Synopsis: Strangers to Ourselves, Part I

by F.

What follows is my synopsis of Chapters 1-4 of Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. The rest to come later (most likely tomorrow).

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

Why do we not know ourselves very well? And, more importantly, what can we do about it? The unconscious was Freud’s greatest insight. After a period in which the notion of the unconscious was considered unscientific it is coming back into use. However, the conception of the unconscious now being used is different from the Freudian conception. Interestingly, this new conception of the unconscious was anticipated by pre-Freudian scientists and philosophes.

Descarte equated thinking with conscious thinking, but there were others—Liebnitz, Pascal, Schelling, Herbart, William Hamilton, Thomas Laycock, and William Carpenter—who starting developing a theory of the adaptive unconscious. Their insights included the following: lower-order mental processes occur outside of awareness; attention can be divided; thinking can be automatic; we have unconscious prejudices; we can be wrong about our own feelings; and there may be an unconscious self.

Freud thought that the unconscious could be accessed directly through introspection. But it may be better to deduce how we feel by looking at how we act and how others think we feel. Further, introspection can lead us to do the wrong things because it yields inaccurate information.

Chapter 2: The Adaptive Unconscious

We have a sense of what consciousness feels likes. In contrast, we don’t have the same sense about the adaptive unconscious. However, people can lose certain unconscious abilities and this gives us a senes of what it is like not to have an unconscious. And it’s not pretty.

We can define the adaptive unconscious as “mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgments, feelings, or behaviors.” Our senses at any one time are taking in 11,000,000 pieces of information: this is the number of receptor cells in each sense organ and the nerves that go to the brain. Our eyes receive 10,000,000 signals a second. We can consciously process only about 40 pieces of information per second, which suggests something is processing the rest of the date. So, what does the adaptive unconscious do with the data?

For one thing, we know we can learn unconsciously. Explicit learning is effortful while implicit learning isn’t and is an important feature of the adaptive unconscious. Further, we filter out information unconsciously. But the unconscious is still paying attention and can notify us when something we need to think about happens. In addition, the unconscious can interpret a situation without conscious awareness. It is also a spin doctor, as can be seen from tests in which certain words were flashed in front of subjects too fast for them to be aware of it. The flashed words are not noticed consciously but they influence construals of a following stimulus. Also, the adaptive unconscious generates gut feelings that can—and should—guide judgments and decisions. You can have nonconscious goals, and they may conflict with conscious goals that may be better for you.

But how does the adaptive unconscious decide what to select, how to interpret, and which goals to pursue? One factor is accessibility, which is a product of (a) recency and (b) frequency of use. Also, the adaptive unconscious selects based on what maintains a state of well-being: this constitutes the “psychological immune system.” Self-deception can be helpful as well as harmful.

Loss of the adaptive unconscious would be debilitating. But this does not mean that the adaptive unconscious cannot be improved or it produces error-free judgments. Many heuristics can have bad consequences.

Chapter 3: Who’s in Charge?

We consider goal setting, interpretation, and evaluation to be the proper work of the conscious mind, but the unconscious does these things as well. The adaptive unconscious is probably older than the conscious mind. The newer, conscious mind sometimes creates the illusion of control: will is sometimes an illusion. Consciousness, to use an analogy, is like Ronald Reagan: it appears to be the executive, but in fact does not have the amount of control we assume it does.

So what are the specific difference between the two systems? The adaptive unconscious has multiple systems; is more like an on-line pattern detector; is concerned with the here-and-now; is automatic (fast, unintentional, uncontrollable, effortless); is rigid; is precocious; and is sensitive to negative information. In contrast, consciousness is a single system; is a post-facto fact checker and balancer; takes the long view; is controlled (slow, intentional, controllable, effortful); is flexible; is slower to develop; and is sensitive to positive information.

The systems often work harmoniously together, but not always. An example where both systems come into play: you see a “snake.” You perform an initial crude analysis (“FUCK! Snake!”) followed by a more detailed, conscious analysis (“Oh. It was just a stick.”) However, the systems can also work at cross-purposes. For instance, the conscious mind plans for the future. But those plans can lead to results which we end up unhappy with. To avoid this, we should recognize our non-conscious needs and traits and factor them in when planning. Also, automatic thinking is fast; non-conscious; unintentional; uncontrollable; and effortless. But this can lead us to false conclusions, such as in stereotyping. Finally, the adaptive unconscious is rigid: we bend information to fit out preconceptions. We can draw the wrong conclusions, for instance, from a too-small a sample. We can make our expectations come true.

The two systems can learn at different rates as well. According to the discounting principle, we lower our estimate of the causal role of one factor to the extent that other plausible causes are present. The discounting principle is at work before children can recognize and use it on others consciously. An example of the discounting principle: we do a puzzle for money (cause) so we conclude that our intrinsic interest (another cause) was lower. This may be because the adaptive unconscious learns the discounting principle before the conscious mind does. This use of the discounting principle persists into adulthood, by the way. Also, children get a Theory of Mind unconsciously earlier than their conscious, verbal reports show, around 3 versus 4. It is possible that the adaptive unconscious acts as a sentry for negative information.

The adaptive unconscious is neither smart nor dumb. It depends on the task. And there is no grand design that allocates tasks between one system and the other. Natural selection operates on the current state of an organism, such that new systems evolve out of old ones.

Chapter 4: Knowing Who We Are

Our lack of self-knowledge may be explained by the fact that we don’t have direct access to the UA. The “self” is partly inaccessible. There are numerous views of “personality,” though the dominant approach today is the “trait model.” The trait model is used in genetic studies of heritability of traits and genetic factors are thought to account for 20-50% of variance in personality traits. However, even the trait model doesn’t predict behavior very well because the social situation greatly influences behavior. One researcher, Mischel, suggests that personality is more like a set of unique cognitive and affective variables that determine how people construe a situation. Mischel’s theory is probably describing the adaptive unconscious, at least in part.

Accordingly, we have two personalities: the adaptive unconscious and the conscious self. Each meets Allport’s definition of a theory of personality: a person’s “characteristic behavior and thought.” The conscious mind—the constructed self—comprises life stories, possible selves, explicit motives, self-theories, and beliefs about the reasons for one’s feelings. These two personalities or selves appear independent. But what is the adaptive unconscious like?

It appears to have a number of rules according to which it makes judgments. Mischel describes 5 components that guide behavior: encodings (people’s construals of themselves, others, and situations); expectancies about themselves and the social world; affect and emotions; goals and values; and competencies and self-regulatory plans. These rules are, according to Mischel, “if-then” rules. We find that it is more accurate to watch people and deduce their “if-then” rules than to ask them, which suggests they reside in the adaptive unconscious. We discover the subject’s “behavioral signature,” but not by asking.

The adaptive unconscious can get stuck scanning the same thing. For instance, accessibility of a category or construct influences our construals, and this happens unconsciously. For instance, one person may have “honesty” chronically accessible and notice the presence or absence of it in whoever she meets.

The phenomenon of “transference” can be explained by the adaptive unconscious: we have representations of relationships (e.g., with mother) that are self-relevant and frequently used that become chronically accessible and used to evaluate new people we meet.

There are two primary ways to measure attachment style: self-report and the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI). They do not correlate very well. Why? One explanation may be that the self-report describes people’s conscious conception of a current attachment (e.g., spouse). The AAI might describe the patterns in the adaptive unconscious.

Attachment styles are classified as (1) secure, (2) avoidant, (3) anxious/ambivilant, or (4) disorganized. An infant with a secure style are distressed when the parent leaves and seek comfort when the parent returns. They have parents who are sensitive and responsive to their needs. An infant with an avoidant style shows little distress when the parent leaves and does not seek comfort when they return. They have parents who have rebuffed their attempts to be intimate. Infants with anxious/ambivalent styles fear others will not reciprocate their desire for intimacy and are pre-occupied with their parent’s availability in the lab. They have parents who alternate between unresponsiveness and excess affection. An infant with a disorganized style shows contradictory reactions, such as crying when the parent leaves and then ignoring the parent when they return. These infants may have parents who are depressed or neglectful.

It appears we can have duel motives and goals. Personality psychology traditionally focuses on three basic goals most people have: affiliation, achievement, and power. Again, there are two ways to measure people’s goals and they don’t correlate: self-report and the Thematic Apperception Test. The self-report assesses self-attributed motives, while the TAT assess implicit motives, it seems.

We appear not to see ourselves as others see us. Other than extraversion, our own ratings of our personality and others’ do not correlate very well. Peer reports seem to better predict behavior than self-reports do. Why? Here are a couple reasons: we believe we are holier-than-thou; and we have different information—our “inside information,” which is not the full story and makes us overlook situational constraints. These self-reports may be more accurate than other-reports concerning conscious, monitored behavior, while the others may be more accurate about unconscious behavior.

Some parts of our self-concept reside in the adaptive unconscious, others in the conscious mind. The consciously described self may not correspond to the dispositions and motives of the adaptive unconscious. Rather, it may correspond to our conscious theories and constructions, which may have some causal role in our lives, but may nevertheless be partly wrong.

Nonconscious motives seem to come from early infant experiences as well as genetic endowment. Explicit, conscious motives result from explicit parental teaching. David McClelland et al. found that use of scheduled infant feedings correlated with implicit but not explicit need for achievement, and non-responsiveness of mothers to infant crying correlated with implicit but not explicit need for affiliation. And, on the other hand, teaching not to fight back correlated with explicit but not implicit need for affiliation, and children of parents who set explicit tasks were more likely to have explicit but not implicit need for achievement.

Since our self-insight is often faulty, why don’t we correct it? Because we prefer to see ourselves in a good light and our theory can be difficult to disconfirm. But there is evidence that having an adaptive unconscious and a conscious mind in harmony causes greater well being than having them in disharmony.

The next three chapters are summarized here.