Monday, January 5, 2009

Our Unconscious Mind

Everyone is faced with making difficult decisions, buying a house, changing your job, moving to a new place, another addition to the family perhaps. For a long time, the going theory was that we take these decisions consciously, in full control of our faculties. Logically weighting pros and cons. However, this "Mr. Spock view" of ourselves is shifting. Perhaps the most recent influential work in social psychology in this respect is a recent book by Timothy Wilson: Strangers to Ourselves where he argues that most decisions are actually taken unconsciously. In fact, the argument goes that our "gut feeling" is very good at taking these kinds of complex decisions involving many sources of information. A similar story can be read in Damasio's "Descarte's Error" where he describes a patient who has lost this ability with disastrous results.

In Wilson's book one can read a endless list examples of how we seem to perform much of our "reasoning" unconsiously. The one that stood out most to me was an experiment by Lewicki, Hill and Bizot. Here, subjects get to see the symbol "X" in one of four quadrants of a computer screen. Their task is report as quickly as they can where they spotted the X. The sequence of the X locations follows a complex but predictable pattern. Over time, these subjects learn these patterns and improve their response time. However, when they are asked why they improve their performance they have no clue. Better even, after a while the sequence reverts to a random sequence resulting in a fast drop in response time. The subjects noticed their drop in response time but can not figure out what caused it! They do not know that the sequence suddenly became unpredictable (or that there was a predictable sequence in the first place.)

What conclusion can be drawn from this? Wilson argues that the pattern was learned completely unconsciously. We constantly pick up on regularities in the world around us. As argued in an earlier post, prediction is crucial for our survival so we tend to be really good at it. As a child, we have learned thousands if not millions of regularities about our world: water makes me wet and moreover I cannot walk on it, fire is really hot and hurts my body, when someone frowns at me s/he is angry etc. Some of them have become conscious over time, but you just wonder how many of these rules remain unconscious for our entire lifetime.

I like the idea of our consciousness as a kind of "searchlight". We can monitor some decisions that are being taken unconsciously but have much less conscious influence over this process then we like to think. Our mind tricks us in thinking we are in control, but in reality we mostly observe. There are indeed also a number of experiments which confirm this point to view to some extend. One can measure skin conductance which apparently changes when a decision has been made. Skin conductance seemed to change before people reported to have taken a decision. I don't quite think our consciousness is useless as the searchlight hypothesis seems to suggest. Otherwise, why did it evolve? Perhaps it can be used to guide our long term goals in life.

The searchlight hypothesis may be disconcerning to some. If we take decisions unconsciously, can we still be held accountable for it? Emphatically: yes! Fear of punishment does change our behavior, conscious or unconscious. We don't need to understand the details of how our decision making process to understand that the Law works (to some extend) and will work even after we do understand it. Another disconcerning factor is the fact that we have become a little less "human". After the realization that God's creation ship earth is not in the middle of our universe (hell, not even in the middle of our solar system), and the fact that man evolved from apes only 1 million years ago, we now have to face the fact that our awake mind is mostly an observer with her/his hands tied down! Personally I don't feel that way. An experience is an experience and an emotion remains an emotions whatever the underlying mechanisms are that generate it.


  1. There is another book about the decision-making abilities of the unconscious mind that is supposedly quite good (I have not read it yet): "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell. You can read an interview describing it at

  2. Thanks! Interestingly he is the same author as "tipping point", another book on my list.

  3. .

    Similarly, some psychologists and philosophers say ALL our beliefs are involuntary: we choose none, not even unconsciously.

    Much of what we "believe" is inherited through culture, temporal locale, even family---without choice. (Religion is an obvious example).

    Also, say these thinkers, beliefs seem to choose us, rather than vice versa: we just find ourselves thinking the things that align with our personalities.


  4. blink is a kind of popular version of wilson's book. very readable but not as profound I think