Your Quick Thinking Subconscious Mind
The Good and the Bad
You may not know that you're a fast thinker, but on a level
below consciousness we all are. The research has shown this in
many ways over the years, but now we are discovering that our
quick thinking subconscious minds can also be pretty accurate
in certain contexts. Consider this excerpt from the book "Blink,"
by Malcolm Gladwell:
Whenever we meet someone for the first time, whenever we
interview someone for a job, whenever we react to a new idea,
whenever we're faced with making a decision quickly and under
stress, we use that second part of our brain [the adaptive unconscious].
How long, for example, did it take you, when you were in college,
to decide how good a teacher your professor was? A class? Two
classes? A semester? The psychologist Nalini Ambady once gave
students three ten-second videotapes of a teacher with
the sound turned off and found they had no difficulty
at all coming up with a rating of the teacher's effectiveness.
Then Ambady cut the clips back to five seconds, and the ratings
were the same. They were remarkably consistent even when she
showed the students just two seconds of videotape.
Then Ambady compared those snap judgments of teacher effectiveness
with evaluations of those same professors made by their students
after a full semester of classes, and she found that they were
also essentially the same. A person watching a silent two-second
video clip of a teacher he or she has never met will reach conclusions
about how good that teacher is that are very similar to those
of a student who has sat in the teacher's class for an entire
semester. That's the power of our adaptive unconscious.
What Gladwell refers to here as the "adaptive unconscious,"
is also called "the hidden brain" in a book by that
name by Shankar Vedantam. Some would simply call it intuition.
Whatever you call it though, it makes you a fast thinker on some
level. But is this sub-conscious process always as accurate as
implied by this example? Definitely not. That was perhaps the
only real complaint I had with "Blink." Gladwell tended
to give the impression that we are really good at this unconscious
thought process. The fact that it functions so quickly and is
often accurate is amazing, but errors are made all the
time. I have pointed out many of these in previous posts.
The lesson may be to use the fast thinker inside you, but
tame it and override it when necessary with a more leisurely
and conscious thought process.
With that in mind let's look at some of those quick thinking
processes going at a subconscious level--the ones that direct
our thoughts in non-rational ways (though thee are not always
irrational ways). To what extent these hidden biases affect
our thinking and decision making is being explored , but that
they do affect us is certain. The evidence is found in hundreds
of studies. Take, for example, the facial recognition bias. In
his book, "The Hidden Brain," Shankar Vedantam reports
Researchers once found that people shown a Lexus whose
front grille was turned up in the shape of a smile (with the
headlights serving as eyes) liked the car better than when the
ends of the grille were turned down in the shape of a frown.
As usual, volunteers in the study were not aware that a subtle
face recognition bias had influenced their judgment. Many people
also show strong, automatic, and unthinking preferences for animals
that have humanlike features. Beluga whales and dolphins, with
their smooth heads, cherubic eyes, and mouths shaped in humanlike
smiles, are more appealing to us than sea lampreys and octopi.
Two dark splotches of fur cause giant pandas to look like they
have large eyes, and the hidden brain associates large eyes with
babies. It is not surprising that the panda has become a global
symbol for conservation. (Zoos have to take great care to keep
pandas, which can be dangerous, away from people--because the
hidden brains of zoo visitors tell them that pandas are cute
Vedantam gives more examples of facial recognition bias. Throughout
his book he also gives good examples of many other biases caused
by things going on just below the surface of our conscious minds.
How do we use this knowledge? On a personal level it is a
reminder to watch for biases that may be affecting our decisions.
Once we become familiar with many of the common biases we can
to some extent "override" them with more conscious
and rational thought. (Although knowing of a bias may not prevent
us from using logic to justify the conclusions it suggests--we
are all experts at rationalization.)
As a matter of legislation and public safety we would want
to identify and exclude hidden biases from affecting policy-making.
For example, we tend to worry much more about shark attacks,
when in reality falling coconuts kill more people every year.
More than any other tools, it seems that proper use of mathematics
and statistics will save us from the misleading ideas bubbling
up so quickly from our unconscious minds.