trademarks of Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Inc. respectively.
Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

Going back to Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT), the studies on unconscious versus
conscious thought have not directly estimated the number of attributes or amount of
information that is actually used in making a choice (Mukherjee, 2010). In a typical
experiment, three or four alternatives each having four attributes are presented. Then, one
group is asked to carefully think over the alternatives to form a judgment about them
(conscious thought) while another group is distracted away from the task (unconscious
thought or (deliberation-without-attention), sometimes with another baseline group who are
asked to decide immediately (immediate thought). The standard result which has been
debated is that, the unconscious group made better quality of decisions and were also able to
discrimate the best from the worst more clearly (unconscious thought effect; UTE). The UTT
was proposed to account for the UTE that made certain assumptions including a large scale
infinite capacity for unconscious processing. UTT hypothesized the occurrence of a goal-
directed mode of thought during distraction called unconscious thought (UT). Ashby,
Glckner & Dickert (2011) brings to light the necessity to move beyond the Unconscious
Thought Effect (UTE) and probe the theoretical foundations of the theory used to explain
apparent benefits of unconscious thought (UT) the unconscious thought theory (UTT).
According to the UTT (the theory that explains UTE), better decisions are made following
UT due to optimal weighting of attributes during high-capacity unconscious thought that
processes almost all the information compared to low-capacity conscious thought (CT) that
focuses only on a subset of information (Dijksterhuis & Nordgen, 2006; Dijksterhuis & van
Olden, 2006).
Rey et al. (2009) describes two opposing views (and predictions made), which is
based on a unifying model of decision making (Newell, 2005): the powerful unconscious
view and the conscious attention view. On one hand, in the powerful unconscious view, few
attributes are considered in the conscious thought condition (which has a high level of
consciousness) and many / all attributes are considered in the unconscious thought condition
(which has a low level of consciousness). On the other hand, in the conscious attention view,
which assumes conscious attention guides our decisions and comprehension, few attributes
are considered in the unconscious thought condition (where the amount of time allocated to
processing is less) and many / all attributes are considered in the conscious thought condition
(where processing time is greater).
We (Srinivasan & Mukherjee, 2010) have questioned the explanatory hypothesis of
the UTE and argued that there is no direct test of the amount of information processed during
Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

UT. The question of how much information is used during unconscious thought (the capacity
principle) and how information is combined according to weights of the attributes (the
weighting principle) were directly addressed. In the context of discrepant empirical findings
of UTE, we had proposed that the experimental studies on unconscious decision making does
not necessitate that all or even most attributes be used to arrive at the best choice. Our
computer simulations on previously used datasets showed it is less likely that all or most
attributes are considered during unconscious thought since with all or most attributes the
correct choice gets picked all or most of the time. But, the actual behavioral performance
ranges only between 50-70% in most of the studies and around three or four attributes are
enough to produce comparable performance.
It is not argued that capacity limitations are always present for unconscious
processing, in general. However, it appears that when a complex decision making problem is
presented and participants are not allowed to consciously deliberate, they may still focus on a
small set of attributes to make a choice. Thus, if it is possible that UT also uses sub-sampling
as a strategy to select some information and there is no need to posit an infinite or even a very
high capacity unconscious mode as done in UTT. As attributes are mostly attached with
subjective importance, it was imperative to explore when attribute weights are used and the
strategies used to combine the information. Our estimates showed that weights are mostly
used during selection of attributes for processing. Although UTT theorists had strictly argued
against weighted additive (WADD) as a strategy (as it is too rule oriented), we think that
WADD on a subset is viable.
It seems that the UTT starts with the implicit assumption that normatively superior
decisions are a product of complex and resource intensive weighting/optimization algorithms
(and hence go on to suggest infinite capacity of unconscious thought to enable weighting and
choosing for complex problems). But, heuristics are a viable strategy for complex decisions
that use very less information (Cokely, Schooler & Gigerenzer, 2010). Thus, we believe that
sub-sampling is a reasonable strategy to use in either modes of thought. The subset of
attributes or information will be dependent on not only the dataset but also the subjective
experiences and combination strategies employed, which in part explains the difficulty of
replicating the UTE. Note that sub-sampling can occur both during information presentation
(where a smaller set of attributes are processed further) and also during distraction (UT) or
deliberation (CT). So, we argue that both in conscious and unconscious thought, sub-

Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

sampling of information which is based on attention to alternatives / attributes is a viable

decision strategy.

The effect of attentional scope on preferential choices

Many studies have talked about role of attention (as a resource or selection / gating
mechanisms) for preferential choice and revealed preference. In fact, just manipulating
relative attention to an alternative in a binary choice can bias the decision (Armel, Beaumel &
Rangel, 2008). But, very few studies have examined the role of attentional scope on different
stages of decision making (like pre versus post information acquisition). Although we know
that focusing or narrowing attention (via local processing) versus distributing or widening
attention (via global processing) affects many cognitive and emotional processes as discussed
before; we are not aware of any research that has investigated the specific role of attentional
processes or manipulations during unconscious thought. If attention is not a unitary process,
then how can Unconscious Thought be treated as if it is a unitary variable (attention
directed or distracted away from the task)? We think that the Unconscious Thought Theory
conflates lack of attention with unconscious thought. The discussions associated with
unconscious thought theory treats attention as a unitary mechanism and do not pay much
heed to different types of attention. UTT explicitly states that there is No Attention during
unconscious thought. According to Dijksterhuis & Nordgren (2006), unconscious thought is
thought without attention or with attention directed elsewhere. Instead of treating attention
as a binary variable which might be present / directed or not, it is possible to explore different
types of attention (like focused or distributed) that aids selection. The distraction task itself
could affect or modulate decisions (if decisions are not made completely online). Moreover,
attentional mechanisms pre information-acquisition might also moderate how information is
processed which results in a choice later.

Using similar paradigms as used by UTT, we hypothesized and experimentally

demonstrated that the nature of attentional scope employed during distraction can affect
preference strength and memory (Srinivasan, Mukherjee, & Kesarwani, submitted). As
attentional mechanisms employed at different stages like pre-information-presentation versus
post-information-presentation might differently affect other processes, we also manipulated
scope of attention before information was presented. In one experiment, participants engaged

Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

in a global-local (Navon, 1977) distracter task during the period in which UT is supposed to
occur and in a second experiment, the global-local task was performed before attribute
information for the alternatives were presented (pre-information-presentation). Four cell
phones with twelve attributes each were shown as is done in most UTT studies involving
complex problems. The choice task was to form an impression to be able to judge them
later. In the first experiment, participants who performed a global task post information-
presentation (as a distracter task which arguably elicits UT) were more certain regarding their
preferences (strength of preference; measured by subtracting the average rating of the three
lower rated cell phones from the one rated highest) and also had better memory about the
attributes of the cell phones. In the second experiment, the global group had better memory of
the attributes but the preference strength did not vary across them. These results show that the
type of attention (in this case, the scope of attention) alters key processes relevant for
decision making like memory and preference strength.

Whereas scope of attention manipulated during a post information-presentation period

(during the gap or distraction period between information acquisition and judgment) affected
both preference strength as well as memory, manipulating attentional scope pre information-
presentation affected memory of the attributes but not preference strength. This suggess that
possibly the effects of scope of attention on these two factors (preference strength and
memory) differ. Distributed attention (via global processing) during the distraction period in
experiment 1 resulted in stronger preference strength. Distributing attention facilitated
explicit memory of the attributes in both the experiments. Probably, a time interval might be
required after encoding to affect preference strength. The results from Experiment 2 show
that although globally primed participants had better memory, strength of preference was
unaffected indicating that simply better memory is not sufficient to drive preference strength.
More importantly, for our discussion here, again we intend to point out that attention is not
unitary and it cannot simply be treated as a dichotomous variable which may or may not be
present as is done in UTT. Infact, treating attention as a unitary variable that may or may not
be present is probably an incomplete way of theorizing in UTT as UT itself is affected by
different attentional mechanisms which in our study was scope of attention (Mukherjee,
2010; Srinivasan et al., 2012).

There are multiple implications for decision making in general apart from the UTT.
For example, we show the necessity of comparing different types of pre and post information
Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

acquisition periods on memory for the attributes. Also, memory and preference strengths
need not always influence each other directly as our results suggest that effects of scope of
attention on preference and memory are possibly mediated by different processes. Distributed
attention during distraction (unconscious thought) might result in producing a positive affect
(Gasper & Clore, 2002) and /or an approach orientation (Frster & Higgins, 2005) resulting
in better preference strength for the chosen item. These results also show how procedural
priming (which are not goal-related per se) affects later procedures and operations totally
unrelated to the priming task (in this case memory processes and preferences) demonstrating
the importance of procedural effects on cognitive functioning and information processing. To
our knowledge, this is the first experimental support of global-local perception potentially
affecting variables relevant to consumer-level decision making.


We have pointed out the role attention plays in multiple ways and also our qualms in the way
attention is conceptualized at times. Our critical evaluation of Unconscious Thought Theory
should not be interpreted as a reservation towards spontaneous or unconscious thought per se.
Thinking fast is a common phenomenon that is worthy of the same scientific vigor as of
thinking slowly. In fact, most decision theorists prefer to opt for an integration of modes of
thought (thinking fast and slow; Kahneman, 2011). Even UT theorists concede that
conscious and unconscious thought could be interrelated and integrated (Nordgen, Bos &
Dijksterhuis, 2011). Deliberate and intuitive reasoning together define human problem
solving and decision making. Attention remains a key to dissociate and study these modes of
thought. Attention also helps to dissociate between the neural bases for these modes. The
mid-line of the brain (which forms the default network) is activated for tasks that require
lesser attentional resources and spontaneous thinking but is de-activated for attention-
demanding or focused attention tasks (Christoff, Gordon & Smith, in press). This shows that
attention is a factor to dissociate both psychological and neural basis of decision modes.
Although attention is a central instrumental variable, we lack an explicit theory for the
specific role of different types of attention in theoretical models of decision making.

Modern frameworks recognize the necessity to accommodate factors beyond the

algorithmic functions of choice. When Sen (1993) discusses foundational issues with internal
Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

consistency of choice, he argues that not only are there correspondences between parts of a
choice function but for the need to acknowledge external demands originating outside the
choice function (like social norms, motivation, goals). Sen also aptly points out that choices
are not to be viewed as statements that are consistent among themselves (which previous
economic theories often assumed), but are to be analyzed in a context as there are excellent
grounds for violating the standard conditions of alleged internal consistency. Note that
contexts could be a complex mix of multiple factors which are ultimately cognitive in nature
(like scenarios, power and social structures, goals, task objectives, emotion, motivation etc.).
We believe that contexts need to and can accommodate mental operations and cognitive
processes. Decades of psychological studies has clearly established the important role of
cognitive elements in decision making which is being acknowledged by cross-disciplinary
theorists including economists thus moving to a cross-integration of economics, psychology
and neuroscience (Sanfey, 2007). Choices are an integrated outcome of cognitive
computations (like weighting, optimization and heuristics) along with other central
mechanisms like attention, emotions, memory, goals, motivation etc. as agents are not dis-
passionate utility maximizers. Attention is one key process that guides what, when, how
information is to be operated on and combined to arrive at preferences and choices. It also
interacts with emotions, motivation, task-levels etc. We have tried to layout some examples
of ways in which attention affect higher level preferential choices (in addition to lower level
perceptual choices) to suggest that attentional mechanisms need to be integrated closely with
decision models and theories. The models which are built on attentional mechanisms (like
sequential sampling models) and even theories of decision making like UTT treat attention as
a unitary variable and in the only sense of being a selection mechanism. A primary aim here
is to explicate that attention needs to be modeled as a non-unitary mechanism and much of
the research on psychology of attention is not used in theorizations in decision making.

Sub-sampling can be treated as a generic class of heuristics applicable to multiple

types of decisions. Going back to modeling preferential choices in DFT, the models state that
when one state of the world (or possible consequence) is attended to, attention is allocated to
the same and then it is allocated to the next one. Moreover, it is an all-or-none scenario:
either something is attended to or not. In some models, attention is assumed to be allocated to
one attribute/state (uni and multi-attribute DFT) while in some other models, attention is
assumed to be allocated to all attributes processed in parallel (multi-alternative DFT). When

Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

the amount of information in a multi-attribute multi-alternative choice problem is large (and /

or there is a time pressure), obviously it does not seem plausible that all individual
permutations of action/event will be individually attended to, processed, compared and
arrived at a decision. It also would require extant working memory capacity to process all
attributes in parallel (as suggested by multi-alternative DFT or UTT). Rather, we would like
to bring to light the plausibility of distributing attention to a small sub-sample of attributes or
alternatives. Which specific set will form the sub-set will surely depend other factors like
saliency, personal preferences, memory, goal etc. which can be modeled by allowing some
flexible parameters. As we have shown in the context of unconscious thought, even during
conscious deliberation, diffusion models could incorporate sub-sampling as a core selective
mechanism which could also be spread to encompass all classes of multi-attribute, multi-
alternative DFT models (by modulating the probability-weighted sub-set).

Another less discussed variable is preference strength. Preferences, likings and

preference strengths can be altered depending on the scope of attention. It is also possible that
attention load or working memory capacity could also affect preferences including the
strength of preference. Given the success of DFT in modeling preferential choices to a
significant extent, it might be worth trying to re-look at how variables like motivation are
modeled in models like DFT. One can try to accommodate processes concerning different
types of attention in DFT such that these processes might modify motivational values of the
consequences, given the growing literature linking scope of attention to regulatory focus
(Frster & Higgins, 2005), motivational values (Gable & Harman-Jones, 2010) and
preference strength (Srinivasan et al., submitted). As more evidence accumulates about the
role of attention, we need to incorporate it in discussions concerning preference construction
and strength during a decision making process.

Of course, there needs to be more clear understanding of operations that could be

affected or guided by different types of attention including how attention operates on the
information used so that these effects can be formally integrated in decision making models.
The attentional processes are an integral and integrated part of the decision making process
and are not boundary conditions or add-on modules that switch on to select some information
and then switches off. While it might be difficult to incorporate all the cognitive variables in
any reasonably complex formal decision model, the way attention and emotions behave are
somewhat clearly understood and merit inclusion. Emotions (Leowenstein & Lerner, 2003)
Attention in Preferential Choice Mukherjee & Srinivasan

and attentional processes systematically affect decision making and they themselves are
linked to each other (Srinivasan et al., 2009). To conclude, we have argued for the role of
attention in decision making by focusing on three main points: characterizing attention as a
non-unitary mechanism, sub-sampling as a decision strategy based on attention, and the role
of attentional scope. Further studies would elucidate how differences in attention affect the
choices made and enable us to better understand the processes involved in preferential choice.


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