+ Why Did I DO That?! — The Subconscious Mind In Charge

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Psychologists at Yale altered people’s judgements of a stranger by handing them a cup of coffee.

College students, on their way to a lab to participate in a study, “bumped into” a lab assistant who was holding texbooks, a clipboard, papers and a cup of hot (or iced) coffee.  The lab assistant asked the students for a hand with the cup.

Students who had held a cup of iced coffee rated a hypothetical person they later read about as being much colder, less social and more selfish than did their fellow students, who had momentarily held a cup of hot liquid.

Although it seems improbable, studies such as this one are sending the message that the subconsious mind is “primed” in subtle ways we had never imagined.  People tidy up more thoroughly when there’s a faint tang of cleaning liquid in the air.  They become more competitive if there’s a briefcase in sight, more cooperative if they glimpse words like “dependable” and “support”. 

These studies demonstrate how everyday sights, smells and sounds can selectively activate goals or motives that people already have.

The new studies reveal a subconscious brain that is far more active, purposeful and independent than previously known, according to an article by Benedict Carey in the Science section of the NY Times.  Goals such as whether to eat or mate or order a latte are like neural software programs that can only be run one at a time.  The unconscious can — and will — run the one it chooses.

Have you ever wondered how you can be generous one moment, and petty the next?  Or behave rudely when you think you’re being polite?

“When it comes to our behavior from moment to moment, the big question is, ‘What to do next?'” said John A. Bargh, professor of psychology at Yale and co-author of the coffee study, which was presented at a recent psychology conference. 

“Well, we’re finding that we have these unconscious behavioral guidance systems that are continually furnishing suggestions through the day about what to do next, and the brain is considering and often acting on those, all before consious awareness.” 

He adds, “Sometimes those goals are in line with our conscious intentions and purposes, and sometimes they’re not.”

Psychological “Hot-Wiring”

Researchers who build these studies sometimes call  their method  psychological hot-wiring.  In a study at Stanford, participants played an investment game with an unseen opponent.  When there was a briefcase and a black leather portfolio at the end of the table, participants were far more cutthroat than when there was a backpack on the table.

In a Dutch experiment, undergraduates filled out a questionnaire while sitting in a cubicle with a pail of water in which there was a splash of citrus-scented cleaning fluid.  After a snack, these students covertly cleared away crumbs three time more often than a comparison group where there was no such scent.

Hank Aarts, a psychologist at Utrecht University and senior author of this study said, “That is a very big effect, and they really had no idea they were doing it.”

The brain appears to use the very same neural circuits to execute an unconscious act as it does a conscious one. These circuits are located in what used to be called the reptilian brain, well below the conscious areas of the brain.

Studies suggest a “bottom-up” decision-making process, in which the ventral pallidium is part of a circuit that first weighs the reward and decides, and then interacts with the higher-level, conscious regions later, says Dr. Chris Frith, professor of neuropsychology at University College, London, and author of “Making Up the Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World.”

Scientists have not yet pinpointed the exact neural regions that support conscious awareness, but there’s little doubt it involves the prefrontal cortex, the thin outer layer of tissue behind the forehead.  Experiments show that it can be the last neural area to know when a decision is made.

From an evolutionary perspective, the bottom-up order makes sense: the subcortical areas of the brain evolved first and would have had to help individuals fight, flee and scavenge well before the conscious “human” layers were added later.  Dr Bargh argues that in this sense, unconscious goals can be seen as open-ended, adaptive agents acting on behalf of the broad, genetically encoded aims.  They are automatic survival systems.

And there is more: several studies have shown that once covertly activated, an unconsious goal persists with the same determination as one we consiously pursue.  When study participants were primed to be cooperative, they were assiduous in their teamwork, helping others and sharing resources for the duration of games that lasted 20 minutes or longer.

Mark Schaller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver says, “Sometimes nonconscious effects can be bigger in sheer magnitude than conscious ones, because we can’t moderate stuff we don’t have conscious access to, and the goal stays active.”

Researchers do not yet know how or when exactly unconscious drives may suddenly become conscious, or under which circumstances people are able to override hidden urges by force of will.  But at least we now know that, sometimes, our unconscious instincts can make us helpful and attentive to others!

sole source: article in Science Times (NYTimes) on 7/31/07 by Benedict Carey.

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