Harvard Business School2014-08-26 4:04 PM

The (Perceived) Meaning of Spontaneous Thoughts


Spontaneous thoughts, the output of a broad category of uncontrolled and inaccessible higher-order mental processes, arise frequently in everyday life. The seeming randomness by which spontaneous thoughts arise might give people good reason to dismiss them as meaningless. We suggest that it is precisely the lack of control over and access to the processes by which they arise that leads people to perceive spontaneous thoughts to reveal meaningful self-insight. Consequently, spontaneous thoughts potently influence judgment. A series of experiments provides evidence supporting two hypotheses. First, we hypothesize that the more a thought is perceived to be spontaneous, the more it is perceived to provide meaningful self-insight. Participants perceived more spontaneous kinds of thought to reveal greater self-insight than more controlled kinds of thought in Study 1 (e.g., intuition versus deliberation), and perceived thoughts with the same content and target to reveal greater self-insight when spontaneously than deliberately generated in Studies 2 and 3 (i.e., childhood memories and impressions formed, respectively). Second, we hypothesize that greater self-insight attributed to thoughts that are (perceived to be) spontaneous leads those thoughts to more potently influence judgment. Participants felt more sexually attracted to an attractive person whom they thought of spontaneously than deliberately in Study 4, and reported their commitment to a current romantic relationship would be more affected by the spontaneous than deliberate recollection of a good or bad experience with their partner in Study 5.


Much human thought arises unbidden, spontaneously intruding upon consciousness. The thought and name of a former lover might come to mind during dinner with one's spouse. Or worse, it may be blurted out during an intimate moment. Because no trace of the past lover is present, the thought lacks an apparent cause. In the latter case it almost certainly occurs without intent, given its potential consequences. The seeming randomness of such thoughts might provide reason to dismiss them as the wanderings of a restless mind. We propose that it is precisely the lack of control over and access to the process by which spontaneous thoughts come to mind that leads them to be perceived to reveal special self-insight. Drawing on previous theory and research, we propose that the greater self-insight they are attributed leads spontaneous thoughts to exert a greater impact on attitudes and behavior than similar deliberate thoughts. 


Compare a wife's thought of a former lover while perusing her yearbook to that same thought during an intimate moment with her husband. In the former case, the reason for the production of that thought is clear ("I thought of him because I looked at his picture while reminiscing about the past"). In the latter case, she lacks both control over the thought and access to its origin. We suggest that its apparent spontaneity should lead her to attribute it special meaning ("Why would I think of him in this moment unless it is important?"), and it should consequently exert a greater influence on her judgment ("I must still have feelings for him"). In this paper, we report a series of five studies examining how the perceived spontaneity of thought influences the extent to which it is believed to yield meaningful self-insight and influences judgment.


Full Article

Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143, no. 4 (August 2014): 1742–1754






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