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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 on this:

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 and cuddly.)

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.


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