Monday, May 11, 2009

Notes on Strangers to Ourselves

Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy Wilson is a book in the same spirit as the User Illusion by Thor Nørretranders. Both books are about how our unconscious mind plays a much bigger part in our lives than our conscious mind gives it credit for.

Our senses register 11 million bits per second and our conscious mind can only deal with 40. What happens to the other 10 999 960 bits is the topic of this fantastic book!

Adaptive Unconscious

In one study a woman suffering from lack of short-term memory was visited several times by a researcher. Every time he visited her, he had to re-introduce himself, since she didn’t recognize him. Then one time he pricked her with a pin when they shook hands. The next time he visited her, she didn’t recognize him, but she refused to shake his hand.

Attention and selection: the non-conscious filter. We become aware of new things even though we are in the middle of doing something completely different. For example: I am talking to someone at a dinner somewhere and then I hear someone mentioning my name in a different group talking amongst themselves. Suddenly my attention shifts to that of the other group

Interpretation: the non-conscious translator. Our preconceptions affect how we interpret situations. For example: If you after hearing something positive about someone it is a lot more likely that you will interpret their actions as good than if you haven’t heard anything positive. Studies with teachers show that teachers that were told that a random selection of students were likely to succeed, were affected so much that the selected students actually improved more than the other students.

Feeling and emotion: the adaptive unconscious as evaluator. In a study where the subjects were given cards from 4 decks of cards, A, B, C, and D, they were able to select the best decks on “gut-feeling” even though they could not verbalize why they selected as they did.

Unconscious goal setting. When we are playing games with our kids we may select not to win the game to make the kids feel happy and ourselves fell gracious. After doing this a lot our unconscious may automatically select for us not bothering the conscious with the burden to select.

Who’s in Charge?

Is our conscious in charge or are the non-conscious processes in charge? Some believe that our conscious is like a president, and makes all the executive decisions about what our non-conscious processes should be doing, others believe that our consciousness is more like a child playing demo games. They think that they are playing, but in reality it is just a simulation that they can do nothing about.

If I feel hungry and decide to go to the kitchen to eat a sandwich, it may feel like I make a conscious decision but, it may well be that my desire to eat arose non-consciously and triggered both my conscious thought and my trip to the kitchen. The consciousness may just be an illusion.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. Our consciousness, differs from our adaptive unconsciousness in several important ways.

Adaptive unconsciousness Consciousness
Multiple systems One system
On-line pattern detector After the fact check and balancer
Concerned with now Long view
Automatic (fast, unintentional, uncontrollable, effortless) Controlled (slow, intentional, controllable, effortful)
Rigid Flexible
Developed and mature Slower to develop
Sensitive to negative information Sensitive to positive information

Knowing Who We Are

Personality has been defined as the psychological processes that determine a person’s “characteristic behavior and thought”.

We probably have two personalities, one conscious and one unconscious. The conscious is measurable through questionnaires, while the unconscious is only measurable through indirect techniques.

As an effect of our two personalities we are also likely to have dual motives and goals. If our motives and goals and thus our two personalities correspond well, we are more likely to feel emotionally well.

Knowing Why

Our conscious is fantastic at making up causes for why we act the way we act. In a study with a split-brain patient (a patient who have had their brains split in half), researchers showed the patient pictures, one for the left eye and one for the right. At one time he was shown a picture of a snow scene to his left eye and a chicken claw to the right eye. He was then asked to pick up cards that related to the pictures. He picked a shovel with his left hand and a chicken with his right. When he was asked why he picked the cards, his answer was: “I saw a claw and picked a chicken, and you have to clean out the chicken shed with a shovel”. Our speech center is in our left hemisphere so the patients brain knew that it had seen a claw. It had no idea, however, why he had picked a shovel so it made up a reason.

Why do we do the things we do? We really have no idea. When an idea pops up into our head we may trace the thoughts causally back until we reach something that seems to be a reasonable cause of our thought. But, this thought may just be made up by our conscious mind to get a felling of control.

If I decide I want a sallad for lunch today and I am asked why, I will probably justify it with, something like, I am trying to lead a healthier life, etc., etc. But the real reason may be that I saw an obese person earlier this morning and he generated the thought later that day.

The theory is that we have no access to our mental processes, only to the mental contents that are the results of those processes.

Studies made in this area, have shown that a stranger may be as good as we are at predicting why someone did something. It may be as accurate to call a random person up, give them some data about what you have done during the day, and then ask them how you feel as to try to figure it out yourself!

Even if we, personally, have access to more information, there is no reason that this extra information will make our conclusion any more accurate.

Knowing How We Feel

Our feelings have always been believed to reside in our conscious, what good would they do if we didn’t notice them? But, not even our feelings are sure to be completely conscious. The author gives the argument that, sometimes we feel something and not until later do we realize that we didn’t have that feeling at all. Wilsons example is a couple of people that talk about a horse they owned as a kid, one of them says, “Good, I hated that horse!”, and the other person realizes that she has always hated it too. Even though she didn’t acknowledge it at the time.

Another example is that when we experience something scary, like losing control over a car, the feeling of fear doesn’t strike us until after the incident is over. Wilson argues that we get an unconscious feeling and only afterwards does the feeling appear in our conscious.

Other feelings that we fail to recognize are prejudice feelings. We think that we are very liberal but, at a deeper level we feel the feelings anyway and others can tell even if we don’t allow ourselves to see it.

The reason that we have these unconscious feeling is that they react a lot faster than our conscious feelings do. When we see a stick lying on the ground we may first react scared, thinking it is a snake, only to realize afterwards that it was only a stick and move on. If it is a snake the faster reaction may say our life.

Knowing How We Will Feel

If it is difficult to know what we feel at the time, how are we to guess what we will feel in the future? When we try to predict how we will feel in the future we usually exaggerate the feeling. How would you feel if your wife died? I would never get over it. How would you feel if you won twenty million dollars. I would live happily ever after, doing whatever I please.

Neither of these replies are very likely. There are a number of reasons why we exaggerate our future feelings. First, they are thought of in isolation, we don’t take into account all the other things that will happen at the same time as the events take place that we are imagining. Second, as soon as something happen to us, we start to internalize it. If I win the lottery I will be happy for a while but, after a while this will be the status quo that I compare things against.

This implies that we know very little about ourselves. Is there hope for us to improve this?

Introspection and Self-Narratives

It is often thought that to introspect our feelings, to think about why we feel a certain way, is a good approach to self-improvement. But this is not always the case.

The problems with introspection is that we may try to make too much out of what we find. If we are asked why we love our spouses and try to make a list of reasons why, we run the risk of believing that this is the whole story and not just a small subset of it. It may not even have anything to do with why we feel the way we feel. When we try to articulate our feeling we diminish them.

He who deliberates lengthily will not always choose the best. —Goethe

So, are we supposed to ignore why we feel the way we do and just act on impulses? No, it is important to distinguish between informed and uninformed gut-feelings. The trick is to gather enough information to develop an informed gut-feeling and then not analyze that feeling to much. We should let our adaptive unconscious do the job of forming reliable feeling and then trust those feeling, even if we cannot explain them entirely.

If we try to imagine, in detail, the situation that would occur if we acted on our feeling, perhaps we would be better at recognizing our true future feelings

Looking Outward to Know Ourselves

To complement knowing ourselves by introspection, we can look outwards instead. We can look at the research done in psychology. For example, in one study, a group was tested for automatic prejudice. The study showed that people unconsciously made different decisions when they were not given enough time to think over their replies consciously. To know that our unconscious opinion may be different than our conscious one is good knowledge to have.

To try to figure out what we are like by observing how other people react to what we do is an approach that isn’t very fruitful. Our observation of the other person gets filtered by our unconscious and it is not at all unusual to think that someone admires you, while they think you are a complete idiot.

A better approach is to ask others what they think and use their description as a clue to finding out how we are. But the people you ask have to be very honest.

Observing and Changing our Behavior

Despite years of research on self-perception theory, there is an enduring question: Is the self-perception one of self-revelation or one of self-fabrication. Self-revelation is good in that it helps us understand ourselves, while self-fabrication isn’t since it infers things that didn’t exist before.

In the end, the only way to change how we are is to change how we act. Since acting in a way you want to act will make you a person who acts like you want to act.

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