The Adaptive Unconscious

Laura

Administrator
Administrator
Moderator
FOTCM Member
Book is titled: "Strangers to Ourselves" by Timothy D. Wilson. This is the same guy who wrote "Redirect" and is another excellent volume right up the alley of The Work.


Preface

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Adaptive Unconscious versus the Freudian Unconscious

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

WHAT IS THE NATURE OF THE UNCONSCIOUS?

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

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


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

WHY DOES THE UNCONSCIOUS EXIST?


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

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

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


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

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


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

The Non-Freudian Unconscious

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

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

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

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

-Lower-order mental processes occur outside of awareness. Hamilton,
Carpenter, and Laycock observed that the human perceptual system
operates largely outside of conscious awareness, an observation also
made by Hermann Helmholtz. Though this view seems obvious today
it was not widely accepted at the time, largely as a result of the legacy of
Cartesian dualism. It was not widely accepted by modern psychologists
until the cognitive revolution of the 1950s.

- Divided attention. William Hamilton observed that people can consciously
attend to one thing while nonconsciously processing another.
He gave the example of a person who is reading aloud and finds that
his or her thoughts have wandered onto some other topic altogether:
"If the matter be uninteresting, your thoughts, while you are going on
in the performance of your task, are wholly abstracted from the book
and its subject, and you are perhaps deeply occupied in a train of seri-
ous meditation. Here the process of reading is performed without
interruption, and with the most punctual accuracy; and, at the same
time, the process of meditation is carried on without distraction or
fatigue."12 Hamilton foreshadowed the influential theories of selective
attention that were developed a century later.

- Automaticity of thought. The nineteenth-century theorists argued that
thinking can become so habitual as to occur outside of awareness with
no conscious attention
, an idea that was not formally developed in
psychology until the 1970s. William Carpenter, for example, noted
that "The more thoroughly . . . we examine into what may be termed
the Mechanism of Thought, the more clear does it become that not
only an automatic, but an unconscious action enters largely into all its
processes."h13

- Implications of nonconscious processing for prejudice. One of the most
interesting properties of the adaptive unconscious is that it uses
stereotypes to categorize and evaluate other people.
William Carpenter
presaged this work more than a century ago, by noting that people
develop habitual "tendencies of thought"
that are nonconscious and
that these thought patterns can lead to "unconscious prejudices which
we thus form, [that] are often stronger than the conscious; and they are
the more dangerous, because we cannot knowingly guard against
them.
"14

- Lack of awareness of one's own feelings. A controversial claim about the
adaptive unconscious is that it can produce feelings and preferences of
which people are unaware. Carpenter argued that emotional reactions
can occur outside of awareness until our attention is drawn to them:
"Our feelings towards persons and objects may undergo most important
changes,without our being in the least degree aware, until we have
our attention directed to our own mental state, of the alteration which
has taken place in them."
15

- A nonconscious self. Do central parts of our personalities reside out of
view, such that we do not have access to important aspects of who we
are? William Hamilton wrote extensively about the way in which
habits acquired early in life become an indispensable part of one's
personality.
16 These mental processes were said to constitute a kind of
“automatic self” to which people had no conscious access
—an idea
that was not to reappear in psychology for more than 100 years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Implications for Self-Insight

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

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


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

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

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

Buddy

The Living Force
Laura said:
[quote author=the book]
The mind operates most efficiently
by relegating a good deal of high-level, sophisticated thinking to the
unconscious, just as a modern jumbo jetliner is able to fly on automatic
pilot with little or no input from the human, “conscious” pilot. The
adaptive unconscious does an excellent job of sizing up the world, warn-
ing people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated
and efficient manner. It is a necessary and extensive part of a highly
efficient mind and not just the demanding child of the mental family
and the defenses that have developed to keep this child in check.

Nor is the unconscious a single entity with a mind and will of its own.

Rather, humans possess a collection of modules that have evolved over
time and operate outside of consciousness. Though I will often refer to
the adaptive unconscious as a convenient shorthand, I do not mean to
characterize it as a single entity, as the Freudian unconscious typically is.
For example, we have a nonconscious language processor that enables us
to learn and use language with ease, but this mental module is relatively
independent of our ability to recognize faces quickly and efficiently and
our ability to form quick evaluations of whether environmental events
are good or bad.

It is thus best to think of the adaptive unconscious as
a collection of city-states of the human mind and not as a single
homunculus
like the Wizard of Oz, pulling strings behind the curtain of
conscious awareness.6
[/quote]

Maybe some awareness of the quantum nature of reality is seeping into psychology and some people? Seems to me, in the last quoted paragraph above, there may just be that sort of recognition of said nature.

"Collection of city-states" seems equivalent to "islands of truth" as one metaphor used to describe relationships between entire idea systems and quantum reality: a multi-verse of many truths, many contexts.

"a single homunculus" seems equivalent to an implicit belief of Classicists: "one closed, absolute truth (system) in one global context for everyone.
 

Palinurus

The Living Force
Skimming through the above, I was - for some as yet unidentified reason - very much reminded of the work of Marvin Minsky (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marvin_Minsky), especially his Society of Mind (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Society_of_Mind), as a sort of early precursor from another scientific field into this current take on affairs.

For a short recap, see: http://web.media.mit.edu/~push/ExaminingSOM.html in order to decide whether my hunch would be right.
 

seek10

The Living Force
FOTCM Member
Thank you for the review. I always confused in consciously expressing what is wrong with Freud's theory. I know it is miles away from what gurdjieff said about machine, WORK mentioned
here. Of course I haven't read Freud's works of his Ego etc. since it didn't resonate much to further.

But this specific work making Freud's ponerization as central theme is wonderful. Freud twisted things of unconscious and his nephew
Edward Bernays fathered Personal relationship field to tilt the advantage to wealthy businessmen and wealthy became guardian
of Freudian twisting and pathological's used it to blind the humanity and rest is history.

he continued to focus on unconscious thought that was primitive and animalistic, and characterized conscious thought as more rational
and sophisticated.

An important part of the Freudian legacy was a rejection of the scientific method as a means of studying the mind. The complex nature of unconscious
processes could not be examined in controlled experiments, Freud believed, and could be uncovered only by careful clinical observation.
Astute clinical observation can be quite illuminating, of course, but psychologists might have turned sooner to the experimental study of
mental processes without this methodological limitation.

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

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

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

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

Buddy

The Living Force
Palinurus said:
Skimming through the above, I was - for some as yet unidentified reason - very much reminded of the work of Marvin Minsky (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marvin_Minsky), especially his Society of Mind (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Society_of_Mind), as a sort of early precursor from another scientific field into this current take on affairs.

For a short recap, see: http://web.media.mit.edu/~push/ExaminingSOM.html in order to decide whether my hunch would be right.
Your hunch may be a good one due to so many interesting associations being involved. Minsky is a leader in the field of Artificial Intelligence and also on the council of advisers for the Extropy Institute. Additionally, he published a book titled: The Emotion Machine:

In November 2006, Minsky published "The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind", a book that critiques many popular theories of how human minds work and suggests alternative theories, often replacing simple ideas with more complex ones. Recent drafts of the book are freely available from his webpage:
_http://web.media.mit.edu/~minsky/
_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marvin_Minsky
These days, more people seem to be making connections between the many ways we think, AI, emotions and quantum theory. Mark Buchanan makes correspondences using an example of successful search engine algorithms:

[quote author=Mark Buchanan]
Quantum minds: Why we think like quarks
[...]
These peculiar similarities also apply to how search engines retrieve information. Around a decade ago, computer scientists Dominic Widdows, now at Google Research in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Keith van Rijsbergen of the University of Glasgow, UK, realised that the mathematics they had been building into search engines was essentially the same as that of quantum theory.
[...]
"It seems to work because it corresponds more closely to the vague reasoning people often use when searching for information," says Widdows. "We often rely on hunches, and traditionally, computers are very bad at hunches. This is just where the quantum-inspired models give fresh insights."
[...]
This idea fits with the views of some psychologists, who argue that strict classical logic only plays a small part in the human mind. Cognitive psychologist Peter Gardenfors of Lund University in Sweden, for example, argues that much of our thinking operates on a largely unconscious level, where thought follows a less restrictive logic and forms loose associations between concepts.

_http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21128285.900-quantum-minds-why-we-think-like-quarks.html?page=3
[/quote]

But, the way I understand, it's not just about fuzzy logic and an association spectrum involving direct to very loose associations, it's mainly about keeping full context. IOW, a quantum thinking mode might say to the average person: "the glass is both half full AND half empty, so by making any partial statement on the matter, whose or what agenda you pushin'?" :)

Perhaps only humans, with our seemingly illogical minds, are uniquely capable of discovering and understanding quantum theory. To be human is to be quantum.
Yup, yup!
 

Iron

Dagobah Resident
FOTCM Member
It seems that the storytelling habit of old have more uses than just preserving information.

So, we cannot be navel gazers... but why? What are the negative implications of excessive introspection. I believe perhaps a inability to act due to all choices becoming with the same weight? I dont know.

The adaptative functions that deal with perception and such, I think we are talking motor center here, right?

So we cannot look inward to know ourselves directly. A great deal that is automatic would slip right pass us. Enter the network and point these things out... can those be changed now that they entered conciousness? Or is just a matter of damage control of behaviours? Im talking about those behaviours/mechanical habits that are harmfull to the work, but that you are totally unaware of.
 

SeekinTruth

Ambassador
Ambassador
FOTCM Member
Thanks for posting this Laura. Besides many other interesting things, it seems to confirm that Freud set in motion a "cascade" of events that ultimately delayed/prevented the scientific study of the mind.
 

Prodigal Son

Ambassador
Ambassador
FOTCM Member
Thank you Laura, this looks like another important book to put on the reading list. :)
Laura said:
It can thus be fruitless to try to examine the adaptive unconscious by
looking inward. It is often better to deduce the nature of our hidden
minds by looking outward at our behavior and how others react to us,
and coming up with a good narrative. In essence, we must be like biographers
of our own lives, distilling our behavior and feelings into a meaningful
and effective narrative. The best way to author a good self-story is
not necessarily to engage in a lot of navel-gazing introspection, trying to
uncover hidden feelings and motives.
Yet another endorsement of using the power of narrative writing to get closer whom we 'really are'. Certainly it is in with accordance with a means of discovering who, or what, our Chief Feature is.
 

Laura

Administrator
Administrator
Moderator
FOTCM Member
I would suggest that this book is a "must read asap". I'll select out some additional excerpts, but it really needs to be read in toto! Fascinating stuff that just sets all of Gurdjieff's ideas in a scientific framework.
 

Laura

Administrator
Administrator
Moderator
FOTCM Member
Prodigal Son said:
Yet another endorsement of using the power of narrative writing to get closer whom we 'really are'. Certainly it is in with accordance with a means of discovering who, or what, our Chief Feature is.
More than that, an endorsement of the power of a network to help us truly know ourselves.

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

Laura

Administrator
Administrator
Moderator
FOTCM Member
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

NONCONSCIOUS GOAL-SETTING


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

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

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

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

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

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

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?
 

dantem

The Living Force
FOTCM Member
Freud was such a precedent to modern psychology that you've always to confront with him in order to explain anything further on!

So a first conclusion may be that any experiment with any "mirrors" involved is beneficial, but it must be shared, or it will remain unknowable as no one can be conscious by being alone, with a brain that remains filtered no matter what you know or you're able to see. The difficult part is always that the single subject must be aware that what he's experimenting could be a lie, and never identify with it in any way.
 

Aeneas

The Living Force
FOTCM Member
This is a very refreshing breath of fresh air into the understanding of the unconscious mind. One wonders if the domination of Freud's theory was intended, so as to retard the understanding of the mind and self-knowledge. In other words Freuds theory has been a useful tool for the guardians/controllers of the human prison.

Look forward to reading the book in its entirety.
 

Rich

The Living Force
I have a copy and found it a very interesting read so far, thanks Laura.

Strangers said:
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.
This reminded me of a time nearly ten years ago where I worked in a sales-type role for a boss I never really got on with. After 6 months of me doing not a great deal productively, the boss gave me an appraisal in the form of a 3 page document he just put on my desk. There was such a disconnect between how I thought I was doing and what was written about me that it sent me into a bit of a spin. It was quite damming and critical. My reaction was as above: to blame the boss for his insensitivity, the manner in which he'd presented the information and the lack of feedback he'd given me to that point. Completely ignoring what - in retrospect- was actually pretty spot on observations of my lackadaisical attitude, inexperience and overall incompetence at that time.

I like the style of the book, well-written and engaging. Will crack on...
 

Oxajil

Ambassador
Ambassador
FOTCM Member
Re: The Adaptive Unconscious

Very interesting book! Will definitely purchase this.

Aeneas said:
This is a very refreshing breath of fresh air into the understanding of the unconscious mind. One wonders if the domination of Freud's theory was intended, so as to retard the understanding of the mind and self-knowledge. In other words Freuds theory has been a useful tool for the guardians/controllers of the human prison.
And I wonder whether the fact that this kind of info wasn't really researched or brought up much is to keep people ignorant on the different ways they can be manipulated with (i.e. by subliminal messages and other kinds of programming)? Thinking about that, living in a world that is designed by psychopaths on some level, we get literally bombarded by all kinds of signals, that may mess with our survival systems. Signals that say that having lots of money is bad. Or to turn the other cheek. And more.

Like the author wrote, our first impressions may be based on faulty information. How many mistakes could have been prevented if we would live in a society where ''signals'' would have been designed in such a way as to protect us from harm? For example, if we would have been exposed to a sign (or more signs) that clarifies the characteristics of a psychopath and unconsciously take up that information, then our gut might tell us that something isn't quite right whenever we would sense the same crucial characteristics around a psychopath. (But of course, that doesn't mean someone won't go for the ride anyway.)

However, in this world, we unconsciously take up signals about which color hat is fashionable and act on that when we are shopping. Or buy stuff we don't even need.

-

I also found the part on Mr.D. interesting. That one cannot live effectively without one's nonconscious mechanisms.
It made me think of Gurdjieff speaking that it isn't efficient when certain centers do the work of other centers. Like G. said; the moment you start to focus on looking where each letter is on your typing keyboard, the typing goes slow, but once you let your moving center to do its job, everything goes much more smoothly and fast.

Iron said:
It seems that the storytelling habit of old have more uses than just preserving information.

So, we cannot be navel gazers... but why? What are the negative implications of excessive introspection. I believe perhaps a inability to act due to all choices becoming with the same weight? I dont know.

The adaptative functions that deal with perception and such, I think we are talking motor center here, right?

So we cannot look inward to know ourselves directly. A great deal that is automatic would slip right pass us. Enter the network and point these things out... can those be changed now that they entered conciousness? Or is just a matter of damage control of behaviours? Im talking about those behaviours/mechanical habits that are harmfull to the work, but that you are totally unaware of.
If you keep this in mind: "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."

Since a lot of our actions happen unconsciously, or are based on nonconscious information (which can be false) or nonconscious associations, we can have little understanding of how our behavior affects those around us, and ourselves. So we need other people's feedback of how they think we come across, because we cannot come to that kind of information ourselves, since we think that all we do is probably based on our own sense of logic and good intentions (and also keep in mind the way we like to reason in order to 'feel good' as explained by the author). Surely, self-observation can help, but many aspects of our personality traits or habits can not come under our attention, simply because the thought may never come across that they're even existent, significant or that anything is wrong with them, in any way.

So, being in an environment, a network, such as this one, where people are honest about the way you come across, and help you move into the right direction, is very crucial. But it's a two-way effort. And I would say that self-observation becomes most effective when we know what to focus on, which can become clear from interaction in such a network.

These are just my thoughts at the moment. I'm interested to read the book in full!

One last note: I'm also reminded of one of my experiences. After reading a part of the Wave, I took a small nap. And something really strange happened. I was in a semi-wake semi-asleep state and I could see several parts of informations floating in my mind. Then connections were made in a really fast way, and I came to a conclusion that made a lot of sense. When I woke up, however, I could not remember what conclusion that was or which connections were made. Perhaps this was a look into the nonconscious mechanism of taking up and assessing information.
 
Top Bottom