6 December 2008

Discovering the adaptive unconscious

Filed under: books, motivation, unconscious — David Wood @ 3:19 pm

Like most people, I sometimes behave in ways that surprise and disappoint either myself or other people who are observing me. I’m occasionally dimly aware of strong under-currents of passion, that seem to have a life of their own. Of course I wonder to mysef, what’s going on?

The anicent Greek Delphic injunction is “know thyself”. Modern writers use the phrase “Emotional intelligence” to cover some of the same ground. As these modern writers point out, people who are manifestly unaware of their own emotions are unlikely to be promoted to positions of major responsibility within modern corporations or organisations.

Timothy Wilson’s fascinating 2002 book “Strangers to ourselves – discovering the adaptive unconscious” takes a slightly different tack. Reading this book recently, I quickly warmed to its theme that – as implied in its title – our attempts to perceive and understand our own motivations can be a lot more difficult or counter-productive than we expect.

Through many examples, the book makes a convincing case that, in addition to our conscious mind, we have a powerful, thoughtful, intelligent, feelingful “adaptive unconscious” that frequently operates outside the knowledge of the conscious mind. It can be just as inaccessible to introspection by the conscious mind as is the operation of our digestive system. Because it is inaccessible, we can often be misled about why we do things (subsequently “fabricating” reasons to explain our behaviour, without realising that we are deceiving ourselves in the process). We can also be seriously misled about what we’re feeling, and about what will make us happy.

This adaptive unconscious can often be at odds with our conscious mind:

  • Experiments described in the book show how people, who in their conscious mind are sincerely unprejudiced against (eg) people of other races, can harbour latent prejudices that result in significant discrimation against certain job applicants.
  • These unnoticed prejudices can even have fatal effects – if, for example, policemen have to react super-quickly to a potentially life-threatening situation, and mistakenly infer that (say) a black person is reaching for a gun in his pocket.

Of course, psychologists such as Freud have written widely on this general topic already. But the great merit of this book is that it provides a very balanced and thoughtful review of experimentation and analysis that has taken place throughout the 20th century into the unconscious mind. It puts Freud’s ideas into a fuller context. For example, it shows the limitations of the idea that it is “repression” that keeps the activities of the unconscious mind hidden from conscious reflection. Repression is indeed one factor, but it’s by no means the only one.

This book contains lots of thought-provoking examples about people’s attempts to understand the well-springs of what motivates them. Here’s one, from near the end of the book:

“When Sarah met Peter at a party, she did not think she liked him very much; in many ways he was not her type. However, afterwards, she found herself thinking about him a lot, and when Peter telephoned and asked her out for a date, she said yes. Now that she has agreed to the date, she discovers that she likes him more than she knew. This looks like an example of self-perception as self-revelation, because Sarah uses her behaviour to bring to light a prior feeling of which she was unaware, until she agreed to go our with Peter…

“But another possibility is that Sarah really did not like Peter at all when she first met him. She felt obligated to go out with him because he is the son of her mother’s best friend, and her mother thought they would be a good match. Sarah does not fully realise this is the reason she said yes, and she mistakenly thinks. ‘Hm, I guess I like Peter more than I thought I did, if I agreed to go out with him.’ This would be an example of self-fabrication: Sarah misses the real reason for her behaviour…

“The difference between self-revelation and self-fabrication is crucial from the point of view of gaining self-knowledge. Inferring our internal states from our behaviour can be a good strategy if it reveals feelings of which we were previously unaware. It is not such a good strategy if it results in the fabrication of new feelings.”

Another issue with gaining greater self-knowledge is that it can damage our self-confidence. The author argues that it can sometimes be beneficial to us to have a slightly inflated view about our talents. That way, we gain the energy to go about difficult tasks. (However, if the discrepancy between our own view and the reality is too great, that’s another matter.)

The book concludes by urging that we follow another piece of advice from ancient times. He quotes Aristotle approvingly: “We acquire [virtues] by first having put them into action… we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlling by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage”. In short, “do good, to be good”.

He goes on to say, “If we are dissatisfied with some aspect of our lives, one of the best approaches is to act more like the person we want to be, rather than sitting around analyzing ourselves.”

The book has struck a real chord with me, but it leaves many questions in my mind. Next on my reading list on this same general field is “The Happiness Hypothesis: finding modern truth in ancient wisdom” by Jonathan Haidt.

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