Synopsis: Strangers to Ourselves , Part II

by F.

What follows is my synopsis of Chapters 5-7 of Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious. The rest to come later (most likely tomorrow). The first four chapters are summarized here.

5. Knowing Why

There are many examples of patients who, because of brain injury or posthypnotic suggestion, confabulate reasons for their actions. Even those of us without such injuries may do the same thing more than we realize.

Take the example of baby names. Often we think we chose a name for its originality but the real explanation may be that it is circulating widely, with the result that, looking back in a few years, we will see that the name was one of the most common for babies born in that year. Social situations can shape behavior but often we don’t take this into account in “explaining” why we did something. Even personality is not the only explanation for our behavior. Take the famous Capilano Bridge experiment, in which subjects on a dangerous bridge who met a woman ascribed their arousal to the wrong cause: the woman with whom they were talking, not the bridge’s danger.

We are often wrong about why we do something and even about how we felt. Wilson and Nisbett had people pick their favorite pair of panty hose from four pairs. The pantyhose were identical. Yet, the subjects picked one as best. Further, the subjects were able to “explain” why they had picked the “best,” they would typically point to some attribute such as sheerness, even though the selected pair of hose was no more sheer than the others. In another experiment, they showed subjects a film while an annoying noise was playing (a saw). The students didn’t enjoy the film any less than controls until reminded that they had been watching the film while the saw was running. After thinking about it, they said they enjoyed the film less.

Can the adaptive unconscious cause conscious thought that then seems to be the explanation for our choice? Probably. A conscious thought could have been primed unconsciously by something scene earlier—for instance, see a fat person makes you order the salad at lunch. Also, research by Wegner and Wheatley has shown that conscious will can be an illusion, showing that we can think something was conscious when it wasn’t.

Our explanations of our own behavior are often no more accurate than those of a complete stranger who lives in our culture. We generally use four general types of information: shared causal theories such as “absence makes the heart grow fonder”; observing covariation between a response and a prior condition, such as eating shrimp and getting a rash; idiosyncratic theories, such as “I don’t like parties with clowns”; and private knowledge, such as thoughts, feelings, and memories. This sort of information seems like it would be really useful, but it’s often not accurate and we may have so much privileged information that it obscures a more mundane—but true—explanation. Accordingly, since people are not very good at explaining their moods and strangers are often better. Therefore, we should be humble about our causal judgments of our moods.

We don’t realize that we are merely conjecturing about ourselves because we want to feel in control of our lives; we have a lot of inside information, so it seems like it must be useful, but having more information does not always lead to accurate judgments. And we have more information about some of our judgments than others. So, even though our self-knowledge feels authentic, it often isn’t.

6. Knowing How We Feel

We may not know what we like and may have unconscious feelings leading to the possibility that we may be wrong about how we feel unconsciously. Philosophical tradition couldn’t countenance this. For instance, Wittgenstein and Descartes thought reports of sensations and feelings were incorrigible. They were wrong and the persistence of the incorrigibility notion can be explained by two problems.

The first, the measurement problem, is that even if people can be wrong about their feelings, they have no way to test this: they have no other means with which to correct their self-reports. But this problem can be overcome. First, this is not a very good argument for trusting the veracity of self-reports. Second, there is often evidence that we should discount a self-report, e.g., when our spouse says we are acting jealous, or when we look back and see that we were wrong about our own motives. Third, the tools to measure accuracy of self-reports are getting better.

The second, the theory problem, is this: why on earth would humans be built this way? This problem, too, can be overcome. First, just because human beings have a feature doesn’t mean it has a purpose. Second, there are a couple of good reasons why unconscious feelings could be adaptive: consciousness of the feeling might provoke anxiety or other discomforting states such that the feelings is dealt with unconsciously; and emotions can be fully functional without being conscious.

According to LeDoux, a “low-road” danger detection system creates unconscious feelings of threatening objects, yet we also have a “high-road” system for evaluating the danger. But LeDoux’s theory has some problems, namely it has only been tested using “fear,” the adaptive unconscious and the consciousare both “high-road” processes; and LeDoux’s theory doesn’t allow simultaneous but different feelings. For instance, the adaptive unconscious can feel one thing and the conscious mind another. Our conscious feelings often get in the way of knowing how the adaptive unconscious feels, it seems.

People can change their attitudes without being able to self-report the change. For instance, in one study, subjects were given epinephrine without knowing it and then shown a funny movie. They laughed more than controls. But when asked how funny the film was, the subjects and the control said the same thing (for instance, “not that funny,”) even though the controls had laughed less. The subjects based their verbal responses on their personal theories about whether they liked that kind of film (e.g., slapstick). Another example: people can be prejudiced and not know it: they act prejudiced, but are well-intentioned. It may be more useful to observe how one acts than introspecting about one’s feelings.

Even though consciousness of feelings may be a default, feelings can fail to reach consciousness. This can can happen due to repressing a threatening feeling; inattention; and conscious theories or confabulations. An extreme case is alexithymia, where people feel things but can’t describe them (e.g., crying “just makes my body feel better.”) But we are all alexithemic to a degree.

7. Knowing How We Will Feel

In order to be happy in the future, we have to make affective forecasts. But when we make these forecasts, we are affected by the durability bias: we overestimate the duration of reactions to future emotional events. Further, our affective forecasts are often wrong. Most people think winning the lottery would make them happy, but studies of winners find them fairly miserable. And we think that major setbacks such as the death of a spouse will cripple us forever. But it usually doesn’t. We bounce back. We are more resilient than we know.

Partly happiness is heritable. But the phenomenon to be explained is why people return to their reference level so fast. One possibility is having a goal toward which to work, which allows you to be in flow. And if you don’t achieve the goal, it’s typically not that big of a deal after a while, even if it’s a big-time life goal like getting tenure. As long as you have something toward which to work, you recover pretty fast. Another possibility is that we use comparison points to judge our pleasure and pain. A change in comparison points changes our emotional experiences.

We have a kind of emotional allostasis mechanism that keeps us from experiencing extremes of prolonged positive or negative emotional states. There is no single, ideal level of happiness, however, to which the brain returns. There are both physiological processes such as the opponent process and deliberative behavioral strategies that moderate both positive and negative emotions.

We “ordinize” major positive and negative life events, transforming them in a way that robs them of their emotional power. In order to do this, we explain these life events and try to make sense of novel ones. But this “sense-making” robs these events of their hedonic power, too. One way we make sense is by viewing a novel event post-facto as predictable and inevitable. This is the hindsight bias.

Our brain works harder to minimize the impact of negative occurrences than positive ones. So, in addition to the general “ordinization” process, we also have a sort of “psychological immune system” that allows us to select, interpret, and evaluate information in ways that preserves our self-esteem. It operates largely outside our awareness. If someone says something mean, we think they are joking. When someone turns down a date, we conclude they weren’t right for us. When a journal turns down our article, we believe the editors have poor judgment. We don’t realize how resilient we are in part because our psychological immune system is operating outside conscious awareness.

Another reason we don’t know how resilient we are is the focalism bias, which is the tendency to think of a future negative event in a vacuum, without imagining all the other parts of our future life. The durability bias can be reduced by instructing subjects to fill out their imagined future—imagine the bad event but also the good stuff that will most likely be there, too.

So, we don’t realize how resilient we are after a bad event because we fail to take into account other events that will offset the bad one; and we don’t take into account ordination of bad events.

The next three chapters are summarized here.