Who’s In Charge?
The 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. 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.
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
* Automatic (fast, unintentional, * Controlled (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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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 is.it 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.