The Adaptive Unconscious
I 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. —Sir William Hamilton (1865)
Outside 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. —E. S. Dallas (1866)
The Unconscious Takes a Holiday
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.
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. Fieldss 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
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 Claparede. 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, Claparede 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 Claparede 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 Claparede but somehow “knew” that she shook this man’s hand at her own risk. Claparede 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 Claparede’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.
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
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
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
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
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
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?