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  Strangers to Ourselves  

strangers to ourselves 240

"Know thyself," a precept as old as Socrates, is still good advice. But is introspection the best path to self-knowledge? What are we trying to discover, anyway? In an eye-opening tour of the unconscious, as contemporary psychological science has redefined it, Timothy D. Wilson introduces us to a hidden mental world of judgments, feelings, and motives that introspection may never show us.

This is not your psychoanalyst's unconscious. The adaptive unconscious that empirical psychology has revealed, and that Wilson describes, is much more than a repository of primitive drives and conflict-ridden memories. It is a set of pervasive, sophisticated mental processes that size up our worlds, set goals, and initiate action, all while we are consciously thinking about something else.

If we don't know ourselves — our potentials, feelings, or motives — it is most often, Wilson tells us, because we have developed a plausible story about ourselves that is out of touch with our adaptive unconscious. Citing evidence that too much introspection can actually do damage, Wilson makes the case for better ways of discovering our unconscious selves. If you want to know who you are or what you feel or what you're like, Wilson advises, pay attention to what you actually do and what other people think about you. Showing us an unconscious more powerful than Freud's, and even more pervasive in our daily life, Strangers to Ourselves marks a revolution in how we know ourselves.

Book Details
Preface   From: Cassiopaea Forum

It might seem that self-knowledge is a central topic in psychology. In some ways it is; from Freud onward, psychologists have been fascinated by the extent to which people know themselves, the limits of this knowledge, and the consequences of failures of self-insight. Surprisingly, however, self-knowledge has not been a mainstream topic in academic psychology. There are few college courses on self knowledge and few books devoted to the topic, if we rule out self-help books and ones from a psychoanalytic point of view.

I think this is about to change. In recent years there has been an explosion of scientific research on self-knowledge that paints a different portrait from the one presented by Freud and his followers. People possess a powerful, sophisticated, adaptive unconscious that is crucial for survival in the world. Because this unconscious operates so efficiently out of view, however, and is largely inaccessible, there is a price to pay in self-knowledge. There is a great deal about ourselves that we cannot know directly, even with the most painstaking introspection. How, then, can we discover our nonconscious traits, goals, and feelings? Is it always to our advantage to do so? To what extent are researchers in academe rediscovering Freud and psychoanalysis? How can self-knowledge be studied scientifically, anyway? These are the questions to which I turn in the following pages. The answers are often surprising and have direct, practical, implications for everyday living. …

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  1. Freud’s Genius, Freud’s Myopia
  2. The Adaptive Unconscious
  3. Who’s in Charge?
  4. Knowing Who We Are
  5. Knowing Why
  6. Knowing How We Feel
  7. Knowing How We Will Feel
  8. Introspection and Self-Narratives
  9. Looking Outward to Know Ourselves
  10. Observing and Changing Our Behavior
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
Publication Data

Copyright © 2002 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America

Library ofCongress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Wilson, Timothy D.
     Strangers to Oueselves: discovering the adaptive unconscious
     Timothy D. Wilson.
          p. cm.
     Includes bibliographical references and index.
     ISBN 0-674-00936-3 (cloth)
     ISBN 0-674-01382-4 (paper)
     1. Self-perception. 2. Subconsciousness. I. Title.
154.2-dc21     2002024088

About the Author

timothy wilson

Timothy D. Wilson is Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia.

  • He received his B.A. from Hampshire College and his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.
  • He is a social psychologist who has investigated unconscious processing, the limits of introspection, the consequences of introspection, affective forecasting, and happiness.
  • In 2001 he received an All University Outstanding Teaching Award.
  • In 2009 was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
  • In 2010 he received the University of Virginia Distinguished Scientist Award.

Wilson is the author of Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, published by Harvard University Press.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker that "Strangers to Ourselves" … is what popular psychology ought to be (and rarely is): thoughtful, beautifully written, and full of unexpected insights."

On his web page Gladwell says, "In Blink, I probably owe a bigger intellectual debt to Tim Wilson (and his longtime collaborator, Jonathan Schooler) than anyone else, and Strangers to Ourselves is probably the most influential book I've ever read."

Wilson is the coauthor of the best-selling text, Social Psychology (Prentice-Hall), now in its seventh edition.

Editorial Reviews   From: Amazon

From Publishers Weekly
Freud introduced the West to the unconscious, but the last half-century of psychology has reinvented it, argues University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy D. Wilson. In Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, Wilson attempts to explain why there's so much about ourselves that we fail to understand, which can lead to misdirected anger. He points to a revised, post-Freudian understanding of how the mind works: the reason that their own judgments, feelings, [and] motives remain mysterious to people is not repression, as Freud argued, but efficiency so that the mind can process and analyze multiple things at once. Wilson looks at ways that readers can probe their unconscious, suggesting that soliciting the opinions of others is actually more valuable than introspection.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. — This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal
How well do we really know ourselves? How well can we know ourselves? Wilson (psychology, Univ. of Virginia) convincingly argues that our conscious minds are but the tip of the iceberg in deciding how we behave, what is important to us, and how we feel. Surveying a variety of contemporary psychological research, this book describes an unconscious that is capable of a much higher degree of "thinking" than previously supposed by adherents of either Freudian or Behaviorist branches of psychology. Capable of everything from problem solving and narrative construction to emotional reaction and prediction, the adaptive unconscious is a powerful and pervasive element of our whole personalities. Indeed, it may be the primary element of our personalities, controlling our real motivations, judgments, and actions. Wilson examines the evolution of the idea of the unconscious, the various ways in which it operates within us, and how we can look at our actions-rather than our thoughts-to truly know ourselves. A fascinating read; for large public libraries.
David Valencia, King Cty. Lib. Syst., Seattle
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. — This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Brief Reviews

Strangers to Ourselves is a rare combination of lucid prose, penetrating insight, and cutting-edge research. Wilson uses modern science to examine a problem that has troubled philosophers for millennia--how and how well can we know ourselves? — and concludes that people rarely know the causes of their own behavior. Anyone who still believes that they know what they want, feel, or think, should read this fascinating book, which is sure to stimulate research in laboratories and debate around water-coolers for decades to come. (Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University)

Timothy Wilson tackles one of the central questions in psychology: can we truly know ourselves? Drawing on a career of thoughtful research, Wilson takes the reader on a fascinating journey through a wonderland of studies and ideas in contemporary psychology, with side trips into anthropology, medicine, and philosophy. STRANGERS TO OURSELVES is a book of great breadth and depth that will captivate anyone with an interest in consciousness, self-knowledge, and the very essence of being human. (James W. Pennebaker, author of Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions)

Tim Wilson's book covers many diverse areas of psychology in a very accessible style, with compelling examples from life and literature, to make a radical argument: that for the most part we have very little real understanding of how we work, or why we do even the most ordinary things. This is a very original and provocative work — and lots of fun to read, too! (John Bargh, Jules Silver Professor of Psychology, New York University)

Wilson convincingly argues that our conscious minds are but the tip of the iceberg in deciding how we behave, what is important to us, and how we feel. Surveying a variety of contemporary psychological research, this book describes an unconscious that is capable of a much higher degree of "thinking" than previously supposed by adherents of either Freudian or Behaviorist branches of psychology. Capable of everything from problem solving and narrative construction to emotional reaction and prediction, the adaptive unconscious is a powerful and pervasive element of our whole personalities. Indeed, it may be the primary element of our personalities, controlling our real motivations, judgments, and actions … A fascinating read. (David Valencia Library Journal 2002-09-01)

Timothy Wilson … offers a charming, talkative and yet authoritative review of how it became clear that most of what happens inside us is not perceptible by us. In fact, other people often know more about events inside [us] … because they can monitor [our] actions and body language better than [we] can … Strangers to Ourselves is certainly worth reading and reflecting upon. (Tor Norrentronders New Scientist 2002-10-05)

This book offers an intricate combination of page-turning reading, cutting-edge research, and philosophical debate. At some level, Wilson points out, individuals know that processing and decision-making go on below the threshold of awareness; if every decision had to reach consciousness before action could be initiated, people would not be able to respond as promptly as some situations dictate. How does this processing occur? What standards are employed in reaching "less than" conscious decisions? Wilson explores these questions with penetrating clarity, impressively integrating literature from a variety of professions and disciplines including psychology and business … Wilson does an excellent job of covering research that addresses factors (internal and external) influencing decision-making processes that may appear to be unconscious … Highly recommended. (R. E. Osborne Choice 2003-02-01)

[Wilson's] book is what popular psychology ought to be (and rarely is): thoughtful, beautifully written, and full of unexpected insights. (Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker 2004-09-20)

There is much here to arouse interest and provoke thought in any reader, and the book does not outstay its welcome … The writing is clear and engaging, and the subject matter is illuminating and entertaining. Though Wilson insists that introspection is limited in its ability to reveal our true selves, it would be a very dull reader who was not roused by this book into a close self-examination. (Jo Lawson Times Literary Supplement 2004-08-13)

Strangers to Ourselves is a rare combination of lucid prose, penetrating insight, and cutting-edge research. Wilson uses modern science to examine a problem that has troubled philosophers for millennia — how and how well can we know ourselves? — and concludes that people rarely know the causes of their own behavior. Anyone who still believes that they know what they want, feel, or think, should read this fascinating book, which is sure to stimulate research in laboratories and debate around water-coolers for decades to come. (Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University) — This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Synopsis: Strangers to Ourselves, Part I   by F.  From: Two Newtons

Chapter 1: Freud’s Genius, Freud’s Myopia

Why do we not know ourselves very well? And, more importantly, what can we do about it? The unconscious was Freud’s greatest insight. After a period in which the notion of the unconscious was considered unscientific it is coming back into use. However, the conception of the unconscious now being used is different from the Freudian conception. Interestingly, this new conception of the unconscious was anticipated by pre-Freudian scientists and philosophes.

Descarte equated thinking with conscious thinking, but there were others—Liebnitz, Pascal, Schelling, Herbart, William Hamilton, Thomas Laycock, and William Carpenter—who starting developing a theory of the adaptive unconscious. Their insights included the following: lower-order mental processes occur outside of awareness; attention can be divided; thinking can be automatic; we have unconscious prejudices; we can be wrong about our own feelings; and there may be an unconscious self.

Freud thought that the unconscious could be accessed directly through introspection. But it may be better to deduce how we feel by looking at how we act and how others think we feel. Further, introspection can lead us to do the wrong things because it yields inaccurate information.

Chapter 2: The Adaptive Unconscious

We have a sense of what consciousness feels likes. In contrast, we don’t have the same sense about the adaptive unconscious. However, people can lose certain unconscious abilities and this gives us a senes of what it is like not to have an unconscious. And it’s not pretty.

We can define the adaptive unconscious as “mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgments, feelings, or behaviors.” Our senses at any one time are taking in 11,000,000 pieces of information: this is the number of receptor cells in each sense organ and the nerves that go to the brain. Our eyes receive 10,000,000 signals a second. We can consciously process only about 40 pieces of information per second, which suggests something is processing the rest of the date. So, what does the adaptive unconscious do with the data?

For one thing, we know we can learn unconsciously. Explicit learning is effortful while implicit learning isn’t and is an important feature of the adaptive unconscious. Further, we filter out information unconsciously. But the unconscious is still paying attention and can notify us when something we need to think about happens. In addition, the unconscious can interpret a situation without conscious awareness. It is also a spin doctor, as can be seen from tests in which certain words were flashed in front of subjects too fast for them to be aware of it. The flashed words are not noticed consciously but they influence construals of a following stimulus. Also, the adaptive unconscious generates gut feelings that can—and should—guide judgments and decisions. You can have nonconscious goals, and they may conflict with conscious goals that may be better for you.

But how does the adaptive unconscious decide what to select, how to interpret, and which goals to pursue? One factor is accessibility, which is a product of (a) recency and (b) frequency of use. Also, the adaptive unconscious selects based on what maintains a state of well-being: this constitutes the “psychological immune system.” Self-deception can be helpful as well as harmful.

Loss of the adaptive unconscious would be debilitating. But this does not mean that the adaptive unconscious cannot be improved or it produces error-free judgments. Many heuristics can have bad consequences.

Chapter 3: Who’s in Charge?

We consider goal setting, interpretation, and evaluation to be the proper work of the conscious mind, but the unconscious does these things as well. The adaptive unconscious is probably older than the conscious mind. The newer, conscious mind sometimes creates the illusion of control: will is sometimes an illusion. Consciousness, to use an analogy, is like Ronald Reagan: it appears to be the executive, but in fact does not have the amount of control we assume it does.

So what are the specific difference between the two systems? The adaptive unconscious has multiple systems; is more like an on-line pattern detector; is concerned with the here-and-now; is automatic (fast, unintentional, uncontrollable, effortless); is rigid; is precocious; and is sensitive to negative information. In contrast, consciousness is a single system; is a post-facto fact checker and balancer; takes the long view; is controlled (slow, intentional, controllable, effortful); is flexible; is slower to develop; and is sensitive to positive information.

The systems often work harmoniously together, but not always. An example where both systems come into play: you see a “snake.” You perform an initial crude analysis (“FUCK! Snake!”) followed by a more detailed, conscious analysis (“Oh. It was just a stick.”) However, the systems can also work at cross-purposes. For instance, the conscious mind plans for the future. But those plans can lead to results which we end up unhappy with. To avoid this, we should recognize our non-conscious needs and traits and factor them in when planning. Also, automatic thinking is fast; non-conscious; unintentional; uncontrollable; and effortless. But this can lead us to false conclusions, such as in stereotyping. Finally, the adaptive unconscious is rigid: we bend information to fit out preconceptions. We can draw the wrong conclusions, for instance, from a too-small a sample. We can make our expectations come true.

The two systems can learn at different rates as well. According to the discounting principle, we lower our estimate of the causal role of one factor to the extent that other plausible causes are present. The discounting principle is at work before children can recognize and use it on others consciously. An example of the discounting principle: we do a puzzle for money (cause) so we conclude that our intrinsic interest (another cause) was lower. This may be because the adaptive unconscious learns the discounting principle before the conscious mind does. This use of the discounting principle persists into adulthood, by the way. Also, children get a Theory of Mind unconsciously earlier than their conscious, verbal reports show, around 3 versus 4. It is possible that the adaptive unconscious acts as a sentry for negative information.

The adaptive unconscious is neither smart nor dumb. It depends on the task. And there is no grand design that allocates tasks between one system and the other. Natural selection operates on the current state of an organism, such that new systems evolve out of old ones.

Chapter 4: Knowing Who We Are

Our lack of self-knowledge may be explained by the fact that we don’t have direct access to the UA. The “self” is partly inaccessible. There are numerous views of “personality,” though the dominant approach today is the “trait model.” The trait model is used in genetic studies of heritability of traits and genetic factors are thought to account for 20-50% of variance in personality traits. However, even the trait model doesn’t predict behavior very well because the social situation greatly influences behavior. One researcher, Mischel, suggests that personality is more like a set of unique cognitive and affective variables that determine how people construe a situation. Mischel’s theory is probably describing the adaptive unconscious, at least in part.

Accordingly, we have two personalities: the adaptive unconscious and the conscious self. Each meets Allport’s definition of a theory of personality: a person’s “characteristic behavior and thought.” The conscious mind—the constructed self—comprises life stories, possible selves, explicit motives, self-theories, and beliefs about the reasons for one’s feelings. These two personalities or selves appear independent. But what is the adaptive unconscious like?

It appears to have a number of rules according to which it makes judgments. Mischel describes 5 components that guide behavior: encodings (people’s construals of themselves, others, and situations); expectancies about themselves and the social world; affect and emotions; goals and values; and competencies and self-regulatory plans. These rules are, according to Mischel, “if-then” rules. We find that it is more accurate to watch people and deduce their “if-then” rules than to ask them, which suggests they reside in the adaptive unconscious. We discover the subject’s “behavioral signature,” but not by asking.

The adaptive unconscious can get stuck scanning the same thing. For instance, accessibility of a category or construct influences our construals, and this happens unconsciously. For instance, one person may have “honesty” chronically accessible and notice the presence or absence of it in whoever she meets.

The phenomenon of “transference” can be explained by the adaptive unconscious: we have representations of relationships (e.g., with mother) that are self-relevant and frequently used that become chronically accessible and used to evaluate new people we meet.

There are two primary ways to measure attachment style: self-report and the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI). They do not correlate very well. Why? One explanation may be that the self-report describes people’s conscious conception of a current attachment (e.g., spouse). The AAI might describe the patterns in the adaptive unconscious.

Attachment styles are classified as (1) secure, (2) avoidant, (3) anxious/ambivilant, or (4) disorganized. An infant with a secure style are distressed when the parent leaves and seek comfort when the parent returns. They have parents who are sensitive and responsive to their needs. An infant with an avoidant style shows little distress when the parent leaves and does not seek comfort when they return. They have parents who have rebuffed their attempts to be intimate. Infants with anxious/ambivalent styles fear others will not reciprocate their desire for intimacy and are pre-occupied with their parent’s availability in the lab. They have parents who alternate between unresponsiveness and excess affection. An infant with a disorganized style shows contradictory reactions, such as crying when the parent leaves and then ignoring the parent when they return. These infants may have parents who are depressed or neglectful.

It appears we can have duel motives and goals. Personality psychology traditionally focuses on three basic goals most people have: affiliation, achievement, and power. Again, there are two ways to measure people’s goals and they don’t correlate: self-report and the Thematic Apperception Test. The self-report assesses self-attributed motives, while the TAT assess implicit motives, it seems.

We appear not to see ourselves as others see us. Other than extraversion, our own ratings of our personality and others’ do not correlate very well. Peer reports seem to better predict behavior than self-reports do. Why? Here are a couple reasons: we believe we are holier-than-thou; and we have different information—our “inside information,” which is not the full story and makes us overlook situational constraints. These self-reports may be more accurate than other-reports concerning conscious, monitored behavior, while the others may be more accurate about unconscious behavior.

Some parts of our self-concept reside in the adaptive unconscious, others in the conscious mind. The consciously described self may not correspond to the dispositions and motives of the adaptive unconscious. Rather, it may correspond to our conscious theories and constructions, which may have some causal role in our lives, but may nevertheless be partly wrong.

Nonconscious motives seem to come from early infant experiences as well as genetic endowment. Explicit, conscious motives result from explicit parental teaching. David McClelland et al. found that use of scheduled infant feedings correlated with implicit but not explicit need for achievement, and non-responsiveness of mothers to infant crying correlated with implicit but not explicit need for affiliation. And, on the other hand, teaching not to fight back correlated with explicit but not implicit need for affiliation, and children of parents who set explicit tasks were more likely to have explicit but not implicit need for achievement.

Since our self-insight is often faulty, why don’t we correct it? Because we prefer to see ourselves in a good light and our theory can be difficult to disconfirm. But there is evidence that having an adaptive unconscious and a conscious mind in harmony causes greater well being than having them in disharmony.

Synopsis: Strangers to Ourselves, Part II   by F.  From: Two Newtons

5. Knowing Why

There are many examples of patients who, because of brain injury or posthypnotic suggestion, confabulate reasons for their actions. Even those of us without such injuries may do the same thing more than we realize.

Take the example of baby names. Often we think we chose a name for its originality but the real explanation may be that it is circulating widely, with the result that, looking back in a few years, we will see that the name was one of the most common for babies born in that year. Social situations can shape behavior but often we don’t take this into account in “explaining” why we did something. Even personality is not the only explanation for our behavior. Take the famous Capilano Bridge experiment, in which subjects on a dangerous bridge who met a woman ascribed their arousal to the wrong cause: the woman with whom they were talking, not the bridge’s danger.

We are often wrong about why we do something and even about how we felt. Wilson and Nisbett had people pick their favorite pair of panty hose from four pairs. The pantyhose were identical. Yet, the subjects picked one as best. Further, the subjects were able to “explain” why they had picked the “best,” they would typically point to some attribute such as sheerness, even though the selected pair of hose was no more sheer than the others. In another experiment, they showed subjects a film while an annoying noise was playing (a saw). The students didn’t enjoy the film any less than controls until reminded that they had been watching the film while the saw was running. After thinking about it, they said they enjoyed the film less.

Can the adaptive unconscious cause conscious thought that then seems to be the explanation for our choice? Probably. A conscious thought could have been primed unconsciously by something scene earlier—for instance, see a fat person makes you order the salad at lunch. Also, research by Wegner and Wheatley has shown that conscious will can be an illusion, showing that we can think something was conscious when it wasn’t.

Our explanations of our own behavior are often no more accurate than those of a complete stranger who lives in our culture. We generally use four general types of information: shared causal theories such as “absence makes the heart grow fonder”; observing covariation between a response and a prior condition, such as eating shrimp and getting a rash; idiosyncratic theories, such as “I don’t like parties with clowns”; and private knowledge, such as thoughts, feelings, and memories. This sort of information seems like it would be really useful, but it’s often not accurate and we may have so much privileged information that it obscures a more mundane—but true—explanation. Accordingly, since people are not very good at explaining their moods and strangers are often better. Therefore, we should be humble about our causal judgments of our moods.

We don’t realize that we are merely conjecturing about ourselves because we want to feel in control of our lives; we have a lot of inside information, so it seems like it must be useful, but having more information does not always lead to accurate judgments. And we have more information about some of our judgments than others. So, even though our self-knowledge feels authentic, it often isn’t.

XXX6. Knowing How We Feel

We may not know what we like and may have unconscious feelings leading to the possibility that we may be wrong about how we feel unconsciously. Philosophical tradition couldn’t countenance this. For instance, Wittgenstein and Descartes thought reports of sensations and feelings were incorrigible. They were wrong and the persistence of the incorrigibility notion can be explained by two problems.

The first, the measurement problem, is that even if people can be wrong about their feelings, they have no way to test this: they have no other means with which to correct their self-reports. But this problem can be overcome. First, this is not a very good argument for trusting the veracity of self-reports. Second, there is often evidence that we should discount a self-report, e.g., when our spouse says we are acting jealous, or when we look back and see that we were wrong about our own motives. Third, the tools to measure accuracy of self-reports are getting better.

The second, the theory problem, is this: why on earth would humans be built this way? This problem, too, can be overcome. First, just because human beings have a feature doesn’t mean it has a purpose. Second, there are a couple of good reasons why unconscious feelings could be adaptive: consciousness of the feeling might provoke anxiety or other discomforting states such that the feelings is dealt with unconsciously; and emotions can be fully functional without being conscious.

According to LeDoux, a “low-road” danger detection system creates unconscious feelings of threatening objects, yet we also have a “high-road” system for evaluating the danger. But LeDoux’s theory has some problems, namely it has only been tested using “fear,” the adaptive unconscious and the consciousare both “high-road” processes; and LeDoux’s theory doesn’t allow simultaneous but different feelings. For instance, the adaptive unconscious can feel one thing and the conscious mind another. Our conscious feelings often get in the way of knowing how the adaptive unconscious feels, it seems.

People can change their attitudes without being able to self-report the change. For instance, in one study, subjects were given epinephrine without knowing it and then shown a funny movie. They laughed more than controls. But when asked how funny the film was, the subjects and the control said the same thing (for instance, “not that funny,”) even though the controls had laughed less. The subjects based their verbal responses on their personal theories about whether they liked that kind of film (e.g., slapstick). Another example: people can be prejudiced and not know it: they act prejudiced, but are well-intentioned. It may be more useful to observe how one acts than introspecting about one’s feelings.

Even though consciousness of feelings may be a default, feelings can fail to reach consciousness. This can can happen due to repressing a threatening feeling; inattention; and conscious theories or confabulations. An extreme case is alexithymia, where people feel things but can’t describe them (e.g., crying “just makes my body feel better.”) But we are all alexithemic to a degree.

7. Knowing How We Will Feel

In order to be happy in the future, we have to make affective forecasts. But when we make these forecasts, we are affected by the durability bias: we overestimate the duration of reactions to future emotional events. Further, our affective forecasts are often wrong. Most people think winning the lottery would make them happy, but studies of winners find them fairly miserable. And we think that major setbacks such as the death of a spouse will cripple us forever. But it usually doesn’t. We bounce back. We are more resilient than we know.

Partly happiness is heritable. But the phenomenon to be explained is why people return to their reference level so fast. One possibility is having a goal toward which to work, which allows you to be in flow. And if you don’t achieve the goal, it’s typically not that big of a deal after a while, even if it’s a big-time life goal like getting tenure. As long as you have something toward which to work, you recover pretty fast. Another possibility is that we use comparison points to judge our pleasure and pain. A change in comparison points changes our emotional experiences.

We have a kind of emotional allostasis mechanism that keeps us from experiencing extremes of prolonged positive or negative emotional states. There is no single, ideal level of happiness, however, to which the brain returns. There are both physiological processes such as the opponent process and deliberative behavioral strategies that moderate both positive and negative emotions.

We “ordinize” major positive and negative life events, transforming them in a way that robs them of their emotional power. In order to do this, we explain these life events and try to make sense of novel ones. But this “sense-making” robs these events of their hedonic power, too. One way we make sense is by viewing a novel event post-facto as predictable and inevitable. This is the hindsight bias.

Our brain works harder to minimize the impact of negative occurrences than positive ones. So, in addition to the general “ordinization” process, we also have a sort of “psychological immune system” that allows us to select, interpret, and evaluate information in ways that preserves our self-esteem. It operates largely outside our awareness. If someone says something mean, we think they are joking. When someone turns down a date, we conclude they weren’t right for us. When a journal turns down our article, we believe the editors have poor judgment. We don’t realize how resilient we are in part because our psychological immune system is operating outside conscious awareness.

Another reason we don’t know how resilient we are is the focalism bias, which is the tendency to think of a future negative event in a vacuum, without imagining all the other parts of our future life. The durability bias can be reduced by instructing subjects to fill out their imagined future—imagine the bad event but also the good stuff that will most likely be there, too.

So, we don’t realize how resilient we are after a bad event because we fail to take into account other events that will offset the bad one; and we don’t take into account ordination of bad events.

Synopsis: Strangers to Ourselves, Part III   by F.  From: Two Newtons

8. Introspection and Self-Narratives

Although there are a number of kinds of introspective activities, they have common characteristics. Usually, the activity is described by some sort of metaphor. One metaphor for introspection is the flashlight; another is the archeological dig. Both metaphors share the assumption that the unconscious can be made conscious. But it seems unlikely we can gain direct access to our mental operations: after all, we can’t gain access to how are perceptual system is working. A better metaphor is the self-narrative, in which we construct a biography of ourselves, piecing it together from both inside and outside information.

Introspection is itself a sort of self-narrative built out of limited source information. Everyday introspection is often faulty, even if we try to be scientific using 7-point scales or charts of pros and cons. This doesn’t mean introspection is useless, but it does mean that we should use introspection in certain circumstances and avoid it in others.

There are some dangers to introspection, too. Analyzing reasons can lead to attitude change in a negative direction. In one study, students were asked why their relationship was going the way it was and then to rate it. The controls were not asked this. The students who analyzed the reasons tended to change their attitudes toward the relationship based on the reasons, even though they may not have been accurate and may have instead been based on cultural and personal theories. Further, those who didn’t think of the reasons for why their relationship was going the way it was predicted more accurately the longevity of the relationship. In another study, Students got to choose a poster for their room. Some analyzed why, some didn’t. Those who didn’t were happier with their poster two weeks later.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t collect information. Rather, we should collect enough information to develop an informed gut feeling and then not analyze the feelings too much. Allow the adaptive unconscious to make a stable, informed evaluation.

It isn’t always bad to think about reasons. For instance, it’s not when we are quite knowledgeable about the subject matter we are analyzing. We may come to the “correct” conclusion after analysis, but this analysis doesn’t make us any more likely to make the right choice. Further, the length of time spent analyzing doesn’t make the assessments any better. People bring to mind reasons, then change their attitudes to fit them, and then stick with those attitudes.

So how should we use our adaptive unconscious? Like this: imagine in detail the counterfactual situation and let the adaptive unconscious generate feelings. Then notice them. While not foolproof, this may be better than analysis through introspection.

Introspection should not be confused with rumination. Rumination is “thinking about one’s feelings and their causes repetitively without taking action to improve one’s situation.” This make things worse. Unhappiness and rumination about it leads to more and greater unhappiness.

In contrast to other kinds of introspection, writing about emotional experiences has beneficial effects. According to Pennebaker, creating coherent, well organized stories help us to make sense of things in a more adaptive, objective manner. It may also save us from having to suppress thoughts about a distressing topic. Unexplained events tend to come back to mind. And suppression not only doesn’t work—it often backfires.

Psychotherapy may work by allowing people to construct new narratives about themselves. It appears to be irrelevant which form of therapy is used. And, after all, what therapists do is provide their patients with a new narrative to explain their problems—whatever the psychoanalytic framework is. Those patients who adopt the interpretations offered by the therapists improve the most in therapy. There is probably not one “true story;” many narratives are equally effective.

9. Looking Outward to Know Ourselves

We should use “outside” information as source material for self-biographies. We don’t have privileged access to how our pulmonary system works and so we consult outside information. We should do the same with our psychological system. While we may not be the “average person,” the response of the average person is informative in a probabilistic sense.

One example of learning about ourselves by looking at controlled psychological studies is advertising. People fear subliminal advertising but accept regular advertising. However, the former is almost entirely ineffective while the later is quite effective. Another example is racism. Studies show that we can consciously abhor racism and still appear to hold racist attitudes, as measured by access time and physical signals, such as avoiding physical contact. We can have automatic prejudices.

We may adopt a view of ourselves that becomes obsolete. For instance, we may be shy as a child but grow out of it in college, as people often do. Yet we may still think of ourselves as shy. In such a case, it may be more accurate to use others’ appraisals of us—a reflected appraisal—rather than our own self-theory.

However, there are dangers to using reflected appraisals, too. For one thing, we often misunderstand how others think of us: we sometimes project our self-theory onto others. And people lie. They are unlikely to tell us how greedy we are, for instance. Sometimes reflected appraisals are accurate, but the extent of the accuracy is not that impressive.

While reflected appraisals can be wrong, there are certain situations in which we should probably consider them. First, when an important life decision is at stake. Sure, Einstein failed his engineering entrance exam and was a brilliant physicist. But for every Einstein there are many people who wasted years pursuing careers for which they were ill suited. Second, we should probably consider others’ views when the gap between their appraisal and ours gets large. Generally it’s good to have a positive view of oneself, even if it is inaccurate. However, there are times when this disparity can cause problems for us.

10. Observing and Changing our Behavior

In addition to observing how others see us and reading the psychology literature, we can gain some insight by observing our own behavior carefully. And if we want to change something, we can begin acting like the person we want to be. In many cases, we can know ourselves better by observing what we do the same way we observe others.

But once we start to observe ourselves, we have to take into account biases in how we observe others, such as the fundamental attribution error, which results in our discounting contextual explanation in favor of personality traits as the cause of behavior. Or we may overattribute our actions to the situation. Or we might not take into account a hidden cause of our behavior, as in the Capilano Bridge experiment, or the experiment where students watched the comedy film after having been given epinephrine. But sometimes we can see patters, such as when we fail to hire 3 qualified minority applicants for a job, and instead hire the unqualified woman with huge ta-tas.

But might not the adaptive unconscious be doing the inferring about what we are like based on our behavior? Wouldn’t that screw things up? Maybe. But there’s no real alternative. Instead, we can try to correct for this by doing the self-perception consciously as well, as a check on the adaptive unconscious.

And even if the adaptive unconscious is at work, we can change our unconscious inclinations by changing our behavior and performing the new behavior more frequently. If we do good, we will come to think of ourselves as being good. This promotes a new self-definition as well and may even lead to act automatically in accordance with the new self-definition. “Fake it until you make it,” in the words of an AA slogan. This appears to work with depression: therapy that gets men to be more social can lift their depression.

A satisfying, functional, adaptive self-narrative should be roughly accurate: it should capture the nature of the person’s nonconscious goals, feelings, and temperaments. There must be some correspondence between the person’s adaptive unconscious and the self-narrative. The adaptive unconscious and the conscious mind must be in synch. Also, the self-narrative must be believable to you. Do you buy it? Commit to a coherent self-narrative that corresponds reasonably well to your adaptive unconscious. But be flexible, too, and revise your self-narrative as needed.

Is Your Unconscious Smarter Than You Are?   From:

Reviewed by John F. Kihlstrom

Review of Wilson, Timothy D. (2002). Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. Cambridge, Ma.: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 262 + viii pp., ISBN #0-674-00936-3, $27.95 hardcover.

Note: An edited version of this review appeared in PsycCRITIQUES, 49, Supplement 14 (December 29, 2004).

The title of this book evokes memories of Albert Camus, writing in "The Myth of Sisyphus":

  • quote small leftOf whom and of what indeed can I say: "I know that!". This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me. Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance, the gap will never be filled. Forever I shall be a stranger to myself.quote small right – Camus, 1942/1955, pp. 14-15

Camus blamed his estrangement on the absurd confrontation between human consciousness and an unintelligible universe. But Timothy Wilson locates the problem in the limitations of consciousness. The world is knowable, and so are we, and in fact, by virtue of our "adaptive unconscious", we know a lot about ourselves and the social world in which we live. We just don't know that we know it, and we'd be a lot better off if we would just stop trying so hard to understand things and just behave.

In a now-classic paper, Wilson and Richard Nisbett argued that we have only very poor knowledge of the causes of our own behavior, and instead rely on a priori theories to make sense of processes that actually run off unconsciously (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). In this book, Wilson expands the argument to cover much broader territory. Not only do we not know why we do what we do, but we also don't know how we feel about things and events, and we're bad at predicting about how we'll feel about them in the future. Each of us has a sort of dual personality, one conscious, and the other unconscious. Because only the unconscious one really matters, we can learn more about ourselves from observing our behavior than by introspecting on our motives and goals. The stories that we tell about ourselves are just stories, and they're accurate to the extent that they happen to reflect our "nonconscious goals, feelings, and temperaments" (p. 181).

The adaptive unconscious, in Wilson's view, is a powerful learning device, processing information quickly and efficiently, filtering stimuli, evaluating events, rendering judgments, and setting goals — all outside of our conscious awareness. Consciousness, if not wholly illusory, plays only a very limited role in human experience, thought, and action. Freud pretty much got it right, except that "our friend the adaptive unconscious" (p. 121) is kinder and gentler — and more rational — than Freud's seething, primitive, infantile, anxiety-evoking sexual and aggressive monsters from the Id. While Freud thought that consciousness was only the tip of the iceberg, Wilson thinks that it is "more the size of a snowball on top of that iceberg" (p. 6).

To illustrate and support these ideas, Wilson musters an impressive array of fictional examples, anecdotes, and scientific research. The fictional examples are — well, fiction, and the anecdotes are sometimes of dubious relevance. For example, Wilson cites the case of a University of Virginia student who won a prestigious Marshall Scholarship, but who almost did not apply because "she did not think she had much of a chance to win" (p. 201). The implication is that she did not know herself as well as her advisors did. Maybe. On the other hand, with only 40 scholarships awarded and a field of some 1,000 applicants that year, perhaps she knew herself quite well, but also calculated the baserates. In any event, the fact that she actually won against such odds tells us nothing about her unconscious personality, or the degree of her conscious self-knowledge.

Of course, in a book that seeks to interpret scholarly research for a wider audience, it is the research that matters. Unfortunately, the studies Wilson details are often either irrelevant or subject to alternative interpretations. For example, he cites Lewicki's research on implicit learning to support the claim that the adaptive unconscious is a powerful detector of patterns in the stimulus environment (Lewicki, Hill, & Bizot, 1988). But as it happens, Lewicki never compared incidental, implicit learning to an adequate control condition involving conscious, deliberate knowledge acquisition (nor do most demonstrations of the purported power of implicit learning, for that matter). Arguably, the most powerful learning mechanism available to human beings is what Albert Bandura (Bandura, 1986) has called social learning by precept, or sponsored teaching. That's why we give introductory psychology students textbooks, and make them attend lectures, instead of hoping that they'll induce the principles of depth perception from repeated exposures to Renaissance paintings.

Wilson cites Schachter and Wheeler's apparently paradoxical finding that the injection of epinephrine led to increased laughter when subjects viewed a slapstick film, but not to increased ratings of the film's humor (Schachter & Wheeler, 1962). His interpretation — repeated twice (pp. 132 and 210), so he must mean it — is that the adaptive unconscious found the film to be funny, and thus generated laughter, while the subjects' conscious ratings of the film were based on abstract personal theories about what kinds of films they liked. But a more parsimonious interpretation of the Schachter and Wheeler study is simply that the drug disinhibited laughing behavior without altering the subjects' sense of humor. In other words, the effect has nothing to do with the unconscious, adaptive or maladaptive.

To demonstrate that consciousness can sometimes get in the way of adaptive behavior, Wilson describes his own research, which finds that analyzing the reasons, both pro and con, for a particular decision alters the preference itself, leading people to regret the choices they initially made. The implication is that the intuitive "gut" feelings produced by the adaptive unconscious are more accurate reflections of our true feelings than are those that arise from deliberate introspection. And the further implication is that we would make better decisions, and be happier with the decisions we made, if we did not think about them too much. This is a reliable finding in research on judgment and decision-making, and it is not uninteresting. But it may have nothing to do with the adaptive unconscious. People who are faced with a proliferation of choices usually are less happy with the choices that they make (Schwartz, 2004). The effect is caused simply by the abundance of choices available, combined with a tendency to maximize the utility of the choices made, and disappears when people apply a strategy of "satisficing" instead — or when the number of choices is reduced. In much the same way, Wilson's effect may be caused simply by the proliferation of reasons, and not by whether the decision process is conscious or unconscious.

Nevertheless, drawing on this and other research, Wilson asserts that we possess parallel sets of attitudes. Conscious attitudes reflect how we think we should feel about things, while unconscious attitudes reflect how we really feel about things. Conscious and unconscious attitudes may be discrepant with each other, so that people can be consciously egalitarian but unconsciously racist or sexist, and it is this unconscious prejudice that controls our behavior. Wilson cites research that seeks to measure people's "implicit" attitudes, and trace their effects on behavior. But he fails to make a clear distinction between attitudes that are truly unconscious and those that the person simply chooses not to divulge, or between unconscious racial prejudice and a person's knowledge of common racial stereotypes. The fact is, most studies of implicit attitudes do not include properly controlled comparisons with conscious attitudes, so we really do not know, yet, whether explicit and implicit attitudes can be dissociated from each other in the same manner as explicit and implicit memories. These are serious problems, which must be solved if we are to avoid the psychologist's fallacy of assuming that our inferences about other people's mental states are better than their own.

In some ways, the argument in Strangers to Ourselves reflects the "automaticity juggernaut" running through social psychology — the widespread acceptance of the proposition that our everyday experience, thought, and action is largely if not wholly under the control of reflex-like processes that run off outside phenomenal awareness and free of voluntary control. To the view that most people are on automatic pilot most of the time, Wilson adds the further proposition that we don't know what we're doing, or why, or what we feel about it. This conception of mental life is attractive to many psychologists, and other cognitive scientists, who are still made nervous by the topic of consciousness. Moreover, an emphasis on automatic, unconscious processes is compatible with the situationism that still infects much of social psychology — the view that social behavior is largely controlled by the immediate stimulus environment.

Add to this mix the notion that people are fundamentally ignorant and irrational, and you have what I have come to call the "People Are Stupid" school of psychology. Wilson avoids stupidism, mostly, because he views the unconscious as smart and adaptive — although he does note that "the tendency for the adaptive unconscious to jump to conclusions, and to fail to change its mind in the face of contrary evidence, is responsible for some of society's problems" (pp. 55-56). Even if the adaptive unconscious did not have its maladaptive moments, however, a view of mind and behavior which is centered on unconscious, automatic processing seems dangerously close to the kind of functional, input-output behaviorism that was rejected by the cognitive revolution in the first place — call it Skinnerism with a cognitive face.

Still, in more benign ways, Wilson's book reflects the wide and deep acceptance of a non-Freudian view of unconscious mental life within contemporary scientific psychology. Unlike earlier cognitivists, who tended to view the unconscious as a wastebasket for displaced percepts and decayed memories, or as a filebox for latent knowledge, Wilson revives Hartmann's 19th-century Romantic view of a dynamically active unconscious mind which "can really outdo all the performances of conscious reason" (Hartmann, 1868/1931, p. 40). As with "emotional intelligence" (Goleman, 1995; Salovey & Mayer, 1989), the notion of the adaptive unconscious has already been subject to popularization: in 2005, Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for the New Yorker, will publish Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Little, Brown), which argues that the adaptive unconscious can produce results as good as, if not better than, rational thought; and that we would all be a lot better off if we would rely more on instinct.

This would be nice if it were true, but both Ebbinghaus and James took Hartmann to task for having an overly broad definition of the unconscious, and for going way beyond his evidence. Strangers to Ourselves is a decided improvement on Hartmann in both respects. But precise details of experimental methodology, including the demand characteristics of the experiment, matter a great deal in this research — an issue raised by some critics of the original Nisbett-Wilson experiments (Bowers, 1984; Cotton, 1980; Smith & Miller, 1978; White, 1980). Wilson does not reply to his earlier critics in this book, but the same sorts of problems they identified still turn up in the later research discussed here. If the book is not entirely convincing, at least it makes an interesting argument and points the direction for future research. In any case, it seems certain now that the unconscious mind is back, and here to stay — if only its enthusiasts can avoid slipping into the dark side of epiphenomenalism, conscious inessentialism, and behaviorism.


Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Bowers, K. S. (1984). On being unconsciously influenced and informed. In K. S. Bowers & d. H. Meichenbaum (Eds.), The unconscious reconsidered(pp. 227-272). New York: Wiley-Interscience.

Camus, A. (1942/1955). The myth of sisyphus., The myth of sisyphus and other essays. (pp. 1-102). New York: Vintage Books.

Cotton, J. L. (1980). Verbal reports on mental processes: Ignoring data for the sake of the theory? Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 6, 278-281.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.

Hartmann, E. v. (1868/1931). Philosophy of the unconscious: Speculative results according to the inductive method of physical science. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Lewicki, P., Hill, T., & Bizot, E. (1988). Acquisition of procedural knowledge about a pattern of stimuli that cannot be articulated. Cognitive Psychology, 20, 24-37.

Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, D. S. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231-253.

Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1989). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9, 185-211.

Schachter, S., & Wheeler, L. (1962). Epinephrine, chlorpromazine, and amusement. Journal of Abnormal & Social Psychology, 65, 121-128.

Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: Ecco Press.

Smith, E. R., & Miller, F. D. (1978). Limits on perception of cognitive processes: A reply to Nisbett and Wilson. Psychological Review, 85, 355-362.

White, P. (1980). Limitations on verbal reports of internal events: A refutation of Nisbett and Wilson and of Bem. Psychological Review, 87, 105-112.

This page last modified 04/08/2010 02:58:53 PM.

Review - Strangers to Ourselves   From: Mind in Mind

I recently finished the book "Strangers to Ourselves" (2002) by Timothy D. Wilson, a professor of psychology.  The subtitle is 'Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious" - and the book is essentially a look into those mental processes which we aren't directly aware of.  He makes a point of diverging from Freud - "the modern view of the adaptive unconscious is that a lot of the interesting stuff about the human mind  judgments, feelings, motives - occur outside of awareness for reasons of efficiency, and not because of represssion."  I found the book to be a pretty good general overview of modern thinking about unconscious mental capabilities and patterns, how to make conscious use of them, and even perhaps guide them in new directions.

A few points of interest. While we refer to the unconscious, which makes sense in referring to that which our conscious awareness does not include, as an organism we are clearly "aware" of much that goes on around us even if that awareness does not extend to our consciousness.  One simple example of this that Wilson notes is at parties, while speaking with one group of people, we may suddenly become aware of another conversation if our name is mentioned.  And in some ways our goal is to make that which requires conscious attention fade into the unconscious background - that is in essence what learning is all about.  Once we've mastered something, we no longer consciously work at it, and in fact we can befuddle ourselves by thinking too carefully about tasks which we can already do on "auto-pilot".

Page 51: Wilson makes this claim: "Nor can the adaptive unconscious muse about the past and integrate it into a coherent self-narrative."  If one takes "musing" to be only available to the conscious mind, then I guess this is almost a tautology, but I think it's very possible that the unconscious does indeed process memories and thoughts to alter our own conscious conception of the past.

There are some interesting observations about introspection and self-narrative. He discusses the difficulties of fully knowing the reasons why we might act or have certain preferences, and the potential dangers of trying to be too analytical about it.  "Because people have too much faith in their explanations, they come to believe that their feelings match the reasons they list." (p. 168). We seem to have a deep need for stories that we can tell ourselves to explain our own behaviors, but we can mislead ourselves when creating those stories by committing to what we are able to consciously list out as reasons.  "Introspection should not be viewed as a process whereby people open the door to a hidden room, giving them direct access to something they could not see before.  The trick is to allow the feelings to surface and to see them through the haze of one's theories and expectations." (p. 173)

"On what basis can we say that one self-story is healthier than another? Self-stories should be accurate, I believe, in a simple sense: they should capture the nature of the person's nonconscious goals, feelings and temperaments." (p. 181)

In the end Wilson settles for a pretty simple formula for self-improvement.  As he says, "It is not easy to know what our nonconscious states are, much less to change them." (p. 211)  By deliberately taking actions that are part of the desired behavior, we take steps toward making those actions more automatic, more deeply embedded into the foundations of our adaptive unconscious.

Review - Strangers to Ourselves   From: Human Nature Review

In the earlier part of the previous century, the unconscious was popularly perceived as a sinister place of primordial urges and internal conflict. Lust, jealousy, failures, fears, rages, losses, secret desires and worse were believed to be churning about in a spooky region of the mind that starts just on the other side of our awareness. [1] Except for emergent traces that sometimes surface from dreams, the content of the unconscious was thought to be hidden from everyday awareness, for what would certainly have seemed (especially in that era) good reason - it was believed that the rational, moderating influences of the ego was all too easily overwhelmed, resulting in actions or feelings that the conscious (but often powerless) part of the mind would itself abhor. However, by mid-century, in no small part due to the influence of Jung (a former member of Freud’s inner circle) and Eastern mysticism, a growing number of writers began to attribute to the unconscious the qualities of spirituality, liberation and wholeness rather than (or in addition to) primal emotions and impulses. [2]

Among the general public today, the earlier, darker view of the unconscious still seems perfectly reasonable and, ironically, almost as comforting as it is alarming. Such an unconscious side of us could account for a lot of the unpleasant things about human nature. After all, who does not wonder occasionally why we find ourselves struggling with the compulsion to succumb to what we “know” to be unhealthy or hurtful behaviors; why do we suffer from disagreeable moods; and why we are often plagued by persistent and unpleasant thoughts? Surely, since we would not intentionally create such disagreeableness, it must be the product of irresistible (and even alien) unconscious forces.

In Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson offers an assessment of the human unconscious that is very different from these extremes. He proposes that the unconscious is neither especially wicked nor spiritual, but rather its role is to assist us in maneuvering through our daily lives. In Wilson’s research, the unconscious mind is shown to house the bulk of our practical decision-making apparatus, conveniently tucked away in the back rooms of our cognitive machinery. He convincingly argues that what this form of the unconscious does for us is useful, adaptive, and even essential; hence his reference to it as the adaptive unconscious. Wilson demonstrates that this unconscious manages most of the lower-level processes that occur without awareness, and he defines the unconscious as that set of “mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgments, feelings, or behavior” [italics in text] (p. 23).

Nonetheless, we should not mistake the unconscious for an assemblage of automata, mental servants or homunculi. In a chapter entitled “Who’s in Charge?” Wilson notes that “our nonconscious minds are not just the janitorial staff or even low-level managers” (p. 43). In fact, in addition to resolving the simple problems of daily life, the unconscious seems to play a central role in making important life decisions, such as what career to pursue, what person to marry, and whether, in the heat of the moment, it is really a good idea to point out the boss’s shortcomings in public.

We tend to assume that we are consciously in charge of our intentional actions (despite the pressures of that primitive unconscious mentioned above). However, Wilson explains that this is a misapprehension, referencing the recent work of fellow psychologist Daniel Wegner [3]. “We often experience a thought followed by an action, and assume it was the thought that caused the action” (p. 47). However, it may be that, Wegner suggests, both the thought and the action derive from a third, unconscious process. It is only the apparent (consciously experienced) sequence of thought-then-act that gives us the illusion that the thought caused the action.

Trying to figure out how our minds function can be frustrating, both in theory (regarding the minds of others) and practice (regarding our own individual minds). Early in Strangers, Wilson addresses the question of why we should bother to learn about the workings of the personal unconscious. First, nothing we now know about the unconscious precludes the possibility that the conscious part of us can also have some degree of control over our behavior; and second, it is likely that we can consciously influence the workings of our unconscious (even if we usually do not). Therefore, learning about the unconscious gives us a greater ability both to directly effect conscious decisions and behaviors, and to harness the unconscious processes for intentionally chosen purposes.

In order to understand and predict the workings of the unconscious, we must learn first to perceive its influence in our lives - we first need a way to differentiate between actions that are consciously initiated and directed, and actions that primarily derive from unconscious processes. That is, we need to become conscious of, to the degree possible, our “true” motivations and our usual ways of responding to situations. By observing how we feel and behave in a variety of different situations, we can infer who we are and what motivates us. [4] We can intentionally engage in an adult version of our early-childhood strategy - we can carefully observe what we do and how we feel about and react to novel situations, and then make plausible interferences about unconscious processes from this information.

However, there are natural limitations on the usefulness of the inferential approach, including the self-serving bias [5]. “When it comes to maintaining a sense of well-being,” Wilson notes, “each of us is the ultimate spin doctor” (p. 38). How can we get around this spin doctor? First, by developing our capacity for methodicalintrospection. It must be as free as possible from the pressures of social and personal expectation, in order to minimize bias. “The trick is to allow the feelings to surface and to see them through the haze of one’s theories and expectations [about one’s self]” (p. 173).

But the introspective process is necessarily limited, and our self-understanding would be incomplete if we relied too heavily on it. Supplementary sources of information about our unconscious processes are the perceptions and assessments of others, with which we can compare and contrast our self-appraisals. (However, there are two major caveats here: others may not give us their unfiltered perceptions, and even when they do, their assessments may be less accurate than the self-view we obtained via our introspection.)

Each of these sources of self-information will necessarily provide only a reflection of the workings of the unconscious, of course, because the unconscious must always remain hidden from us. Reliable guesses about our unconscious motivations will have to suffice.

Wilson rounds out this book with a discussion of how we might use this fuller awareness of the unconscious to our advantage. We can, for example, act as thoughfirst and self-assess later - that is, behave in ways that are consistent with the type of person we would wish to be, rather than wait to be that type of person and then act like her. Wilson explains, “‘The do good, be good’ principle is one of the most important lessons psychology has to offer” (p. 215).

This book is written in an informative style that should be very accessible to the general reader, yet because it is well based on research it should also be of interest to clinicians and academics. For those interested in mind and consciousness, this book will be a complimentary and thought-provoking read.


1. However, it should be noted that Freud did not believe that the unconscious performs only primitive processing, or that “higher order” thought is restricted to the conscious mind. For example, in The Interpretation of Dreams he observed, “the most complicated achievements of thought are possible without the assistance of consciousness” (Pelican Library Edition, 1976, p. 751).

2. The sinister understanding of the unconscious has arguably had the greater influence on literature and art, especially in the middle to late 20th century. The continuing impression this view made on Hollywood screenwriters seems especially graphic.

3. Wegner, D. M. (2002). The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

4. This is much like an adult version of the childhood developmental process identified by the object relations theorists.

5. See also the fundamental attribution error or bias.

© Keith S. Harris.

Dr. Harris is a clinical psychologist and supervisor of Victor Valley Behavioral Health Center in San Bernardino county, California. His interests include clinical supervision, the empirical basis for psychotherapy research (and its design), human decision-making processes, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.


Harris, K. S. (2003). Review of Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious by Timothy Wilson. Human Nature Review. 3: 488-490.

Review - Strangers to Ourselves   From: Metapsychology

With the inevitable waning of behavioral psychology beginning in the 1950's, psychology desperately floundered about looking for an acceptable empirical approach such as one might find in the more respected physical sciences. This was not unlike the situation in the 1920s when behaviorism emerged as the research paradigm of choice for psychology.

Today, cognitive science and neuropsychology have both surfaced as competing research paradigms within the cutting edge community of research psychologists. The first offers extraordinary formal rigor in its modeling while the latter reflects long overdue attention to the stuff brains are made of.  However, just as Gestalt psychology haunted behaviorism for thirty years or more with penetrating and irresolvable questions, so now social psychology haunts the new paradigms of psychology with a set of penetrating questions, revealing anomalous observations and insightful hypotheses. Social psychologists more than any other group, have saved the other competing research paradigms of psychology from developing conceptual arthritis. Social psychologists have staved off the onset of conceptual arthritis by detailing aspects of lived experience that must somehow be accounted for in any comprehensive theory or model of human mental life.

The best research of cognitive science and neurophilosophy often speaks little to the lived human experience that constitutes most of the ordinary person's sense of the world.  For an understanding of life as lived, spectators of psychology are often left with little more than "pop" psychology of the likes of "Dr. Phil" and other advice giving clinicians.  At best, this sort of advice giving is an echo of Stoic or Epicurean pronouncements originating in Greek antiquity.  Such advice can be quite meaningful to people having trouble navigating the trials and tribulations of daily experience but it seldom offers little more scientific support for its pronouncements than did the pronouncements of their predecessors in times of antiquity.

Scholarly social psychologists like Timothy Wilson and Robert Nisbet are a breed all to themselves.  They are not advice-giving clinicians any more than they are model builders such as cognitivists tend to be or reductivists as neuroscientists tend to be. Nevertheless, in Strangers to Ourselves, Wilson shows a formidable grasp of cognitive psychology and an appreciation for efforts in neuropsychology.  But more than anything else, what he makes vividly clear is that there are many ways to access lived experience empirically and subsequent findings create something of a tapestry featuring commonalities of humans' shared phenomenology. To account for human experience psychologists must account for its phenomenology as much as it must account for the effects of synaptic firings and the robustness of neural networks.

In many ways, Wilson writes in the tradition of Jerome Bruner's Acts of Meaning, Wilson's work however is far more extensively documented than the pioneering work of Bruner.  Moreover, Wilson's initial venture into this undertaking shows that a variety of heuristics create our unconscious responsiveness to the world.  Moreover, as Wilson's own empirical research shows, as well as much of the research to which he refers, the distinction between conscious and the unconscious are often so intimately entangled with one another that to insist on such distinctions matters to neither the astute researcher or the actor. For example, when discussing allostasis as a process reflective of psychological processes as well as the physical (pp147 - 149), Wilson notes that, "It is to people's advantage [in an evolutionary sense] to react emotionally to their environments, such that emotions vary from moment to moment (p.147)." Disruptions in our ordinary desired tranquility are frequent. To survive such frequent encounters with physical and psychological turbulence, the brain/mind/body must act as one system restoring equilibrium throughout. For example, psychological stressors create biochemical changes. Biochemical changes prompt other biochemical changes and these in turn prompt psychological consequences in turn. At the level of the social psychologist Wilson describes this sort of phenomenon in terms of opponent theory. He notes the psychological implications of such a theory for what we see people do and what we sense ourselves doing from time to time. But, man perhaps more profoundly, he notes that opponent theory is already well established as a physiological theory. There is nothing exotic about it. For example it has long been established that an imbalance of sodium ions in a region around a neuron will cause it to respond releasing calcium until a state of equilibrium is again achieved. This sort of physiological action/reaction accounts for much that we observe within the physiological system and so it should not strike us as odd that it should account for much that we see at the phenomenological as well. Wilson by no means encourages a bottom up approach in quest of a grand theory of human behavior but he does argue that analogous explanations of events can be quite useful and that the analogies that are so obvious ought to make us more comfortable with their intellectual compellingness and heuristical value. An unexpected bounty for readers in grasping a role for say, opponent theory both physiologically and psychologically is that, as Wilson remarks, "…if people know that they have to concentrate on something such as working on a task, they purposefully avoid putting themselves in too good a mood. (P.150)" In other words, awareness of the heuristical value of opponent theory can lead us to be more productive in our daily endeavors.

The value of Wilson's social psychological traditions, richly informed by congnitivist concerns, is that it casts an extensive net capturing far more of the phenomenology of lived experience than most other research approaches.  Wilson doesn't tell us so how much how hidden mental processes contribute to our thinking, saying and doing, rather, and more profoundly, he illuminates a network of mental processes both conscious and otherwise that make lived experience what it is for most of us. Wilson has not given the reader that long awaited grand theory of the mind/body but, he gives good reason for keeping the door open to all kinds of experiences before attempting closure on such a theory. Wilson concludes his discussion on narrative theory by declaring, "There is no direct pipeline to the adaptive unconscious... (P.219)"

Finally, Wilson's book is intended to be descriptive of lived experience but he doesn't shy away from noting normative prescriptions that may follow if his insights into the working of the mind are indeed accurate.

For example, he notes that much of the prescriptive element in his summary is best captured in the Aristotelian maxim to do brave acts if you want to become brave (p.215. Wilson dubs it the 'Do good, be good principle.').  Actually, this maxim is too simplistic a summary of both Aristotle and even of Wilson's work itself.  In The Politics, Aristotle explains, "To become just one must do just acts but, to be just acts one must do just acts as a just person."  Wilson has done a commendable job of showing just what it means, "to be."  Unlike the behaviorists of long ago, Wilson is not at all afraid to tackle questions of what it means to be…. brave, just, timid, compassionate or what have you.  Wilson, like Aristotle, does acknowledge that, to quote again from Aristotle's The Politics, " It makes no small difference what habits we develop.  Rather, it makes all the difference."  Wilson's paraphrase, attributing a bit too much to psychology, rather than Aristotle, says the " To do good be good" principle is one of the most important lessons psychology has to offer." (p. 215) The habits we have, rustle up a constellation of mental processes that make lived experience what it is for each of us moment by moment. 

Lived experience is never reducible to mere current stimuli and past habit according to Wilson.  But, lived experience would never be what it is without the constellation of mental processes excited by such causative agents. For Wilson, each person is as neurologically responsive as he or she is phenomenologically and socially responsive. Each person is a tapestry of such responses and each person can only be understood by grasping further the interweaving of threads such responses produce.

Wilson's book is surely a must read for social theorists of all stripes.  For example, political scientists and economists in particular, have as much to gain from Wilson, as, do his fellow psychologists and philosophers of psychology. Wilson's book shows the classical model of man as rational and self-interested just doesn't wash. Each person is a constellation of constrained social forces, neurology and physical environment. This constellation always leads to a narrative for the active organism. The organism's behavior itself can never be fully understood with reference to its evolving self-narrative. Milton Friedman and David Ricardo could never understand the actions of Mother Theresa but that doesn't mean Mother Theresa lived a life that was irrational or in any other way beyond the realm of a normal array of human desires, expectations and motivations.

© 2003 Paul A Wagner

Chapter 1: Freud's Genius, Freud's Myopia   From: Cassiopaea Forum
Matters of the Heart

quote small leftSelf-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,— These three alone lead life to sovereign power.quote small right — Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Oenone” (1833)

What are more important than matters of the heart? Or more difficult to decipher? Some people are blessed by knowing exactly what it is their hearts desire, but are cursed by not knowing how to achieve it. Like King Lear, some stumble into a course of action precisely opposite to the one that would satisfy their hearts and minds. Because of their own pride, stubbornness, or lack of self-insight, their goals remain unfulfilled.

But at least such people know what they want, be it their daughters’ devotion, a lover’s embrace, or peace of mind. A worse fate is not knowing what it is our hearts desire. Consider Marcel, in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, who is convinced that he no longer loves Albertine and broods and plots and schemes about ways of leaving her, until his housekeeper rushes in with the news that Albertine has left him. At the instant he hears the words, Marcel realizes how much he still loves Albertine: “These words: ‘Mademoiselle Albertine has gone!’ had expressed themselves in my heart in the form of an anguish so keen that I would not be able to endure it for any length of time. And so what I had supposed to mean nothing to me was the only thing in my whole life. How ignorant we are of ourselves.” [1]

Marcel’s ignorance of his own feelings is far from rare. Consider Susan, a friend of mine who was once involved with a man named Stephen. Stephen was a very nice guy, kind and attentive and reliable and clearly head over heels in love with Susan. Both he and Susan were social workers and shared many interests. They dated for over a year, and the relationship seemed to be getting quite serious, except for one problem — it was obvious to all Susan’s friends that she did not love Stephen. She thought she did, but as far as we could see, Susan had convinced herself that she felt something that she didn’t. Stephen was a dear friend, yes, but was he someone she deeply loved and wanted to spend the rest of her life with? No way. Eventually Susan realized that she had been mistaken and ended the relationship.

Perhaps Marcel and Susan are exceptions, people who are especially blind to their own hearts and minds. Yet I suspect that most of us can think of times when we were in a similar state of confusion, like Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, who found that her feelings toward Mr. Darcy “could not be exactly defined”:

  • quote small leftShe respected, she esteemed, she was grateful to him, she felt a real interest in his welfare; and she only wanted to know how far she wished that welfare to depend upon herself, and how far it would be for the happiness of both that she employ the power, which her fancy told her she still possessed, of bringing on the renewal of his addresses.quote small right [2]

[1] Proust (1934), pp. 675-676.

[2] Austen (1813/1996), p. 216.

Inner Self Detector

Imagine that at such times of confusion we could hook ourselves up to a machine called an Inner Self Detector. After attaching electrodes to our temples and adjusting the dials we could ask questions like “How do I really feel about Stephen (or Mr. Darcy)?” After a few whirs and clicks the machine would display the answer on a little monitor (a more technologically advanced version, perhaps, of the Magic Eight Ball that kids use at slumber parties to tell their futures).

To see how people would make use of an Inner Self Detector, I asked the students in one of my college seminars to list the questions they would ask of it. Like Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, some of the students wanted to know how they really felt about someone. One person, for example, said her first question would be “How do I truly feel about a couple of people in my life?” How nice it would be to have a machine to tell us the answer to questions like this!

The students also had questions about the nature of their own personalities, including their traits and abilities (e.g., “What is my main objective/motivation in life?” “Why am I socially inept in certain situations?” “Why do I sometimes lack motivation for doing homework?”).

Some of these questions, such as those about academic performance and careers, are undoubtedly specific to the uncertainties of early adulthood. Even seasoned adults, however, sometimes wonder about their personalities and abilities. Blindness to one’s character can lead people to make poor choices, such as the man who assumes that he has what it takes to lead a fulfilling life as a lawyer when he is better suited to be a teacher, or the woman who turns down an offer to make an important speech because of the mistaken belief that she could never pull it off.

The students also wanted to know why they felt or acted the way they did, such as what it was that made them happy. Understanding the causes of our responses is crucial to avoiding unwanted influences on our feelings and behavior. Consider a lawyer who interviews an African-American applicant for a job as an associate in her firm. She finds the candidate to be cold, unfriendly, and a tad aggressive, and thus recommends that he not be hired. She is a fair-minded person who believes that her negative impression had nothing to do with the applicant’s race.

But what if she is wrong, and his race did influence her impression without her knowing it? She cannot confront her racism and try to change it if she does not know that it exists and is influencing her judgment.

Two Main Questions

This book is concerned with two main questions: Why it is that people often do not know themselves very well (e.g., their own characters, why they feel the way they do, or even the feelings themselves)? And how can they increase their self-knowledge? There are undoubtedly many reasons for a lack of self-insight; people may be blinded by their hubris (a favorite Greek and Shakespearean theme), confused, or simply never take the time to examine their own lives and psyche very carefully. The reason I will address — perhaps the most common of all — is that much of what we want to know about ourselves resides outside of conscious awareness.

The idea that a large portion of the human mind is unconscious is not new and was Freud’s greatest insight. Modern psychology owes Freud a large debt for his willingness to look beyond the narrow corridor of consciousness. A revolution has occurred in empirical psychology concerning the nature of the unconscious, however, that has revealed the limits of the Freudian conception.

Initially, research psychologists were skittish about even mentioning nonconscious mental processes. In the first half of the twentieth century, the behaviorist onslaught in psychology was fueled by a rejection of mentalism; behaviorists argued that there was no need to take into account what occurred inside people’s heads, consciously or unconsciously.

In the late 1950s, mainstream psychology took the giant step of rejecting behaviorism and initiating the systematic study of the mind. But the first experimental psychologists to leap off the behaviorism bandwagon said little about whether those aspects of the mind they were studying were conscious or unconscious. This was a taboo question; few psychologists wanted to jeopardize the newfound respectability of the mind as a scientific topic by saying, “Hey, not only can we study what people are thinking; we can study what goes on inside their heads that even they can’t see!” In the psychological laboratories of academe, few self-respecting psychologists wanted to risk the accusation that they were, God forbid, Freudians.

But as cognitive and social psychology flourished, a funny thing happened. It became clear that people could not verbalize many of the cognitive processes that psychologists assumed were occurring inside their heads. Social psychologists, for example, were developing models of the way in which people process information about the social world, including how they formulate and maintain stereotypes of other groups, judge other people’s personality, and make attributions about the causes of their own and other people’s actions. The more researchers studied these mental processes, the clearer it became that people were not aware of their occurring. When researchers debriefed participants about what they must have been thinking during their experiments, they were disconcerted to find that the participants often shook their heads and said, “That’s a very interesting theory, professor, but I’m afraid that I don’t recall having had any thoughts remotely like that.” [3] Most of the mental processes studied by cognitive and social psychologists turned out to occur out of view of the people who had them. This fact became impossible to ignore, and theories of nonconscious processing began to creep into experimental psychology.

[3] Examples such as these can be found in Nisbett and Wilson (1977).

Nonconscious Thinking, Feeling, and Motivation

Still, many psychologists were reluctant to use the word “unconscious,” out of fear that their colleagues would think they had gone soft in the head. Several other terms were invented to describe mental processes that occur outside of conscious awareness, such as “automatic,” “implicit,” “pre-attentive,” and “procedural.” Sometimes these terms do a better job of describing a specific type of mental process than the general term “nonconscious.” The study of automatic processing has flourished, for example, and a lack of awareness of these processes is only one of its defining features. [4]

But the terms “unconscious” or “nonconscious” now appear with increasing frequency in mainstream journals. A picture has emerged of a set of pervasive, adaptive, sophisticated mental processes that occur largely out of view. Indeed, some researchers have gone so far as to suggest that the unconscious mind does virtually all the work and that conscious will may be an illusion. Though not everyone is prepared to relegate conscious thought to the epiphenomenal refuse heap, there is more agreement than ever before about the importance of nonconscious thinking, feeling, and motivation. [5]

The gulf between research psychologists and psychoanalysts has thus narrowed considerably as scientific psychology has turned its attention to the study of the unconscious. This gap has not been bridged completely, however, and it is clear that the modern, adaptive unconscious is not the same as the psychoanalytic one.

[4] Bargh (1997), for example, notes that automatic processes have one or more of these features: they are nonconscious, unintentional, uncontrollable, and effortless.

[5] On the minimal role of consciousness, see Velmanns (1991); Bargh and Chartrand (1999); Wegner (in press).

The Adaptive Unconscious versus the Freudian Unconscious

What Is the Nature of the Unconscious?

Freud changed his views often, most notably from his topological model of the mind to the structural theory, with the publication of The Ego and the Id in 1923. There are also several schools of modern psychoanalytic thought, with varying emphases on unconscious drives, object relations, and ego function. To compare the modern view of the adaptive unconscious with the Freudian unconscious is like trying to aim at moving targets. Nonetheless there are clear differences between the views.

Freud’s topographic model of the mind distinguished between two types of unconscious processes. First, people have a multitude of thoughts that are simply not the focus of their current attention, such as the name of their seventh-grade math teacher. This kind of information is in the preconscious, Freud said, and could easily be made conscious by directing attention to it. More importantly, Freud noted, there is a vast storehouse of primitive, infantile thought that is kept out of consciousness because it is a source of psychic pain. These kinds of thoughts are repressed for a purpose, not simply because our attention is drawn elsewhere. Freud’s subsequent structural model of the mind was more complex, in that it allocated unconscious processes to the ego and superego as well as to the id, but he continued to focus on unconscious thought that was primitive and animalistic, and characterized conscious thought as more rational and sophisticated.

According to the modern perspective, Freud’s view of the unconscious was far too limited. When he said (following Gustav Fechner, an early experimental psychologist) that consciousness is the tip of the mental iceberg, he was short of the mark by quite a bit — it may be more the size of a snowball on top of that iceberg. The mind operates most efficiently by relegating a good deal of high-level, sophisticated thinking to the unconscious, just as a modern jumbo jetliner is able to fly on automatic pilot with little or no input from the human, “conscious” pilot. The adaptive unconscious does an excellent job of sizing up the world, warning people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated and efficient manner. It is a necessary and extensive part of a highly efficient mind and not just the demanding child of the mental family and the defenses that have developed to keep this child in check.

Nor is the unconscious a single entity with a mind and will of its own. Rather, humans possess a collection of modules that have evolved over time and operate outside of consciousness. Though I will often refer to the adaptive unconscious as a convenient shorthand, I do not mean to characterize it as a single entity, as the Freudian unconscious typically is. For example, we have a nonconscious language processor that enables us to learn and use language with ease, but this mental module is relatively independent of our ability to recognize faces quickly and efficiently and our ability to form quick evaluations of whether environmental events are good or bad. It is thus best to think of the adaptive unconscious as a collection of city-states of the human mind and not as a single homunculus like the Wizard of Oz, pulling strings behind the curtain of conscious awareness. [6]

[6] On the varied nature of nonconscious systems: Roediger and McDermott (1993); Schacter (1996); Westen (1998); Willingham and Preuss (1995).

Why Does the Unconscious Exist?

Freud argued that our primitive urges often do not reach consciousness because they are unacceptable to our more rational, conscious selves and to society at large; they “remind one of the legendary Titans, weighed down since primaeval ages by the massive bulk of the mountains which were once hurled upon them by the victorious gods.” [7] People have developed myriad defenses to avoid knowing what their unconscious motives and feelings are, some of which (sublimation) are healthier than others (repression, reaction formation, etc.). The therapeutic process involves the elucidation and circumvention of unhealthy defenses, which is difficult precisely because people are so motivated to keep their unconscious motives and feelings hidden.

According to the modern view, there is a simpler reason for the existence of unconscious mental processes. People cannot directly examine how many parts of their minds work, such as basic processes of perception, memory, and language comprehension, not because it would be anxiety provoking to do so, but because these parts of the mind are inaccessible to conscious awareness — quite possibly because they evolved before consciousness did. If we were to ask people to tell us exactly how they perceive the world in three dimensions, for example, or how their minds are able to parse a continuous stream of noise emitted by another person into comprehensible speech, they would be quite tongue-tied. Consciousness is a limited-capacity system, and to survive in the world people must be able to process a great deal of information outside of awareness. Carl Jung acknowledged this point in the 1920s:

  • quote small leftThe unconscious has also still another aspect: within its compass are included not only the repressed content but also all such psychical material as does not reach the threshold of consciousness. It is impossible to explain the sub-threshold character of all this material by the principle of repression, otherwise a man, at the release of repression, would certainly achieve a phenomenal memory that forgot nothing.quote small right [8]

Freud undoubtedly would agree, saying something like “Yes, yes, but this kind of unconscious thinking is the small stuff; nuts and bolts, low level thinking that is much less interesting than matters of the heart and mind, such as love, work, and play. Of course we do not have conscious access to such things as how we perceive depth, just as we do not have conscious access to how our digestive tracts operate. The fact remains that repression is the reason why more important, higher-order mental processing is unconscious. People could directly access their primitive urges and desires, if repression and resistance were circumvented, but generally we do our best to keep such thoughts and feelings outside of awareness.”

In contrast, the modern view of the adaptive unconscious is that a lot of the interesting stuff about the human mind — judgments, feelings, motives — occur outside of awareness for reasons of efficiency, and not because of repression. Just as the architecture of the mind prevents low level processing (e.g., perceptual processes) from reaching consciousness, so are many higher-order psychological processes and states inaccessible. The mind is a well-designed system that is able to accomplish a great deal in parallel, by analyzing and thinking about the world outside of awareness while consciously thinking about something else.

This is not to deny that some thoughts are quite threatening and that people are sometimes motivated to avoid knowing them. Repression may not, however, be the most important reason why people do not have conscious access to thoughts, feelings, or motives. The implications of this fact for how to gain access to the unconscious cannot be underestimated and are a major topic of this book.

[7] Freud (1900/1972), p. 592.

[8] Quoted in Miller (1942), p. 157.

The Non-Freudian Unconscious

To illustrate further how the adaptive unconscious differs from the Freudian version, let’s engage in a bit of counterfactual history, in which we imagine how ideas about the unconscious would have developed if Freud had never proposed his theory of psychoanalysis. To do so, it is necessary to consider briefly the status of pre-Freudian thinking about unconscious processes.

In the nineteenth century, the long shadow of Descartes influenced thinking about the nature of the unconscious. Descartes is best known for his sharp division of the mind and the body. So-called Cartesian dualism, or the “mind-body” problem, has occupied philosophers and psychologists ever since. Many have rightly objected to the idea that the mind and the body are separate entities that obey different laws, and few philosophers or psychologists today would identify themselves as dualists; in fact Antonio Damasio has dubbed the “abyssal separation between body and mind” as “Descartes’s error.” [9]

Descartes made a related error that is less well known but no less egregious. Not only did he endow the mind with a special status that was unrelated to physical laws; he also restricted the mind to consciousness. The mind consists of all that people consciously think, he argued, and nothing else. This equation of thinking and consciousness eliminates, with one swift stroke, any possibility of nonconscious thought — a move that was called the “Cartesian catastrophe” by Arthur Koestler and “one of fundamental blunders made by the human mind” by Lancelot Whyte. Koestler rightly notes that this idea led to an impoverishment of psychology which it took three centuries to remedy. [10]

Despite Descartes's blunder, a number of nineteenth-century European theorists, such as Pascal, Leibniz, Schelling, and Herbart, began to postulate the presence of nonconscious perception and thought. Especially noteworthy were a group of British physicians and philosophers who developed ideas about nonconscious processing that were openly anti-Cartesian and remarkably similar to current thinking about the adaptive unconscious. These prescient theorists, especially William Hamilton, Thomas Laycock, and William Carpenter, can rightly be called the parents of the modern theory of the adaptive unconscious. They observed that a good deal of human perception, memory, and action occurs without conscious deliberation or will, and concluded that there must be 'mental latency ' (Hamilton's term, drawing on Leibniz), 'unconscious cerebration' (Carpenter's term), or a 'reflex action of the brain' (Laycock's term). [11] Their description of nonconscious processes is remarkably similar to modern views; indeed, quotations from some of their writings could easily be mistaken for entries in modern psychological journals:

  • Lower-order mental processes occur outside of awareness. Hamilton, Carpenter, and Laycock observed that the human perceptual system operates largely outside of conscious awareness, an observation also made by Hermann Helmholtz. Though this view seems obvious today it was not widely accepted at the time, largely as a result of the legacy of Cartesian dualism. It was not widely accepted by modern psychologists until the cognitive revolution of the 1950s.
  • Divided attention. William Hamilton observed that people can consciously attend to one thing while nonconsciously processing another. He gave the example of a person who is reading aloud and finds that his or her thoughts have wandered onto some other topic altogether: "If the matter be uninteresting, your thoughts, while you are going on in the performance of your task, are wholly abstracted from the book and its subject, and you are perhaps deeply occupied in a train of serious meditation. Here the process of reading is performed without interruption, and with the most punctual accuracy; and, at the same time, the process of meditation is carried on without distraction or fatigue." [12] Hamilton foreshadowed the influential theories of selective attention that were developed a century later.
  • Automaticity of thought. The nineteenth-century theorists argued that thinking can become so habitual as to occur outside of awareness with no conscious attention, an idea that was not formally developed in psychology until the 1970s. William Carpenter, for example, noted that "The more thoroughly … we examine into what may be termed the Mechanism of Thought, the more clear does it become that not only an automatic, but an unconscious action enters largely into all its processes." [13]
  • Implications of nonconscious processing for prejudice. One of the most interesting properties of the adaptive unconscious is that it uses stereotypes to categorize and evaluate other people. William Carpenter presaged this work more than a century ago, by noting that people develop habitual "tendencies of thought " that are nonconscious and that these thought patterns can lead to "unconscious prejudices which we thus form, [that] are often stronger than the conscious; and they are the more dangerous, because we cannot knowingly guard against them." [14]
  • Lack of awareness of one's own feelings. A controversial claim about the adaptive unconscious is that it can produce feelings and preferences of which people are unaware. Carpenter argued that emotional reactions can occur outside of awareness until our attention is drawn to them: "Our feelings towards persons and objects may undergo most important changes,without our being in the least degree aware, until we have our attention directed to our own mental state, of the alteration which has taken place in them." [15]
  • A nonconscious self. Do central parts of our personalities reside out of view, such that we do not have access to important aspects of who we are? William Hamilton wrote extensively about the way in which habits acquired early in life become an indispensable part of one's personality. [16] These mental processes were said to constitute a kind of “automatic self” to which people had no conscious access — an idea that was not to reappear in psychology for more than 100 years.

[9] Damasio (1994), p. 249.

[10] Whyte (1978), p. 26; Koestler (1978), p. iii.

[11] Hamilton (1865); Carpenter (1874); Laycock (1860).

[12] Hamilton (1865), p. 250.

[13] Carpenter (1874),P. 539.

[14] Carpenter (1874), p. 543.

[15] Carpenter (1874),P. 539.

[16] See especially Hamilton's (1865) lectures 18 and 19.

What If: a Freudian vacuum?

Why has Hamilton, Laycock, and Carpenter’s work largely been forgotten? The answer, in no small part, is that the very different kind of unconscious proposed by Freud prevented these views from ever making it to the center stage. To my knowledge Freud never quoted or referred to these theorists. If he was aware of their writings, he probably viewed their ideas as irrelevant to the dynamic, repressive Unconscious with a capital U.

But what if Freud had never proposed his theory of psychoanalysis? Imagine that the anti-Semitism of nineteenth-century Vienna had not blocked Freud’s budding career as a university professor studying physiology, and he had continued to investigate the spinal cords of fish. Or imagine that he had become addicted to the cocaine he experimented with in 1884, or had never met Josef Breuer, with whom he began his seminal studies of hysteria. As with any life, there are an infinite number of “what ifs” that might have changed the course of Freud’s career.

Imagine that experimental psychology began as a discipline uninfluenced by psychoanalytic thinking in two key respects. First, researchers felt no need to distance themselves from difficult-to-test ideas about a dynamic unconscious. They were free to theorize about nonconscious thinking in the same way that Laycock, Carpenter, and Hamilton had, namely as a collection of efficient and sophisticated information processing systems. Second, they were free to investigate the mind, even the parts that were unconscious, with experimental techniques. An important part of the Freudian legacy was a rejection of the scientific method as a means of studying the mind. The complex nature of unconscious processes could not be examined in controlled experiments, Freud believed, and could be uncovered only by careful clinical observation. Astute clinical observation can be quite illuminating, of course, but psychologists might have turned sooner to the experimental study of mental processes without this methodological limitation. [17]

Even in a Freudian vacuum, researchers interested in the unconscious would still have had to contend with the behaviorist movement, which regarded the mind as unworthy of study by any method. One reason behaviorism flourished in the early and mid-twentieth century, however, was that it provided a scientific alternative to what was viewed as the fuzziness of psychoanalytic concepts and methods. Without this backdrop, it is possible that psychology would have discovered sooner than it did that the mind, including the nonconscious mind, can be studied scientifically.

Thus, in my counterfactual fantasy, cognitive and social psychologists applied their well-honed experimental techniques to the study of the sophisticated, adaptive unconscious sooner than they actually did. Undeterred by the theoretical and methodological obstacles psychoanalysis created for experimental psychology, research and theorizing on the adaptive unconscious flourished.

This counterfactual history is sure to offend those who find Freud’s views indispensable in theorizing about the unconscious. Some theorists, such as Matthew Erdelyi and Drew Westen, have argued persuasively that psychoanalysis was crucial to the development of modern thinking about the unconscious, and that, indeed, modern research has largely corroborated Freud’s major insights about the nature of unconscious thought. [18]

I agree that Freud’s greatest insight was about the pervasiveness of unconscious thinking and we owe him a tremendous debt for his dogged, creative pursuit of the nature of the unconscious mind. It is hard to deny the importance of an infantile, dynamic, crafty, Freudian unconscious, in part because the psychoanalytic narrative is so seductive and explains so much. My counterfactual exercise is meant simply to illustrate that it is not the only narrative about the unconscious, and that we might have reached the current one more quickly if psychoanalysis had not so dominated the intellectual stage.

The narrative of the adaptive unconscious might appear to remove all that is interesting about unconscious processing. The reader with a psychoanalytic bent might find the adaptive unconscious, with its emphasis on automatic information processing, to be dry, emotionless, and, perhaps worst of all, boring. The Freudian unconscious is ingenious, clever, and sexy and has been the topic of great literature at least since Sophocles. There are few great plays or novels on the automatic pilot of the mind, and focusing exclusively on the adaptive unconscious may seem like talking about romantic love without passion and sex.

This view is misleading, however, because it underestimates the role that the adaptive unconscious plays in all the important and interesting things in life, including Freud’s arbeiten und lieben (work and love). As we will see, the adaptive unconscious is not involved in just the small stuff, but plays a major role in all facets of life. The failure to find great literature on the adaptive unconscious may say more about the pervasiveness of psychoanalytic thinking than about anything else.

Yet the modern view of the unconscious is not anti-Freudian. To say that we possess a sophisticated and efficient set of nonconscious processes that are indispensable for navigating our way through the world is not to deny that there may also be dynamic forces at work keeping unpleasant thoughts out of awareness. There will be times, in the chapters to come, when we encounter phenomena that have a Freudian hue to them, whereby it seems that the forces of repression are at work. Some readers might react by saying, “Hey, didn’t Freud say that?” — and the answer might well be that he, or one of his many followers, did. The question to keep in mind, though, is “Do we need Freudian theory to explain that? Are there simpler explanations for the kinds of unconscious phenomena he discussed?”

Sometimes the answer may be that Freud was right about the dynamic, repressed nature of the unconscious. On other occasions the answer might be that although Freud did not say it, one of his many followers did, particularly those who have moved beyond an emphasis on childhood drives and stressed the role of object relations and the ego functioning. Often, however, we will see evidence for a vast nonconscious system quite different from what Freud imagined.

Furthermore, Freud and his followers often disagreed about key points, and over his long career Freud himself changed his mind about key concepts such as the nature of repression. The question thus arises of how we know which of these many ideas are true. A tremendous advantage of the modern psychological approach is a reliance on the experimental method to investigate mental phenomena. There has been an explosion of research on the adaptive unconscious because of the development of some quite clever experimental techniques to study it, many of which we will discuss here. Clinical observations and case histories can be a rich source of hypotheses about the nature of the unconscious, but in the end we must put such ideas to the test in a more rigorous and scientific manner. Thus, even if the answer is “Yes, Freud did say that,” he or his followers might also have said something entirely different, and it is only through the work of empirically minded psychologists that we can tell the true nuggets from the fool’s gold.

[17] See Grünbaum (1984) for a discussion of the limits of Freudian methodology.

[18] See Erdelyi (1985); Westen (1998).

Implications for Self-Insight

Another key difference between the Freudian and modern approach lies in their views of how to attain self-insight. Psychoanalysis shares with many other approaches the assumption that the path to self-knowledge leads inward. Through careful introspection, the argument goes, we can penetrate the haze that obscures our true feelings and motives. No one claims that such introspection is easy. People must recognize the barriers of repression and resistance and remove them. But when such insight is accomplished, often with the aid of a therapist, people have direct access to their unconscious desires. “It is the task of the analyst,” wrote Anna Freud, “to bring into consciousness that which is unconscious” — an assumption made by all forms of insight therapy. [19]

But here’s the problem: research on the adaptive unconscious suggests that much of what we want to see is unseeable. The mind is a wonderfully sophisticated and efficient tool, more so than the most powerful computer ever built. An important source of its tremendous power is its ability to perform quick, nonconscious analyses of a great deal of incoming information and react to that information in effective ways. Even while our conscious mind is otherwise occupied, we can interpret, evaluate, and select information that suits our purposes.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that it is difficult to know ourselves because there is no direct access to the adaptive unconscious, no matter how hard we try. Because our minds have evolved to operate largely outside of consciousness, and nonconscious processing is part of the architecture of the brain, it may be not be possible to gain direct access to nonconscious processes. “Making the unconscious conscious” may be no easier than viewing and understanding the assembly language controlling our word-processing computer program.

It can thus be fruitless to try to examine the adaptive unconscious by looking inward. It is often better to deduce the nature of our hidden minds by looking outward at our behavior and how others react to us, and coming up with a good narrative. In essence, we must be like biographers of our own lives, distilling our behavior and feelings into a meaningful and effective narrative. The best way to author a good self-story is not necessarily to engage in a lot of navel-gazing introspection, trying to uncover hidden feelings and motives.

In fact there is evidence that it can be counterproductive to look inward too much.We will see evidence that introspection about feelings can cause people to make unwise decisions and to become more confused about how they feel. To be clear, I am not disparaging all kinds of introspection. Socrates was only partly wrong that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” The key is the kind of self-examination people perform, and the extent to which people attempt to know themselves solely by looking inward, versus looking outward at their own behavior and how others react to them.

[19] A. Freud (1966), p. 28.

Chapter 2: The Adaptive Unconscious   From: Cassiopaea Forum
The Unconscious Takes a Holiday

quote small leftI do not hesitate to maintain, that what we are conscious of is constructed out of what we are not conscious of — that our whole knowledge, in fact, is made up of the unknown and incognisable.quote small right — Sir William Hamilton (1865)

quote small leftOutside consciousness there rolls a vast tide of life which is perhaps more important to us than the little isle of our thoughts which lies within our ken.quote small right — E. S. Dallas (1866)

Consider a man who awoke one Saturday morning with a terrible malady: the unconscious parts of his mind had stopped functioning, and he had only his conscious mind to guide his thoughts, feelings, and actions — an Aware Head, so to speak. How would he fare? If we had posed this question to Rene Descartes three centuries ago, he would have replied that this man’s day would be like any other; what we are aware of is what we think, because there are no other mental processes. A surprising number of early twentieth-century psychologists (and even a few stubborn holdouts today) would agree, arguing that there is no such thing as unconscious thought. In honor of Descartes, we will call the person who has lost his nonconscious mind “Mr. D.”

It would be immediately apparent that Descartes was wrong and that Mr. D.’s day would not be like any other, beginning with his attempt to get out of bed. Humans have a “sixth sense” called proprioception, which is the sensory feedback they constantly receive from their muscles, joints, and skin, signaling the position of their bodies and limbs. Without knowing it, we constantly monitor this feedback and make adjustments to our bodies; for example, when we lift our left arm, we subtly shift some weight to the right side of our bodies to maintain our balance. If we didn’t, we would list dangerously to one side.

In rare cases people lose their sense of proprioception,with grave consequences. The physician Jonathan Cole documented the case of Ian Waterman, a man who suffered nerve damage when he was nineteen and lost all proprioception. Mr. Waterman was like the straw man in the Wizard of Oz, newly released from his pole. If he tried to stand, he ended up in a heap of tangled limbs on the floor. As long as he focused on his arm or leg he could keep it still, but as soon as he looked away, it would start moving uncontrollably. With a great deal of courage and hard work, Mr. Waterman was able to regain some control of his body, by replacing his unconscious proprioception with conscious attention. He learned to walk, to dress himself, and even to drive a car by watching himself carefully with fierce concentration. He literally kept an eye on himself at all times, because he was in trouble if he lost sight of his body. One day he was standing in the kitchen and there was a sudden power failure, casting the room into darkness. Mr. Waterman immediately fell to the floor. Because he could not see his body, he could no longer control it. [1]

We are completely unaware of this critical sensory system. We can stand and close our eyes and keep our balance, with no awareness of how much mental work is involved. It is only the loss of the hidden proprioceptive system, as in Mr. Waterman’s case, that demonstrates how important it is.

Proprioception is but one of many nonconscious perceptual systems. An important role of the nonconscious mind is to organize and interpret the information we take in through our senses, transforming light rays and sound waves into the images and noises of which we are aware. We see that the chair in our bedroom is closer to us than the bureau, with no idea of how our brains transformed the light rays striking our retinas into a perception of depth. If these nonconscious computations were to cease, the world would look like a confusing jumble of pixels and colors instead of cohering into meaningful, three-dimensional images. [2] In fact it makes little sense to imagine what it would be like to have only a conscious mind, because consciousness itself is dependent on mental processes that occur out of view. We couldn’t be conscious without a nonconscious mind, just as what we see on the screen of a computer could not exist without a sophisticated system of hardware and software operating inside the box. Nonetheless, it is worth illustrating the importance of nonconscious thinking by pursuing our thought experiment a little further, exploring in more detail what it would be like to be Mr. D. Let’s grant him the use of his perceptual system and see what else would be affected.

Suppose Mr. D. turned on the television and heard a newscaster say, “Jones threw his hat into the ring last night, a year before the first presidential primary.” When you read this sentence, you did not have to pause after each word and look it up in your mental dictionary; the meanings came to mind immediately. Mr. D., though, does not have this lightning fast ability to “look up” words; he would have to search laboriously for the meaning of each word as he encountered it. It is not even clear that he could access his mental dictionary without the aid of nonconscious processes, but for the sake of the example let’s suppose he could. When you read the words “threw his hat into the ring,” you undoubtedly interpreted them to mean that Jones announced that he was running for president, without consciously considering alternative meanings. You probably did not entertain the possibility that Jones was at the circus and decided that one of the dancing elephants would look nice in his fedora.

Of course not, you might think, because it’s obvious what the newscaster meant. But why is this obvious? The part about the presidential primaries came after the part about throwing the hat. There was no way you could have known what the newscaster meant when you first read about hat-throwing; you must have read the entire sentence and then gone back and attached the most likely meaning to the words. All this was done quite rapidly and nonconsciously, with no awareness that you were interpreting what was, in truth, an ambiguous sentence. Alas, poor Mr. D. would have to pause and consider the different meanings of the words and how they might apply in the context in which they were used. By the time he figured it out, the newscaster would be well into the next story about a massive heat wave approaching New England — prompting Mr. D. to wonder whether a tsunami was about to strike Massachusetts.

In short, the mental processes that operate our perceptual, language, and motor systems operate largely outside of awareness, much like the vast workings of the federal government that go on out of view of the president. If all the lower-level members of the executive branch were to take the day off, very little governmental work would get done. Similarly, if a person’s perceptual, language, and motor systems stopped working, people would find it difficult to function.

But what about the higher-order functions that make us uniquely human — our ability to think, reason, ponder, create, feel, and decide? A reasonable portrait of the human mind is that lower-order functions (e.g., perception, language comprehension) operate out of view, whereas higher-order functions (e.g., reasoning, thinking) are conscious. Pursuing our executive-branch analogy, the lower-level employees (the nonconscious mind) gather information and follow orders, but it is the high-level employees, such as the president and the cabinet officers, who ponder information, make decisions, and set policy. And these “mind executives” are always conscious.

This portrayal of the mind vastly underestimates the role of nonconscious processing in humans. To illustrate this point, let’s make a final concession and give Mr. D. the use of all his “lower-order” perceptual, motor, and language abilities (a quite generous bequest, given the complexities of language and the vast capacity of humans to communicate quickly and efficiently with the written and spoken word). Would the absence of any further nonconscious processes impair him in any way? Or would he now have a fully equipped human mind?

Mr. D. would be at a severe disadvantage in all aspects of his life. Some very important tasks that we usually ascribe to consciousness can be performed nonconsciously, such as deciding what information to pay attention to, interpreting and evaluating that information, learning new things, and setting goals for ourselves. When we see a truck careening toward us as we are crossing a street, we know instantly that we are in danger and quickly jump out of the way, without having to deliberate consciously about the truck. Mr. D. would not experience that sudden fear in the pit of his stomach, at least not until he had time to retrieve laboriously from memory what he knew about trucks and their effects on unwary pedestrians. Similarly, when meeting someone for the first time we quickly make assumptions about the kind of person she is and experience a positive or negative evaluation — all within seconds or less.

Further, much of what we think of as Mr. D.’s personality — his temperament, his characteristic way of responding to people, his distinctive nature that makes him him — would no longer exist. An important part of personality is the ability to respond in quick, habitual ways to the social world. It also means having a healthy psychological defense system, warding off threats to the self in reasonable, adaptive ways. Much of this personality system operates outside of awareness.

Epigraphs: Hamilton (1865), p. 241; Dallas (1866), p. 194.

[1] See Cole (1995) for a fascinating discussion of Ian Waterman's case.

[2] Proffitt et al. (1995); Rock (1997).

Defining the Unconscious

A simple definition of the unconscious is anything that is in your mind that you are not consciously aware of at a particular point in time. However, we quickly run into problems here. Suppose I asked you for the name of your hometown. Presumably you did not have any trouble bringing the name of this city into consciousness, even though this city was probably not in your consciousness before I asked you to think about it. Does this mean that the name of your hometown is unconscious most of the time?

This argument would seem to be stretching things and highlights the problem of equating consciousness with attention or short-term mem- ory, as some theorists prefer to do. [3] I, for one, would not want to say that I am unconscious of “Philadelphia” when I am not thinking about it. Philadelphia may not be in my working memory or the object of my current attention, but it is not unconscious, at least in my conception of the term. It is one of the thousands of things I can retrieve from long-term memory when needed — Philadelphia, W. C. Fields's joke about it, the starting lineup of the 1966–67 Philadelphia 76ers, the words and music to “South Street” by the Orlons. Freud described thoughts such as these as residing in the “preconscious,” the mental anteroom in which thoughts remain until they “succeed in attracting the eye of consciousness.” [4]

What is more interesting is the part of my mind that I cannot access even when I try. A better working definition of the unconscious is mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgments, feelings, or behavior. No matter how long I tried, I could not access my proprioception system or the way in which my mind transforms light rays that strike my retina into three-dimensional vision. Nor do I have direct access to many of my higher-order mental processes, such as the way I select, interpret, and evaluate incoming information and set goals in motion.

The unconscious is notoriously difficult to define, and my definition is but one of many that have been offered. I don’t like getting bogged down in definitional issues and will not dwell on the many alternatives. [5] It is more interesting to take a look at what humans can accomplish outside the spotlight of consciousness.

The Adaptive Unconscious, or What Mr. D. Cannot Do

The term “adaptive unconscious” is meant to convey that nonconscious thinking is an evolutionary adaptation. The ability to size up our environments, disambiguate them, interpret them, and initiate behavior quickly and nonconsciously confers a survival advantage and thus was selected for. Without these nonconscious processes, we would have a very difficult time navigating through the world (much less standing up without constant attention, like Ian Waterman). This is not to say that nonconscious thinking always leads to accurate judgments, but on balance it is vital to our survival. [6]

Consider that at any given moment, our five senses are taking in more than 11,000,000 pieces of information. Scientists have determined this number by counting the receptor cells each sense organ has and the nerves that go from these cells to the brain. Our eyes alone receive and send over 10,000,000 signals to our brains each second. Scientists have also tried to determine how many of these signals can be processed consciously at any given point in time, by looking at such things as how quickly people can read, consciously detect different flashes of light, and tell apart different kinds of smells. The most liberal estimate is that people can process consciously about 40 pieces of information per second. Think about it: we take in 11,000,000 pieces of information a second, but can process only 40 of them consciously. What happens to the other 10,999,960? It would be terribly wasteful to design a system with such incredible sensory acuity but very little capacity to use the incoming information. Fortunately, we do make use of a great deal of this information outside of conscious awareness. [7]

[3] See, for example, Simon (1997).

[4] Freud (1924/1968), p. 306.

[5] James Miller (1942) offered sixteen distinct definitions of the unconscious. This number is rivaled only by the number of definitions many authors have offered for consciousness (see, e.g., Ryle 1949).

[6] Others have used the term the "cognitive unconscious" or the "emotional unconscious" to describe processes I ascribe to the adaptive unconscious (e.g., Kihlstrom 1987, 1999). I believe it makes more sense to consider nonconscious processing as a whole, rather than drawing lines between what is cognitive and what is emotional.

[7] See Nørretranders (1998) for a detailed discussion of how scientists have measured the capacity of consciousness versus the capacity of our sensory systems.

Learning: the Adaptive Unconscious as Pattern Detector

Suppose you were introduced to a person who suffered from amnesia due to brain damage. Organic amnesia can result from a number of traumas to the brain, such as injuries suffered in car accidents, brain surgery, Alzheimer’s disease, and Korsakoff ’s syndrome (brain damage resulting from chronic alcohol abuse). These disorders lead to somewhat different kinds of memory deficits, depending on the exact areas of the brain that are affected. In all of them, however, people lose the ability to form memories of new experiences.

If you were to encounter such a person, you probably could not tell right away that he or she suffered from amnesia. People with these disorders usually retain their level of intelligence and their general personalities. Suppose, however, that you were to chat with an amnesiac for awhile, leave the room, and return an hour later. You would find that the person had no memory of having met you before. Everyone, of course, has occasional memory lapses, such as failing to remember the name of someone he or she has just met. What is striking about amnesiacs is that they have no conscious recollection of any new experience.

Note my key use of the word “conscious” in the previous sentence. It is now clear that amnesiacs can learn many things nonconsciously. A famous (and devilish) demonstration of this fact was performed by a French physician named Edouard Claparède. Each time he visited a woman suffering from amnesia, she had no recollection of ever having met him before. He would have to introduce himself anew at each visit. One day, Claparède reached out and shook her hand, as usual, but this time he concealed a pin in his hand. The woman withdrew her hand quickly, surprised at the painful prick. The next time Claparède visited the woman, she showed no sign of recognizing him, and so he reintroduced himself and held out his hand. This time, however, she refused to shake his hand. She had no conscious recollection of ever having met Claparède but somehow “knew” that she shook this man’s hand at her own risk. Claparède observed several other examples of such nonconscious learning in this patient; for example, she had no conscious memory of the layout of the institution in which she had lived for six years. When asked how to get to the bathroom or the dining hall, she could not say. However, when she wanted to go to one of these locations, she would walk directly to it without getting lost. [8]

There are by now many other examples of people’s ability to learn new information nonconsciously. People are even able to understand and retain some of what occurs when they are under general anesthesia. When patients are given suggestions during surgery that they will recover quickly, they subsequently spend less time in the hospital than patients not given the suggestions, despite having no conscious memory of what was said while they were under anesthesia. [9]

Cases such as these illustrate the difference between two types of learning, implicit and explicit. Explicit learning is the effortful, conscious kind of memorization we often dread. When we think about the prospect of learning something difficult — a foreign language, how to assemble our new gas grill — we often groan and anticipate a lot of painful work. To accomplish such tasks we need to engage in prolonged concentration, devoting all of our conscious attention to learning vocabulary lists or figuring out how to attach the hose in Figure A11 to the burner in Figure C6.

It should thus come as good news that we are capable of learning a great deal of complex information implicitly without any effort at all, such as Claparède’s patient’s knowledge of how to get to the dining hall. Implicit learning is defined as learning without effort or awareness of exactly what has been learned. Perhaps the best example is a child’s ability to master her native language. Children do not spend hours studying vocabulary lists and attending classes on grammar and syntax. They would be hard pressed to explain what participles are, despite their ability to use them fluently. Humans learn to speak with no effort or intention; it just happens.

Implicit learning is one of the most important functions of the adaptive unconscious. Again, let us not oversimplify. The precise nature of implicit learning and its relationship to explicit processing is the topic of much debate and research. [10] Nonetheless, it is clear that the adaptive unconscious is capable of learning complex information, and indeed, under some circumstances it learns information better and faster than our conscious minds.

A striking demonstration of implicit learning is a study by Pawel Lewicki, Thomas Hill, and Elizabeth Bizot. The participant’s task was to watch a computer screen that was divided into four quadrants. On each trial, the letter X appeared in a quadrant, and the participant pressed one of four buttons to indicate which one. Unbeknownst to the participant, the presentations of the X’s were divided into blocks of twelve that followed a complex rule. For example, the X never appeared in the same square two times in a row; the third location depended on the location of the second; the fourth location depended on the location of the preceding two trials; and an X never “returned” to its original location until it had appeared in at least two of the other squares. Although the exact rules were complicated, participants appeared to learn them. As time went by their performance steadily improved, and they became faster and faster at pressing the correct button when the X appeared on the screen. None of the participants, however, could verbalize what the rules were or even that they had learned anything.

That they learned the complex rules nonconsciously was shown by what happened next in the experiment. The researchers suddenly changed the rules so that the clues predicting where the X would appear were no longer valid, and the participants’ performance deteriorated. They took a very long time to identify the location of the X and made several mistakes. Although participants noticed that they could no longer do the task very well, none of them knew why. They had no awareness that they had learned rules that no longer applied. Instead, they consciously searched for other explanations for their sudden poor performance.

Incidentally, the participants were psychology professors who knew that the study concerned nonconscious learning. Despite this knowledge, they had no idea what they had learned or why their performance suddenly deteriorated. Three of the professors said that their fingers had “suddenly lost the rhythm,” and two were convinced that the experimenters had flashed distracting subliminal pictures on the screen. [11]

The kinds of rules people learned in this experiment are notoriously difficult to learn consciously. The Lewicki, Hill, and Bizot study may be a case in which the adaptive unconscious does better than our conscious minds. To return to our example of Mr. D., it is becoming clear that without a nonconscious mind, he would not be able to learn complex patterns in his environment quickly and efficiently.

[8] Claparède's (1911/1951) patient may not have been completely amnesiac and thus may have retained some limited abilities to learn things consciously. More typically, amnesiacs are able to learn motor skills, such as tracking a moving target with a stylus, with no conscious memory of ever having performed the task from one day to the next (see Schacter 1996).

[9] For a review see Kihlstrom and Schacter (1990).

[10] See, e.g., Reber (1993, 1997) and Dulany (1997).

[11] Lewicki, Hill, and Bizot (1988), quotation p. 33.

Attention and Selection: the Nonconscious Filter

As noted, our senses are detecting about 11,000,000 pieces of information per second. As you read this book you can probably hear many sounds, such as the ticking of a clock or gusts of wind outside your window. You can see not only the words on this page, but also the page number and the surface against which the book is resting, such as a desk or piece of clothing. You can feel the weight of the book on your hands and the pressure of your foot against the floor. Let’s not forget smell and taste, such as the aroma from a cup of coffee or the faint aftertaste of the tuna sandwich you had for lunch.

All of this assumes that you are sitting in a quiet spot by yourself as you read. Should you happen to be on a subway or in a public park, the amount of information reaching your senses is of course much larger. How, then, can you possibly read and comprehend the words on this page, with all this competing information striking your senses? How do we make sense of the “blooming, buzzing, confusion” that reaches our senses, in William James’s oft-quoted words?

We are able to do so because of a wonderful thing called selective attention. We are equipped with a nonconscious filter that examines the information reaching our senses and decides what to admit to consciousness. [12] We can consciously control the “settings” of the filter to some degree, by deciding, for example, to stop listening to the song on the radio and scan the side of the highway for our favorite fast-food joint. The operation of the filter, however — the way in which information is classified, sorted, and selected for further processing — occurs outside of awareness. And that’s a very good thing, because it allows us to concentrate on the task at hand, such as finding a place for lunch instead of singing along with Smokey Robinson on the radio. [13]

The nonconscious filter does more than allow us to focus our conscious attention on one thing at a time. It also monitors what we are not paying attention to, in case something important happens that we should know about. At a crowded cocktail party, for example, we can block out the many conversations going on around us except for the one we happen to be in. This alone is no small feat and is a tribute to our capacity for selective attention. But what happens when Sidney, standing ten feet away, mentions your name to his companion? Suddenly your attention shifts; you hear your name, and your ears begin to burn. As commonplace as this example is, think of the amazing implications it has for how the mind operates. The nonconscious mind is kind of like computer programs that scan the Internet, out of sight, and send us an e-mail message when it comes across information that is of interest to us. Part of our minds can scan what is not the focus of our attention and alert us when something interesting happens. When the nonconscious filter hears Sidney droning on about his gall bladder operation, it decides to ignore it. But when it hears him mention our name — presto, it sends it directly to our conscious attention. Without such an ability to monitor and filter information nonconsciously, our worlds, like Mr. D.’s, would be a “blooming, buzzing, confusion.” [14]

[12] Although there is some disagreement on the exact location of the filter in the attentional system (e.g., Deutsch and Deutsch 1963; Treisman 1964; Norman 1968; Marcel 1983), there is agreement that the filter operates largely outside of conscious awareness.

[13] Conscious control over the settings of the filter is not perfect. As noted by Daniel Wegner (1994), the desire to attend to something sometimes fails, such that our attention is drawn to precisely what we are trying to ignore.

[14] The "cocktail party effect," whereby people recognize their name in an unattended auditory channel, was first demonstrated by Moray (1959). The nonconscious monitor is not perfect; typically, people notice their name in the unattended channel about a third of the time. The fact that they are able to recognize it at all suggests that nonconscious monitoring is occurring. For theories of preattention, see Broadbent (1958) and Treisman (1993).

Interpretation: the Nonconscious Translator

A few years ago I met a man named Phil at a parent-teachers’ organization meeting at my daughter’s school. As soon as I met him, I remembered something that my wife had told me about Phil: “He’s a real pain at meetings,” she had said.“He interrupts a lot, doesn’t listen to people, and is always pushing his personal agenda.” I quickly saw what she meant. When the principal was explaining a new reading program, Phil interrupted and asked how his son would benefit from it. Later in the meeting, Phil argued with another parent about how the PTO should conduct a fundraiser and seemed unwilling to consider her point of view.

When I got home that night I said to my wife, “You sure were right about Phil. He’s rude and arrogant.” My wife looked at me quizzically. “Phil isn’t the one I was telling you about,” she said.“ That was Bill. Phil is actually a very nice guy who regularly volunteers in the schools.” Sheepishly, I thought back to the meeting and realized that Phil had probably not interrupted or argued with people any more than others had (including me). Further, I realized that even Phil’s interruption of the principal was not so clear-cut. What I saw as rude and belligerent may actually have been a zealous attempt by a caring parent to make his viewpoint known—something I have certainly been guilty of.My interpretation was just that — a nonconscious construal of a behavior that was open to many interpretations.

It is well known that first impressions are powerful, even when they are based on faulty information. What may not be so obvious is the extent to which the adaptive unconscious is doing the interpreting. When I saw Phil interrupt the principal I felt as though I was observing an objectively rude act. I had no idea that Phil’s behavior was being interpreted by my adaptive unconscious and then presented to me as reality. Thus, even though I was aware of my expectations (that Phil would be overbearing), I had no idea how much this expectation colored my interpretation of his behavior.

One of the clearest demonstrations of such nonconscious interpretation is an experiment by John Bargh and Paula Pietromonaco, in which people did not even know that they had an expectation about a person. The researchers activated a personality trait by flashing words to people at subliminal levels, and found that people used this trait when subsequently interpreting another person’s behavior. As part of a study on perception, participants judged whether flashes on a computer monitor occurred on the left or right side of the screen. Unbeknownst to them, the flashes were words shown for very brief durations (1⁄10 of a second) and followed immediately by a line of X’s. Because the words were flashed so quickly and were “masked” by the X’s, people were unaware that words had been presented.

In one condition, 80 percent of the flashed words had to do with hostility, such as “hostile,” “insult,” and “unkind.” In a second condition, none of the words had to do with hostility. Next, people took part in what they thought was an unrelated experiment on how people form impressions of others. They read a paragraph describing a man named Donald, who acted in somewhat ambiguous ways that might be construed as hostile, such as “A salesman knocked at the door, but Donald refused to let him enter.”

Those who had seen flashes of hostile words judged Donald to be more hostile and unfriendly than did people who had not seen flashes of hostile words — just as I judged Phil’s behavior to be rude and belligerent, because my wife’s impression of him was on my mind. We can be certain that this process occurred nonconsciously in the Bargh and Pietromonaco study, because people had no idea that they had seen hostile words earlier in the study. They believed that Donald was an objectively hostile man, with no realization that they had interpreted his ambiguous behavior as hostile because of the words they had seen earlier. (This experiment raises the specter of subliminal influence, such as whether people’s attitudes and behaviors can be influenced by flashes of words in advertisements. We will take up this question in Chapter 9.)

The adaptive unconscious is thus more than just a gatekeeper, deciding what information to admit to consciousness. It is also a spin doctor that interprets information outside of awareness. One of the most important judgments we make is about the motives, intentions, and dispositions of other people, and it is to our advantage to make these judgments quickly. The Phil example shows that sometimes these interpretations are based on faulty data (the Bill-Phil mix up) and are thus incorrect. Quite often, however, the adaptive unconscious does a reasonably accurate job of interpreting other people’s behavior. [15]

[15] See Bargh and Pietromonaco (1982); Higgins (1996); Mandler (1997).

Feeling and Emotion: the Adaptive Unconscious as Evaluator

So far, the adaptive unconscious may seem like a rather cold, emotionless interpreter of the world that keeps track of the information impinging on our senses, selects some of this information for further processing, and does the best it can at interpreting the meaning of this information. This portrayal is accurate as far as it goes, except that it makes the adaptive unconscious look like a Vulcan, the Star Trek species that is devoid of human emotions. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Not only does the adaptive unconscious select and interpret; it feels.

In many hackneyed works of science fiction, human emotions are treated as excess baggage that get in the way of efficient decision making. Invariably there is an android that is a much better thinker and decision maker than its human counterparts, because it has no emotions to muck up things. By the end of the story, we come to realize that we would never trade our lives for the android’s. Even though emotions cause us to act irrationally and to make bad decisions, we are willing to sacrifice precision and accuracy for the richness of love, passion, and art. Who would want to live the stark, emotionless life of an android?

The irony of these stories is that they underestimate how valuable feelings are to thinking and decision making. It is now clear that feelings are functional, not excess baggage that impedes decision making. Yes, there are times when emotions blind us to logic and lead to terrible decisions. In a fit of passion, people do sometimes abandon their families and run off with the drug-addled leader of a motorcycle gang. More commonly, though, our feelings are extremely useful indicators that help us to make wise decisions. And a case could be made that the most important function of the adaptive unconscious is to generate these feelings.

Consider an experiment by Antoine Bechara, Hanna Damasio, Daniel Tranel, and Antonio Damasio. Participants played a gambling game in which they selected cards from one of four decks. The cards in decks A and B resulted in large gains or losses of play money, adding up to a net loss if played consistently. The cards in decks C and D resulted in small gains or losses of money, adding up to a net gain if played consistently. The question was, how long did it take people to figure out that it was to their advantage to select cards from decks C and D? And how did they do so? To find out, the researchers measured three things: which cards people chose, their reports about why they chose the card they did, and their level of skin conductance while making their choices. (Skin conductance, measured with electrodes on the skin, is a measure of minute levels of sweating and is a good indicator of people’s momentary levels of arousal or emotion.)

After sampling cards from all four decks, normal participants learned to select cards from decks C and D and avoid cards from decks A and B — without being able to verbalize what they were doing. That is, they did not seem to recognize consciously that two of the decks were superior to the others. How, then, did they know to avoid decks A and B? After several trials, participants showed a marked increase in their skin conductance while pondering whether to choose a card from deck A or B, signaling them that something was wrong with this choice. Their adaptive unconscious had learned that decks A and B were risky and triggered a quick “gut feeling,” before their conscious minds knew what was going on.

The researchers also included participants who had damage to the ventromedial prefrontal region of their brains. This part of the brain, which is a small area located behind the bridge of the nose, is associated with the production of gut feelings. The people with damage to this area never showed an increase in skin conductance when thinking about decks A and B. They continued to make poor choices (and lose money). Antonio Damasio and his colleagues argue that damage to the prefrontal cortex prevents the nonconscious mind from learning from experience and signaling people how to respond. Tragically, the loss of this ability has far more important consequences than failing to learn the payoffs in a laboratory gambling task. Damasio documents several cases in which people’s lives have become quite dysfunctional after damage to this area of their brains, because their nonconscious minds have lost the ability to generate gut feelings that guide their judgments and decisions. [16]

[16] See Damasio (1994); LeDoux (1996); Bargh (1997); Bechara el al. (1997); Clore, Gasper, and Garvin (2001).

Nonconscious Goal-Setting

Suppose you are playing tennis with your ten-year-old nephew. You need to decide whether to try as hard as possible to win the match (and thereby satisfy your desire to be athletic and competitive) or to let your nephew win (and thereby satisfy your desire to be gracious, kind, and avuncular). How do you choose between these competing goals? One way is to make a conscious, deliberative choice: you think it over and decide that in this situation, being gracious is more important than playing like Andre Agassi.

Sometimes this is exactly what we do. One of the most important features of consciousness is goal-setting; we are probably the only species on Earth that can deliberate consciously about ourselves and our environments and make long-term plans for the future. But is consciousness the sole agent in goal-setting?

John Bargh and Peter Gollwitzer and their colleagues argue that events in the environment can trigger goals and direct our behavior completely outside of conscious awareness. Just as other kinds of thinking can become habitual, automatic, and nonconscious, so can the selection of goals. Perhaps you have played so much tennis in the past that you can choose your goal on automatic pilot. You decide to let your nephew win without ever thinking about it consciously. As with other kinds of thought, there are tremendous advantages to such automatic goal-selection in terms of efficiency and speed. You do not need to spend time before every tennis match deliberating about how hard to try; your automatic goal selector does the job for you (e.g., “If playing younger relative, don’t ace every serve; if playing obnoxious Oglethorpe from down the street, play as though it’s the finals at Wimbledon”).

But efficiency and speed come with a cost. The adaptive unconscious can choose a different goal from the one we would if we thought it through consciously. You might find yourself making great passing shots and lobs against your frustrated nephew because your competitive goals had been triggered without your realizing it. Even more ominously, people’s adaptive unconscious might acquire goals of which they are completely unaware and would not act on deliberately, such as the desire for sex as a means of satisfying the need for power.

Bargh and his colleagues have shown, for example, that some men have a nonconscious association between power and attraction to women. They conducted a study in which they primed the concept of power in male college students, to see if this influenced how attractive they found a female college student to be. The male participants had no idea that the study concerned power or sexual attraction. They thought they were participating in a study of visual illusions with a female partner, who was actually an assistant of the experimenter. As part of this study they filled in the blanks of sixteen word fragments to make complete words. Six of these fragments could be completed only with words that had to do with power, such as BO_S (boss), _ _ NTROL (control), AUT_ _ R _ T _ (authority). This was the priming task; completing the word fragments made the concept of power more accessible in people’s thoughts. Following the word-completion task, the participants rated the attractiveness of their female partner. For some men — namely, those who had scored highly on a measure of sexual aggression — priming the concept of power increased how attractive they found the woman to be (for other men, there was no relation between priming “power” and their attraction to the woman). Further, these men had no idea that there was such a link between the word fragments they had completed and how attractive they found the woman to be.

Men are often said to just “not get it” when it comes to understanding sexual harassment. Generalizing from the research by Bargh and colleagues, this might literally be true: men likely to engage in sexual aggression are unaware that they have a nonconscious association between sex and power, and unaware that this association is triggered automatically. This lack of awareness makes it more difficult to prevent sexual aggression. Men in a position of authority may believe that their behavior toward female subordinates is motivated by good intentions, because they are unaware that their feelings were triggered by their position of power. [17]

[17] Bargh el al. (2002); Bargh and Raymond (1995).

What’s the Agenda?

The adaptive unconscious thus plays a major executive role in our mental lives. It gathers information, interprets and evaluates it, and sets goals in motion, quickly and efficiently. This is a wonderful set of mental abilities to have, and if we were to lose them, like Mr. D., we would find it very difficult to make it through the day. But how does the adaptive unconscious decide what to select, how to interpret and evaluate, and which goal to set in motion? In short, what is its agenda?

Clearly, in order to be adaptive, nonconscious processes have to be concerned with making accurate assessments of the world. As Charlotte Brontë wrote in Jane Eyre, “The passions may rage furiously, like true heathens … and the desires may imagine all sorts of vain things: but judgment shall still have the last word in every argument, and the casting vote in every decision.” [18] All organisms have to represent their worlds accurately enough to find food, avoid danger, and produce offspring, or they will perish. An early primate who appraised tigers as “fun to pet” and edible plants as “scary, icky things” would not have survived for very long. Those who can spot dangers and opportunities fastest are at a huge advantage. In the Bechara card game study, for example, people seemed able to figure out which decks had the best payoffs quickly and nonconsciously, without being able to verbalize why they preferred decks C and D. Think of the advantage such an ability gives us in everyday life. Our conscious mind is often too slow to figure out what the best course of action is, so our nonconscious mind does the job for us and sends us signals (e.g., gut feelings) that tell us what to do.

Though it is a wonderful thing that our nonconscious minds are so quick to make accurate judgments of the social world, people cannot live by accuracy alone. There is a lot of information out there to analyze, and it is clearly to our advantage to prioritize it, recognizing what we should focus on and what we can safely ignore.

Consider a college basketball player who is dribbling the ball up the court in the closing seconds of an important game. There is a lot to analyze — possible openings in the opposing team’s defense, the sight of her teammate setting a pick on the right baseline, the knowledge that her center has always played well against the opposing player who is guarding her. It is by no means easy for people to process such complex information quickly and decide on a good course of action. We tend to take for granted, however, that at least people can narrow their attention to the most important task at hand. Think of all the other things that the basketball player could focus on, if she so chose: what the fans in the first row are shouting, the new routine being performed by the cheerleaders, the fact that she is thirsty and would like a drink of water, the knowledge that she has a history paper due the next day. Instead of thinking about these things, her attention is like a spotlight at the theater, able to focus narrowly on what is happening on center stage and keeping everything else in the dark.

People with damage to the prefrontal cortex find it difficult to know where to point the spotlight of attention. A college basketball player with damage to this area of the brain might be very skilled athletically but would be quite frustrating to watch. In the last seconds of a close game, she might decide to put the ball down and tie her shoes more tightly, or chat with the fans in Row 3.

Damasio relates the case of a businessman whose prefrontal cortex was damaged during surgery for a brain tumor.  This man retained much of his intelligence, such as his ability to read and analyze complex business reports. But he couldn’t judge the relative importance of different tasks.He might spend all day at the office organizing his desk drawers, believing that this should take priority over finishing a report that was due that day. [19]

How do normal people focus on relevant information and screen out everything else? The cocktail-party example I gave earlier, in which we were able to ignore Sidney’s account of his operation but pay close attention when he mentioned our name, suggests that the more relevant to us a piece of information is, the more likely it will be on the nonconscious filter’s “A” list of information to notice. Damasio’s businessman seemed unable to judge the self-relevance of the different tasks with which he was faced—he did not recognize that it was more to his advantage to finish the report than to put his paper clips in their proper place.

It turns out, though, that self-relevance isn’t quite the right way to describe how the adaptive unconscious decides what is important and what is not. Rather, the decision rule is how accessible a particular idea or category is. “Accessibility” is a somewhat technical psychological term that refers to the activation potential of information in memory. When information is high in activation potential it is “energized” and ready to be used; when it is low in activation potential it is unlikely to be used to select and interpret information in one’s environment. Accessibility is determined not only by the self-relevance of a category but also by how recently it has been encountered. In the Bargh and Pietromonaco study mentioned earlier, for example, the concept of hostility was accessible in people’s minds because of the words that had been flashed a few minutes earlier, not necessarily because this concept was self-relevant.

Another determinant of accessibility is how often a concept has been used in the past. People are creatures of habit, and the more they have used a particular way of judging the world in the past, the more energized that concept will be. Our nonconscious minds develop chronic ways of interpreting information from our environments; in psychological parlance, certain ideas and categories become chronically accessible as a result of frequent use in the past. The college basketball player has been in hundreds of games similar to the current one and has learned what information to attend to and what to ignore. She notices that the forward is late getting around the pick and that the center just cut toward the basket, a half-step ahead of the defender — without having to decide whether this information is more or less important than what the cheerleaders are doing.

The adaptive unconscious is not governed by accuracy and accessibility alone. People’s judgments and interpretations are often guided by a quite different concern, namely the desire to view the world in the way that gives them the most pleasure — what can be called the “feel-good” criterion. Jane Eyre observed this motive in her aunt, Mrs. Reed, when she visited her on her deathbed: “I knew by her stony eye — opaque to tenderness, indissoluble to tears — that she was resolved to consider me bad to the last; because to believe me good would give her no generous pleasure: only a sense of mortification.” [20]

One of the most enduring lessons from social psychology is that like Mrs. Reed, people go to great lengths to view the world in a way that maintains a sense of well-being. We are masterly spin doctors, rationalizers, and justifiers of threatening information. Daniel Gilbert and I have called this ability the “psychological immune system.” Just as we possess a potent physical immune system that protects us from threats to our physical well-being, so do we possess a potent psychological immune system that protects us from threats to our psychological well-being. When it comes to maintaining a sense of well-being, each of us is the ultimate spin doctor. [21]

People who grow up in Western cultures and who have an independent view of the self tend to promote their sense of well-being by exaggerating their superiority over others. People who grow up in East Asian cultures and have a more interdependent sense of self are more likely to exaggerate their commonalities with group members. That is, people who grow up in cultures with an interdependent view of the self may be less likely to engage in tactics that promote a positive self-view, because they have less investment in the self as an entity separate from their social group. Nonetheless, nonconscious spin doctoring occurs in order to maintain a sense of well-being, though the form of the doctoring differs. What makes us feel good depends on our culture and our personalities and our level of self-esteem, but the desire to feel good, and the ability to meet this desire with nonconscious thought, are probably universal. [22]

To what extent is the psychological immune system part of the adaptive unconscious? Sometimes we act on the “feel-good” motive quite consciously and deliberately, such as avoiding an acquaintance who is always criticizing us, or trying to convince ourselves that we failed to get a promotion not because we were unqualified, but because the boss was an insensitive ox. Given that the adaptive unconscious plays a major role in selecting, interpreting, and evaluating incoming information, though, it is no surprise that one of the rules it follows is “Select, interpret, and evaluate information in ways that make me feel good.” Furthermore, there is reason to believe that the adaptive unconscious is a better spin doctor than the conscious mind. As Freud noted, psychological defenses often work best when they operate in the back alleys of our minds, keeping us blind to the fact that any distortion is going on. If people knew that they were changing their beliefs just to make themselves feel better, the change would not be as compelling.

A key question concerns how the accuracy and “feel-good” criteria operate together, because they are often incompatible. Consider Jack, who failed to get an anticipated promotion. If accuracy were his only criterion, Jack might well conclude that he did not have the experience or ability to handle the new position. Instead, he uses the “feel-good” rule and concludes that his boss is an idiot. But is it really in his best interests to pat himself on the back and blame his boss? If he does not have the experience or ability to do the job, wouldn’t he be better off to swallow his pride and work harder?

The conflict between the need to be accurate and the desire to feel good about ourselves is one of the major battlegrounds of the self, and how this battle is waged and how it is won are central determinants of who we are and how we feel about ourselves. The best way to “win” this battle, in terms of being a healthy, well-adjusted person, is not always obvious. We must, of course, keep in touch with reality and know our own abilities well enough to engage in self-improvement. But it turns out that a dose of self-deception can be helpful as well, enabling us to maintain a positive view of ourselves and an optimistic view of the future. [23]

[18] Brontë (1847/1984),P. 270.

[19] Damasio (1994).

[20] Brontë (1847/1984),P. 259.

[21] Gilbert and Wilson (2000). See also Vailant (1993).

[22] See Heine, Lehman, Markus, and Kitayama (1999). Even within a culture, the ways in which people make themselves feel good vary. Bill Swann (1996) has observed that in Westenl cultures, people with high and low self-esteem react differently to positive and negative feedback. People high in self-esteem prefer positive feedback and attempt to avoid or discount negative feedback, as any good spin doctor would. People low in self-esteem sometimes do the opposite: they prefer negative feedback and avoid or discount positive feedback. This does not necessarily mean, however, that people with low self-esteem fail to use the "feel-good" criterion. Swann argues that people often desire predictable, coherent feedback and that it is very unsettling to have their views of themselves challenged. This explains why people with negative self-esteem, who have low opinions of themselves, prefer negative feedback about themselves: it helps them maintain a predicable, coherent self-view. In short, it satisfies the "feel-good" criterion, albeit in a rather paradoxical way.

[23] See Taylor and Brown (1988). I discuss work on positive illusions in more detail in Chapter 9.

Mr. D. Revisited

It should now be clear that Mr. D.’s loss of nonconscious processing would be incapacitating. Not only would he lose his lower-order mental capacities, such as his perceptual abilities, but his higher-order cognitive processing would also be severely impaired. The adaptive unconscious is actively involved in learning, selection, interpretation, evaluation, and goal-setting, and the loss of these abilities would be devastating. But the fact that nonconscious processes are adaptive does not mean that they always produce error-free judgments. One reason for this is that it is not always to people’s advantage to see the world accurately; a dose of congratulatory self-deception can be useful as well.

Further, just because a trait or process has evolved due to natural selection does not mean it is a perfect system that cannot be improved. The human visual system confers a survival advantage; in our evolutionary past, people who could see extremely well were more likely to survive than those who could not. Human vision is not perfect, however; surely we would be even better off if we had the night vision of an owl, or 20/5 vision instead of 20/20. Likewise, though generally beneficial, nonconscious mental processes are not perfect.

Second, many advantageous traits come with a trade-off: though generally beneficial, they have by-products that are not. The human visual system suffers from predictable optical illusions, not because these illusions are themselves adaptive, but because they are by-products of a system that is. Similarly, the advantages conferred by many types of nonconscious mental processes (e.g., the ability to categorize objects and people quickly, correctly “filling in the blanks” when we encounter ambiguous information) can have negative consequences (e.g., the tendency to overcategorize people, leading to stereotyping and prejudice). Further, because much of our mental life resides outside of consciousness, we often do not know how we are sizing up the world or even the nature of our own personalities. We will see many examples of the cost in self-insight we pay for having such an efficient and sophisticated adaptive unconscious.

First, however, we should consider how the nonconscious and conscious minds differ. Many of the nonconscious processes we considered, such as evaluation and goal-setting, can be performed by our conscious minds as well. If the nonconscious mind is so sophisticated and extensive, what is the function of consciousness? Do the conscious and nonconscious systems differ in fundamental ways, or do they perform the same tasks?

Chapter 3: Who’s In Charge?   From: Cassiopaea Forum
Two Redundant Minds

quote small leftThe more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher power of mind will be set free for their own proper work.quote small right — William James, Principles of Psychology (1890)

Few would disagree with William James’s observation about the division of mental labor. People would never get anything done if they had to attend constantly to their breathing, comprehension of language, and perceptions of the physical world. A key question, though, is what we are able to ”hand over” to the nonconscious mind. James seems to imply that we delegate the mundane tasks of living, much as chief executive officers rely on their staffs to attend to the details while they address the truly important questions. It is better for a CEO to plan the long-term fate of the company than to sweep the office floors.

But our nonconscious minds are not just the janitorial staff or even low-level managers. As we have seen, what is typically thought of as the ”proper work” of consciousness — goal-setting, interpretation, evaluation — can be performed nonconsciously. Once we acknowledge that people can think in quite sophisticated ways nonconsciously, however, questions arise about the relation between conscious and nonconscious processing. Exactly what is the division of labor between these two parts of the mind? Is consciousness really the CEO? Who’s in charge, anyway?

Perhaps the nonconscious and conscious systems operate in the same way according to the same rules. By this view, humans are blessed with two redundant systems, like modern jet liners that have backup systems in case one fails. Maybe we have two information-processing systems for the same reason that we have two kidneys and two lungs. Effective thinking is so critical to our well-being, this argument goes, that we have developed two redundant minds that are capable of performing exactly the same duties. If one stumbles, the other is there to take up the slack. But surely this can’t be right. Although Freud underestimated the sophistication and adult like nature of the unconscious, he was correct that it has a different character from the conscious self. Two information processing systems have evolved that differ in interesting ways and serve different functions.

Consciousness, Evolution, and Function

Few would disagree with the premise that selection pressures operate on the mind/brain as well as the body. The fact that humans have brains so similar to other primates’ is surely not a coincidence but a result of similarities in our evolutionary past. And the fact that the frontal cortex is proportionately largest in humans, second largest in the great apes, and smallest in prosimians such as lemurs and tarsiers, is surely due to the forces of natural selection. [1]

What are we to make of this fact when we try to understand the nature of the mind, such as the roles of conscious and nonconscious thinking? It is reasonable to assume that the adaptive unconscious is older, in evolutionary terms, than consciousness. That is, consciousness may be a more recent acquisition than nonconscious processing, and hence has different functions. Nonconscious processing shares the features of all biological systems that evolved early in the organism’s history. For example, older systems are less easily disrupted or damaged than newer systems, they emerge earlier in the individual organism, and they are shared by more species than newer adaptations. Each of these properties is true of nonconscious processing. [2]

If people could think efficiently without being conscious, why did consciousness evolve? It is tempting to conclude that it conferred a marked survival advantage, to explain why it has become a universal feature of the human mind. Although on the face of it this might seem obvious, it is actually an unsettled question that is the topic of much debate.

Now that it is accepted that Descartes was wrong on two fronts - the mind is not separate from the body, and consciousness and the mind are not the same thing - there has been an explosion of interest in the nature of consciousness, both in the popular press and in scholarly circles. Discover magazine recently dubbed this question as one of the most important mysteries yet to be solved. Dozens of books, journals, and professional conferences are devoted solely to the topic. A few years ago the philosopher Daniel Dennett declined an invitation to review recent books on consciousness, for the simple reason that there were too many (thirty-four, by his count).

Philosophers are wrangling, with renewed energy, over age-old questions: How can the subjective state of consciousness arise from a physical brain? What is the nature of conscious experience? Can we ever hope to understand what it is like to be another species or even another human? Are humans the only species that possess consciousness? Does consciousness have a function, and if so, what is it?

These questions are of two types: how consciousness seems versus what consciousness does. [3] We are making more progress on the second question than on the first, at least in a scientific sense. It is telling that there are as many theories about the nature of consciousness (how it ”seems”) as there are philosophers studying it, and it is not at all clear how to address this question scientifically. The function of consciousness is a more tractable question and is the one with which I will be most concerned. Before considering how best to obtain self-knowledge, we need to make at least some headway on such questions as whether it makes any difference to know ourselves. Does gaining insight (becoming conscious of previously unknown things about ourselves) change anything? Does the person who has limited insight into the reasons for her actions, for example, behave any differently from the person who has great insight?

A standard analogy is that consciousness is the president in the executive branch of the mind. In this conception, there is a vast network of agencies, aides, cabinet officers, and support staff who work out of view of the president. This is the adaptive unconscious, and a smooth running government could not exist without it. There is simply too much for one person to try to do, and a president could not function without his or her many (nonconscious) agencies operating out of view. The president is in charge of this vast network, setting policy, making the major decisions, and intervening when serious problems arise. Clearly, consciousness plays a crucial function in these activities. The adaptive unconscious is subservient to consciousness (the president) and reports to it. At the same time, the president who becomes too out of touch is in trouble. If he or she is ignorant of what is occurring out of sight (lacking in self-insight), then the agencies of the adaptive unconscious may start to make decisions that are contrary to the wishes of the president. 

Others have questioned the consciousness-as-chief-executive analogy, arguing that consciousness may not play such a crucial role. At one extreme are philosophers who argue that consciousness does not serve any function at all. This position, dubbed ”conscious inessentialism” or ”epiphenomenalism, ” holds that consciousness is an epiphenomenal byproduct of a skilled, nonconscious mind that does all the real work. Consciousness is like the child who ”plays” a video game at an arcade without putting any money into it. He moves the controls, unaware that he is seeing a demonstration program that is independent of his actions. The child (consciousness) believes he is controlling the action, when in fact the software in the machine (nonconsciousness) is completely in control. [4]

The philosopher Daniel Dennett notes that this view equates consciousness more with the press secretary than with the president. The press secretary can observe and report on the workings of the mind but has no role in setting policy and is not privy to many of the decisions made behind the closed doors of the Oval Office. It’s an observer, not a player. [5]

How can this be, you might ask, when it so often feels as though we are consciously controlling our actions? Recent work by Daniel Wegner and Thalia Wheatley suggests an answer: the experience of conscious will is often an illusion akin to the ”third variable” problem in correlational data. We often experience a thought followed by an action, and assume it was the thought that caused that action. In fact a third variable, a nonconscious intention, might have produced both the conscious thought and the action. My decision to get up off the couch and get something to eat, for example, feels very much like a consciously willed action, because right before standing up I had the conscious thought ”A bowl of cereal with strawberries sure would taste good right now. ” It is possible, however, that my desire to eat arose nonconsciously and caused both my conscious thought about cereal and my trip to the kitchen. The conscious thought might have been completely epiphenomenal and had no influence on my behavior, just as consciousness appears to be unnecessary in lower species in order for them to seek food and survive. Even humans sometimes behave in seemingly intentional ways in the absence of relevant conscious thoughts, such as when I find myself getting off the couch to get a bowl of cereal without ever consciously thinking about what I am doing or willing myself to do so. [6]

Wegner and Wheatley acknowledge that conscious will is not always an illusion, just that it can be. The most reasonable position, I believe, is between the extremes of consciousness-as-chief-executive and consciousness-as-epiphenomenal-press-secretary. If consciousness were purely epiphenomenal, then a book on self-insight would not be very satisfying. It might give people a better seat from which to observe the action, but these observations could not change the course or outcome of the game. On the other hand, we have already seen that the adaptive unconscious is quite extensive and includes such higher-order, executive functions as goal-setting. Thus, I think the analogy of consciousness-as-chief-executive or head coach is also misleading. We may have the impression that we, our conscious selves, are in complete control, but that is at least in part an illusion.

The philosopher Owen Flanagan notes that different U.S. presidents have exerted differing amounts of control over governmental policy, and that a more accurate view of the role of consciousness may be consciousness-as-Ronald-Reagan. According to many historians, Reagan was more of a figurehead than most presidents and did not exert very much control over the government. In Flanagan’s words, ”Reagan was the entertaining and eloquent spokesperson for a cadre of smart and hardworking powers (actually layers of powers), some known to outsiders, and some unknown. This is not to deny that Reagan felt as if he were in charge in his role as ’The Great Communicator’ … The point is that one can feel presidential, and indeed be presidential, but still be less in control than it seems from either the inside or outside.” [7]

In other words, we know less than we think we do about our own minds, and exert less control over our own minds than we think. And yet we retain some ability to influence how our minds work. Even if the adaptive unconscious is operating intelligently outside our purview, we can influence the information it uses to make inferences and form goals. One of the purposes of this book is to suggest ways this can be done.

In a memorable Saturday Night Live skit from the 1980s, President Reagan was portrayed as a brilliant, cunning leader whose ”Great Communicator” persona was all a shtik. In public, he was the fatherly, slightly bumbling Hollywood actor the voters knew and loved. Behind the scenes, he was a ruthless visionary who could think circles around his aides and negotiate brilliantly with foreign leaders. (In one scene, he gets tough with an Iranian leader over the phone while speaking Farsi.) The goal of this book is to make us all more like the Ronald Reagan in the skit — an executive who knows and manipulates, at least to some extent, what is going on behind the scenes.

Epigraph: James (1890) ,p.122.

[1] The extent to wInch such evolutionary adaptations explain current human behavior, such as gender differences in mate selection, is hugely controversial. In my opinion, evolutionary psychologists sometimes go too far in claiming that much of current social behavior can be traced back to human adaptations that occurred thousands of years ago. Nonetheless it cannot be denied that the brain has evolved according to the principles of natural selection (see, e.g., Kaas and Collins 2001).

[2] See Reber (1992) for an insightful elaboration of tins argument.

[3] Güzeldere (1997).

[4] See Flanagan (1992) for an excellent review of these philosophical positions.

[5] See Flanagan (1992), p. 7.

[6] Wegner and Wheatley (1999).

[7] Flanagan (1992), pp. 7-8.

Properties of the Adaptive Unconscious versus Consciousness

But what is going on behind the scenes, and how does this differ from conscious processing? It is useful to map out the different functions of these mental systems, which are summarized in the table.

The adaptive unconscious versus consciousness
  Adaptive unconscious   Consciousness
  Multiple systems   Single system
  On-line pattern detector   After-the-fact check and balancer
  Concerned with the here-and-now   Taking the long view
  (fast, unintentional, uncontrollable, effortless)  
  (slow, intentional, controllable, effortful)  
  Rigid   Flexible
  Precocious   Slower to develop
  Sensitive to negative information   Sensitive to positive information
Multiple versus Single Systems

As already noted it is a bit of a misnomer to speak of the adaptive unconscious, as there are a collection of modules that perform independent functions outside of conscious view. One way we know this is through studies of brain-damaged patients; different areas of the brain seem to be associated with quite different aspects of nonconscious learning and memory. Damage to some areas can impair explicit memory, for example (the ability to form new memories), but leave implicit memory intact (e.g., the ability to learn new motor skills). Strokes can impair language abilities without influencing other cognitive functions. Because the adaptive unconscious is a collection of many independent abilities, some of the properties of the adaptive unconscious I describe may apply to some modules more than to others.

Consciousness, on the other hand, seems to be a single entity. Exactly how to define it, and exactly how it is related to brain functioning, are not known. It is relatively clear, however, that it is a solitary mental system, not a collection of different modules. There may be special cases in which consciousness can split into two or more independent systems, such as multiple personalities (although the exact nature and frequency of multiple-personality syndrome is the topic of much current debate). Most people, however, do not possess more than one conscious self. There is only one president, even if that entity does not have as much power or control as it thinks.

Pattern Detector versus Fact Checker

A number of psychologists have argued that the job of the adaptive unconscious is to detect patterns in the environment as quickly as possible and to signal the person as to whether they are good or bad. Such a system has obvious advantages, but it also comes with a cost: the quicker the analysis, the more error-prone it is likely to be. It would be advantageous to have another, slower system that can provide a more detailed analysis of the environment, catching errors made by the initial, quick analysis. This is the job of conscious processing.

Joseph LeDoux, for example, suggests that humans have a nonconscious ”danger detector” that sizes up incoming information before it reaches conscious awareness. If it determines that the information is threatening, it triggers a fear response. Because this nonconscious analysis is very fast it is fairly crude and will sometimes make mistakes. Thus it is good to have a secondary, detailed processing system that can correct these mistakes. Suppose that you are on a hike and suddenly see a long, skinny, brown object in the middle of the path. Your first thought is "snake!” and you stop quickly with a sharp intake of breath. Upon closer analysis, however, you realize that the object is a branch from a small tree, and you go on your way. According to LeDoux, you performed an initial, crude analysis of the stick nonconsciously, followed by a more detailed, conscious analysis. All in all, not a bad combination of systems to have. [8]

[8] Margolis (1987); LeDoux (1996).

The Here-and-Now versus the Long View

Useful though the nonconscious pattern detector is, it is tied to the here-and-now. It reacts quickly to our current environment, skillfully detects patterns, alerts us to any dangers, and sets in motion goal-directed behaviors.What it cannot do is anticipate what will happen tomorrow, next week, or next year, and plan accordingly. Nor can the adaptive unconscious muse about the past and integrate it into a coherent self narrative. Among the major functions of consciousness are the abilities to anticipate, mentally simulate, and plan.

An organism that has a concept of the future and past, and is able to reflect on these time periods at will, is in a better position to make effective long-term plans than one that does not - providing a tremendous survival advantage. In some lower organisms, planning for the future is innate: squirrels ”know” to store nuts for the winter, and migratory birds ”know” when to fly south to warmer weather. Imagine the advantage of having a more flexible mental system that can muse, reflect, ponder, and contemplate alternative futures and connect these scenarios to the past. The practice of agriculture, for example, requires knowledge of the past and thinking about the future; why bother putting seeds in the ground now if we cannot envision what will happen to them over the next few weeks?

The idea that consciousness plans for the future probably does not come as much of a surprise. Those who endorse the consciousness-as-chief-executive model would agree that a major function of consciousness is to engage in long-term planning. A good CEO leaves the little stuff to underlings and spends his or her time on the big questions, such as what the long-term goals should be and how to implement them.

Our consciousness-as-Ronald Reagan model, however, portrays long term planning a little differently. The federal government (the mind) is a vast, interrelated system that operates quite well on a day-to-day basis. The chief executive can look into the future and try to set long-term goals, but might find it difficult to make major changes in policy. Often the best he or she can do is to nudge the vast bureaucracy onto a slightly different course. In fact there is a danger to making major policy changes for which the rest of the mind is unsuited.

Consider Herman, who believes that he is a loner who is happiest when by himself doing his own thing, when in fact he has a strong, nonconscious need for affiliation with other people. Because it is his conscious self-view that plans his future and determines his behavior, Herman avoids large gatherings and parties and chooses a career as a computer consultant so that he can work out of his home. His nonconscious need for affiliation is unfulfilled by these choices, however, leading to unhappiness. Perhaps the best use of consciousness is to put ourselves in situations in which our adaptive unconscious can work smoothly. This is best achieved by recognizing what our nonconscious needs and traits are and planning accordingly. [9]

But how do we recognize what our nonconscious needs and motives are? That is the million-dollar question. For now, I note simply that the ability to think about and plan for the future endows humans with a tremendous advantage, but can be a two-edged sword. Following our conscious wishes can be problematic if they conflict with the desires of the adaptive unconscious.

[9] See Bargh et al. (2002) for a discussion of the role of consciousness in fulfilling nonconscious needs.

Automatic versus Controlled Processing

It is well known that people can perform many behaviors (e.g., riding a bicycle, driving a car, playing the piano) quickly, effortlessly, and with little conscious attention. Once we have learned such complex motor behaviors, we can perform them better when we are on automatic pilot and are not consciously thinking about what we are doing. The moment I begin to think about what my pinkie and index fingers are doing as I type these words, typos result. There is a term for this in athletics: when a player is ”unconscious, ” she is performing at an optimal level without any awareness of exactly what she is doing. She is in the zone.

Although we do not often conceive of thinking in the same way, it, too, can happen automatically. Just as playing the piano can become automatic, so can habitual ways of processing information about the physical and social world. Indeed, a defining feature of the adaptive unconscious is its ability to operate on automatic pilot. Automatic thinking has five defining features: it is nonconscious, fast, unintentional, uncontrollable, and effortless. As noted by the social psychologist John Bargh, different kinds of automatic thinking meet these criteria to varying degrees; for our purposes we can define automaticity as thinking that satisfies all or most of these criteria.

We have already encountered examples of this type of thinking in Chapter 2 - namely, the way in which the adaptive unconscious selects, interprets, and evaluates incoming information. Consider the cocktail party phenomenon, in which the adaptive unconscious blocks out all the conversations except the one we are in, but at the same time monitors what other people are saying (and alerts us if they say something important, such as our name). This process meets all five of the criteria of automaticity: it occurs quickly, nonconsciously, and without intention, in the sense that our nonconscious filter operates even when we have no intention that it do so. It is uncontrollable, in the sense that we have little say over the operation of the nonconscious filter and could not stop it if we tried. Finally, it operates effortlessly, in the sense that the nonconscious filter takes up little mental energy or resources.

Another example of automatic thinking is the tendency to categorize and stereotype other people. When we meet somebody for the first time, we pigeonhole them according to their race or gender or age very quickly, without even knowing we are doing so. This process of automatic stereotyping is probably innate; we are prewired to fit people into categories. The nature of the pigeonholes, however — the content of our stereotypes — is certainly not innate. No one is born with a specific stereotype about another group, but once we learn these stereotypes, usually from our immediate culture, we are inclined to apply them nonconsciously, unintentionally, uncontrollably, and effortlessly. In contrast, conscious thinking occurs more slowly, with intention (we typically think what we want to think), control (we are better able to influence what we think about), and effort (it is hard to keep our conscious minds on something when we are distracted or preoccupied). [10]

[10] Whereas it is true that conscious processes are more controlled than most nonconscious processes, not all nonconscious processing meets all the definitions of automaticity. Arthur Reber (1992), for example, notes that learning an artificial grammar occurs nonconsciously but requires cognitive capacity. Further, we are not always in complete control of our conscious thoughts. Automatic, nonconscious processes can lead to intrusions of unwanted thoughts, as documented by Daniel Wegner (1994). In general, however, it is fair to characterize most nonconscious thinking as automatic and most conscious thinking as controlled.

The Rigidity of the Adaptive Unconscious

A disadvantage of a system that processes information quickly and efficiently is that it is slow to respond to new, contradictory information. In fact we often unconsciously bend new information to fit our preconceptions, making it next to impossible to realize that our preconceptions are wrong. An example is my assumption that Phil, the man I met at a PTO meeting, was the pushy, rude fellow I had heard about, when in fact he was not.

What happens when the nonconscious system quickly detects a violation of a pattern? Does it recognize that the old way of seeing things no longer applies? Suppose, for example, that a business manager notices (at a nonconscious level) that the last two employees she had to fire had degrees from small, liberal-arts colleges and that the last three people she promoted had degrees from large, state universities. It is now job performance time, and the manager is evaluating a new batch of employees, some of whom went to small, liberal-arts colleges and some of whom went to state universities. On average, the two groups have performed at the same level, although each did better on some tasks than on others. How will the manager evaluate these employees?

A smart, flexible system would recognize that the previously learned correlation, from a very small sample, does not generalize to this larger sample of employees. And yet once a correlation is learned, the nonconscious system tends to see it where it does not exist, thereby becoming more convinced that the correlation is true. When evaluating the employees who went to small colleges, the manager may focus on and remember the times they did poorly. When evaluating the employees who went to large universities, she is likely to focus on and remember the times they did well, thereby strengthening her belief that the size of a person’s alma mater is predictive of job performance - even though it is not.

Even worse, people can unknowingly behave in ways that make their expectations come true, as in Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson’s classic research on the self-fulfilling prophecy. They found that teachers not only view their students in the ways that they expect them to be, but act in ways that make these expectations come true. At the beginning of the school year, they administered a test to all the students in an elementary school and told the teachers that some of the students had scored so well that they were sure to ”bloom” academically. In fact this was not necessarily true: the students identified as ”bloomers” had been chosen randomly by the researchers. Neither the students nor their parents were told anything about the results of the test. The ”bloomers” differed from their peers only in the minds of the teachers.

When researchers tested all the children again at the end of the year with an actual I.Q. test, the students who had been labeled as bloomers showed significantly higher gains in their I.Q. scores than the other students did. The teachers had treated the bloomers differently, in such a way that made their expectations come true.

The teachers’ expectations about their students were conscious, but the way in which they made their expectations come true was not. When the teachers expected their students to do well, they unknowingly gave them more personal attention, challenged them more, and gave them better feedback on their work. Myra and David Sadker suggest that a similar self-fulfilling prophecy, operating at a nonconscious level, influences the relative performance of boys and girls in American classrooms. At a conscious level, most teachers believe that girls and boys are receiving equal treatment. In one study, the Sadkers showed teachers a film of a classroom discussion and asked who was contributing more to that discussion — boys or girls. The teachers said that the girls had participated more than the boys. Only when the Sadkers asked the teachers to watch the film and count the number of times boys and girls talked did the teachers realize that the boys had outtalked the girls by a factor of three to one.

At a nonconscious level, argue the Sadkers, teachers often treat boys in more favorable ways than girls, thereby causing boys to do better in their classes. The nonconscious mind can jump to conclusions quite quickly (”the boys in my math class are smarter”), leading teachers to treat boys in preferential ways - even when they believe, consciously, that they are treating everyone the same. [11]

It is fair to say that the tendency for the adaptive unconscious to jump to conclusions, and to fail to change its mind in the face of contrary evidence, is responsible for some of society’s most troubling problems, such as the pervasiveness of racial prejudice (discussed in Chapter 9). Why would an adaptive unconscious lead to such erroneous inferences? Again, the fact that mental processes have conferred a survival advantage does not mean that they are error free; in fact the advantages they bring (e.g., quick appraisals and categorizations) often have unfortunate byproducts.

[11] See Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968); Sadker and Sadker (1994).

Doing Before Knowing

Children are especially likely to act on automatic pilot, with their adaptive unconscious guiding their behavior in sophisticated ways before they are aware of what they are doing or why they are doing it. Nonconscious skills such as implicit learning and implicit memory appear early, before children have the ability to reason consciously at a very sophisticated level. Infants have the ability to remember things implicitly (nonconsciously) at birth or even before (in utero), whereas the ability to remember things explicitly (consciously) does not begin to develop until the end of the first year of life. Further, the parts of the brain that appear to be involved in explicit memory develop later in childhood than the parts of the brain that are involved in implicit memory. [12]

Adults are often in the same quandary: they have no access to their nonconscious minds and have to rely on their conscious interpreters to figure out what is going on inside their own heads. Adults, at least, have a sophisticated, clever interpreter that often constructs an accurate narrative. Children are especially likely to be in the dark, because their conscious interpreter develops more slowly and does not yet have the sophistication to guess what the nonconscious mind is doing. This predicament creates a dilemma for psychologists interested in the development of the mind. One of the easiest ways of assessing what people are thinking is to ask them, and many studies of cognitive development rely on children’s self-reports. Because the conscious system develops more slowly than the nonconscious one, relying solely on these reports can yield a misleading answer about the age at which a specific skill or trait develops. This error has been made in some well-known areas of developmental research.

When do children learn the discounting principle? Both Suzie and Rosemary practiced the piano for half an hour. Suzie’s mother gave her an ice cream cone for practicing the piano, whereas Rosemary practiced without receiving an ice cream cone. Who liked playing the piano more? Most adults say that Rosemary did, assuming that Suzie might have been motivated in part by the reward. Because Rosemary practiced without receiving any reward, she probably was motivated more by the intrinsic joy of playing. This is known as the discounting principle, the tendency to lower our estimate of the causal role of one factor (intrinsic interest in piano playing) to the extent that other plausible causes are present (the ice cream cone).

Developmental psychologists have been interested in the age at which children begin to use the discounting principle. In the typical study, children listen to stories like the one about Suzie and Rosemary and report who liked the activity more. Before the age of eight or nine, children seem to use an additivity principle, whereby they think that people who performed activities for a reward like it more (assuming that intrinsic interest + a reward = greater intrinsic interest). By the age of eight or nine, children begin to use the discounting principle, assuming that people who do things for rewards like them less than people who do not (e.g., intrinsic interest + a reward = less intrinsic interest).

But studies that rely on what children do instead of what they say show that children can use the discounting principle at a much earlier age than eight or nine. In these studies, children are given a reward for performing an attractive activity themselves, and their subsequent interest in the activity is measured by observing how much they choose to engage in it. For example, Mark Lepper, David Greene, and Richard Nisbett asked three- to five-year-old preschool children to draw with felt-tip pens, which at the time was a novel, fun activity for young children. Some of the kids were rewarded with a ”Good Player Certificate” for drawing with the pens and some were not.

Later the researchers put the pens in the classroom during a free-play period and measured how much time each child spent playing with them. As predicted, the children who had been rewarded earlier played with the pens significantly less than those who had not been rewarded. They seemed to have applied the discounting principle to their own behavior, concluding - not necessarily consciously - that if they played with the pens in order to get the Good Player Certificate, they must not have liked the pens very much. [13]

Why don’t children use this same discounting principle when explaining other people’s behavior until the age of eight or nine? Perhaps the adaptive unconscious learns the discounting principle earlier than the conscious interpreter. Young children act according to the discounting principle because their nonconscious inference system is driving their behavior (e.g., whether they play with the pens in the classroom). Interpreting behavior consciously and verbally reporting why it occurred, however, is the job of the conscious system, which takes longer to learn and apply the discounting principle.

This schism between what people do and what they say persists into adulthood. On the basis of what they do, adults often seem to have discounted their interest in a rewarded activity. During unconstrained, free-time periods, those who have been rewarded for engaging in the activity (such as playing with puzzles) spend less time with the activity than do people who have not been rewarded for engaging in the activity. Given what people reported, however, they did not seem to have discounted their interest in the activity: they said they liked the activity as much as people who had not been rewarded.

If there really are two systems implicated in these studies, a nonconscious one that determines what people do and a conscious one that determines what people say, are there ways of getting them more in synch? How can the conscious system do a better job of inferring what the nonconscious system already knows? Given that consciousness appears to take longer to learn the discounting principle, maybe it needs a little more of a nudge to apply it. That is, whereas the nonconscious system discounts intrinsic interest in the presence of rewards quite readily, maybe the conscious system has to think about it a little more carefully. I tested this hypothesis with Jay Hull and Jim Johnson in a study in which college students were given a reward to play with an interesting puzzle. As in many studies of this type, the students’ behavior indicated that the reward reduced their interest in the puzzle: they played with the puzzle less in a subsequent, free-time period than did unrewarded students.

As is also common, however, the students did not report, on a questionnaire, that they disliked the puzzle — unless they had first been asked to think about the reasons for their actions. Whereas putting people in this reflective mode did not, for the most part, influence their behavior — they still engaged less in an activity if they had been rewarded for it — it did influence their reported liking for the activity. When in the reflective mode, people who were rewarded for doing the activity now reported that they liked it less. These results suggest that when people think about it carefully, they can apply the discounting principle, deducing that they must like an activity less if they were rewarded for doing it. If they are not thinking carefully about it, however, their conscious system fails to apply the discounting principle (which, after all, was learned rather late in development) — even though the adaptive unconscious already has. [14]

When do children acquire a theory of mind? At some point, people come to realize that they are not the only ones with a mind - other people have them, too. Because we cannot tell this directly by looking inside another person’s head, we develop what psychologists call a theory of mind - the inference that other people have thoughts, beliefs, and feelings, just as we do. We believe that humans and inanimate objects are quite different (humans have minds, rocks do not), we often look where other people are looking (we want to learn what they are thinking that we are not), we can pretend to be someone else (by simulating their thoughts and feelings), and we often try to deceive other people (by encouraging them to develop false beliefs). All these are signs that we have a theory of mind.

We rarely pretend to be a rock or try to deceive a tree, precisely because we presume that they do not have minds that contain beliefs, thoughts, and feelings.

The prevailing wisdom is that a theory of mind develops around the age of four, as shown by children’s performance in what is called the false-belief paradigm. In a typical study, children watch an actor place something in a hidden location. They might see Matt, for example, hide a piece of candy in a box and leave the room. Sally then enters the room, finds the piece of candy, and puts it in a basket a few feet away. When Sally leaves and Matt returns, the stage is set. Where will Matt look for the candy: in the box where he put it, or in the basket where Sally hid it? Most four-year-olds reply to this question by saying, ”the box where he hid it. ” They recognize the seemingly obvious point that Matt still believes the candy is in the box because he did not see Sally put it in the basket. Most three-year-olds, however, say that Matt will look in the basket where Sally hid the candy. They seem unable to separate their own knowledge from another person’s, assuming that because they know that the candy is in the basket, Matt knows this too. They do not yet have a well-developed theory of mind that tells them that other people can have different beliefs from their own.

Or do they? Wendy Clements and Josef Perner performed an intriguing variation on the false-belief task that suggests that even three-year-olds have a theory of mind, at least at an implicit or nonconscious level. Their study was very much like the one described above, except that in addition to asking the children where Matt would search for the candy, they also observed where the children looked when Matt returned to the room: Did they look in the location in which Matt had hidden it, or in the location where it had been moved by someone else? The researchers assumed that children would look first to the location in which they anticipated Matt would search for the candy. If they had a correct theory of mind, they should look where Matt thought the candy was, not where they knew it was. If they did not have a correct theory of mind, they should look where they knew it was, not where Matt thought it was.

On the standard measure of where children say Matt will look, the researchers found the same thing as previous studies: almost none of the very young children (those between the age of two years five months and two years ten months) got the question ”right”; that is, almost all of them said that Matt would look for the candy in the basket, where they knew it to be — suggesting that they did not yet have a theory of mind. In the older groups, the percentage of children who gave the right answer steadily increased, such that by the age of four, most of the children gave the right answer.

As for where children looked when Matt reentered the room, the youngest children’s gaze was consistent with their verbal reports: they looked at the basket where they knew the candy was and said that this was where Matt would look. That is, both measures indicated that these children did not have a theory of mind. However, the two measures diverged dramatically in children right around three years of age. They looked in the correct location, even though they gave a different answer when asked where Matt would search for the candy. Judging by what these children did, they had developed a theory of mind earlier than revealed by what they said. The children who were three years eight months and older looked in the correct location and gave the correct answer when asked. [15]

The best explanation of this and subsequent studies is that the looking and verbal measures reflect different kinds of knowledge that develop at different rates. The looking measure may have tapped a nonconscious, implicit type of knowledge — in my terms, knowledge acquired by the adaptive unconscious whereas the verbal measure tapped a conscious understanding of the theory of mind that takes longer to develop.

There is even evidence that nonhuman primates have a rudimentary theory of mind, judging by where they look during a false-belief task like the one described above. Thus, very young children, and possibly even nonhuman primates, may possess a nonconscious theory of mind that guides their behavior. This view is quite compatible with the developmental literature on children’s understanding of the discounting principle. Developmental psychologists who rely too heavily on verbal measures may not be giving children their due. They are studying children’s verbal, conscious system, which may develop more slowly than the adaptive unconscious. [16]

Does the conscious system ever catch up? Perhaps people’s conscious abilities are especially limited early in life, but when they reach adulthood they acquire a full-blown, conscious self and achieve greater insight into their adaptive unconscious. Although people’s conscious theories and insights surely become more sophisticated as they age, there is reason to believe that people do not gain perfect insight.

One example is people’s ability to detect complex patterns in the environment. As we have seen, the nonconscious system is skilled at quick, accurate pattern detection. Recall the study by Pawel Lewicki, Thomas Hill, and Elizabeth Bizot mentioned in Chapter 2, in which people learned a very complex rule that predicted where the letter X would appear on a computer screen, as indicated by the fact that their performance improved over time and deteriorated when the rule was changed. None of the participants ever learned the rule consciously; the adaptive unconscious clearly outperformed the conscious system in this case.

Numerous studies on covariation detection show that the conscious system is notoriously bad at detecting correlations between two variables (e.g., whether there is a relationship between people’s hair color and their personalities). In order to detect such relationships, the correlation has to be very strong, and people must not have a prior theory that misleads them about this correlation. For example, many people persist in believing that they are more likely to catch a cold when they go outside without a coat on a winter day, even though there is no evidence that exposure to cold weather is related to catching a cold. Most people are unaware of the relationship between touching their noses and eyes with their fingers and catching a cold, even though there is good evidence that this is the main way in which rhino viruses enter our bodies. The adaptive unconscious is not perfect and may not have recognized this covariation either. Or maybe it has, preventing us from touching our eyes even more than we do! [17]

[12] For a review of research on implicit and explicit memory, see Schacter (1996).

[13] Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett (1973).

[14] Wilson, Hull, and Johnson (1981); Wilson (1985). For recent reviews of research on the effects of rewards on intrinsic interest, see Lepper, Henderlong, and Gingras (1999); Deci, Koeshler, and Ryan (1999).

[15] Clements and Penler (1994).

[16] See Hauser (1998); Penler and Clements (2000), Wellman, Cross, and Watson (2001). For evidence that other implicit, nonconscious memory systems develop at the same rate as explicit memory, see Komatsu, Naito, and Fuke (1996) and Rovee-Collier (1997).

[17] For evidence on the difficulty of consciously detecting correlations, see Nisbett and Ross (1980); Crocker (1981); and Alloy and Tabachnik (1984).

Is the Adaptive Unconscious More Sensitive to Negative Information?

Now we come to the most speculative point about differences between nonconscious and conscious processing: there may be a division of labor in the brain, in which the unconscious is more sensitive to negative information than the conscious self.

As mentioned earlier, Joseph LeDoux has shown that animals and people possess preconscious danger detectors that size up their environments very quickly. The sensory thalamus evaluates incoming information before it reaches conscious awareness. If it determines that the information is threatening, it triggers a fear response. In evolutionary terms, it can be seen how adaptive it is for the brain to trigger a fear reaction to a dangerous (i.e., negative) stimulus as soon as possible.

Recall also the experiment by Antoine Bechara and his colleagues, in which people developed gut responses signaling them which decks of cards had the better monetary payoffs — before they knew consciously which decks were the best. The cards in decks A and B resulted in large gains or losses of money, adding up to a net loss if played consistently. The cards in decks C and D resulted in small gains or losses of money, adding up to a net gain if played consistently. People quickly developed gut reactions (as indicated by their skin conductance responses) warning them that decks A and B were to be avoided.

But how did their adaptive unconscious figure this out? One possibility is that it kept a mental tally of the different cards and figured out that on balance, decks A and B resulted in a net loss. It is also possible, however, that it had a simpler strategy: avoid big losses. If the nonconscious system is especially sensitive to negative information, it should focus on the large losses that sometimes came up in deck A. An intriguing implication of this finding is that the nonconscious system will not always make the correct choice. For example, if on balance decks A and B resulted in a higher payoff despite its occasional big losses, then the adaptive unconscious would shy away from the decks that would make the most money. [18]

There is increasing evidence that positive and negative information is processed in different parts of the brain, though the extent to which these different brain regions map onto conscious versus nonconscious processing is unclear. There is at least the possibility that the adaptive unconscious has evolved to be a sentry for negative events in our environments. [19]

[18] I thank Jonathan Schooler for pointing out this interpretation of the Bechara et al. (1997) experiment.

[19] For evidence that negative and positive information is processed in different regions of the brain, see Davidson (1995) and Cacioppo, Gardner, and Berntson (1997)

Is the Adaptive Unconscious Smart or Dumb?

So which part of the mind is smarter, anyway? This question has been posed by several researchers, notably the social psychologist Anthony Greenwald. Greenwald concluded that unconscious cognition is a rather primitive system that can analyze information in only limited ways. He suggested that modern research has revealed a very different kind of unconscious from the Freudian unconscious, one that is considerably less clever.

Greenwald focused mostly on research that presents words to people at speeds too fast to be perceived consciously. Several studies have found that such subliminally presented words can influence people’s responses to some extent. For example, Draine and Greenwald presented people with words on a computer (e.g., ”evil, ” ”peace”) and asked them to make very quick judgments of whether they were good or bad in meaning. Unbeknownst to participants, these words were preceded by very fast presentations of ”priming” words that were also good or bad in meaning. The prime words were flashed so quickly that people did not see them consciously. Nonetheless, they influenced people’s responses to the second, target words. When the prime word was opposite in valence to the target word — for example, when ”peace” was preceded by a subliminal presentation of ”murder” — people were more likely to make a mistake and judge ”peace” as bad. When the prime word was the same valence as the target - for example, when ”peace” was preceded by a subliminal presentation of ”sunset” - people made very few mistakes in judging ”peace” as good. Most psychologists view this as evidence that people unconsciously saw the subliminal word and processed its meaning, which either interfered with or helped their judgment of the second word. [20]

Greenwald notes, however, that the unconscious mind’s ability to recognize and process subliminally presented words is limited. There is no evidence, for example, that it can perceive the meaning of a two-word sequence that is different from the meaning of each individual word.Consider the words ”enemy loses, ” which have a positive meaning when read as a unit, but a negative meaning when each word is considered individually. When two-word sequences such as this are flashed subliminally, people extract the meaning of the individual words (negative, in the example above), not the meaning of the unit. Hence, the unconscious mind may have limited cognitive abilities.

This conclusion is at odds, however, with much of what we have just reviewed — for example, research showing that the nonconscious mind is superior to the conscious mind in detecting covariations in the environment. It is no surprise, perhaps, that our minds can make limited judgments of information that it saw for only a few hundredths of a second. What is more surprising is that it can detect any meaning from a word that is flashed so quickly. In fact, a point that is often overlooked is that the unconscious mind is doing a superior job to the conscious mind on these tasks. Even if it is making only rudimentary judgments of subliminally flashed words, it is still doing better than the conscious mind, which has no idea that it saw anything at all. On these tasks, the unconscious mind is a lot smarter than the conscious interpreter.

What about when people have more time to examine and process incoming information? As we have seen, the nonconscious mind still outperforms the conscious self on at least some tasks, such as covariation detection. One study found, for example, that people could learn a complicated rule in which the presentation of a stimulus on one trial depended on what had been presented seven trials earlier, even though they could not consciously remember what had been presented that long ago. [21]

To be sure, the adaptive unconscious can be rigid and inflexible, clinging to preconceptions and stereotypes even when they are disconfirmed, in contrast to the more flexible conscious mind. There is no single answer to the question of how smart or dumb each system depends on what you ask them to do. The adaptive unconscious is smarter than the conscious mind in some ways (e.g., detecting covariation), but less smart in other ways. The bottom line is that it is different, and whether we assign the labels ”smart” or ”dumb” to these differences is arbitrary. A more useful approach is to map out the differences and try to understand the functions of the two systems. The adaptive unconscious is an older system designed to scan the environment quickly and detect patterns, especially ones that might pose a danger to the organism. It learns patterns easily but does not unlearn them very well; it is a fairly rigid, inflexible inference maker. It develops early and continues to guide behavior into adulthood.

Rather than playing the role of CEO, the conscious self develops more slowly and never catches up in some respects, such as in the area of pattern detection. But it provides a check-and-balance to the speed and efficiency of nonconscious learning, allowing people to think about and plan more thoughtfully about the future.

It is tempting to view the tandem of nonconscious and conscious thinking as an extremely well-designed system that operates optimally. But this would be a mistake. First, there was no grand design. In real engineering, old designs can be completely thrown out and new ones started from scratch. The Wright brothers, for example, did not take a horse buggy and stick some wings on it to make a flying machine; they were able to begin afresh and build every part of their plane with the final goal (to fly) in mind. By contrast, natural selection operates on the current state of an organism, such that new systems evolve out of old ones. It is not as if someone sat down in advance and drew up the blueprints for the grand design of the human mind. Evolution works with what it has.

The human mind is an incredible achievement, perhaps the most amazing in the history of the Earth. This does not mean, however, that it is an optimal or perfectly designed system. Our conscious knowledge of ourselves can be quite limited, to our peril.

[20] Draine and Greenwald (1999).

[21] See Millward and Reber (1972); Greenwald (1992)

100-199 – Philosophy

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Contents: 100 – Philosophy