Friday, July 22, 2016
The Conscious Unconscious
The following material is Chapter 13 from the recently released book: Final Jeopardy: Religion and the Reality Problem.
Nearly twenty years ago (1997), the results of an experiment conducted by a group of scientists, led by Antonio Damasio, that took place at the University of Iowa were published in the journal, Science. The title of the article was: ‘Deciding Advantageously Before Knowing the Advantageous Strategy.’
The experiment involved four decks of cards. Two of the decks had cards that were blue in color, while the remaining two decks contained red colored cards.
Each of the individual cards from the colored decks had a value. More specifically, any given card indicated that one either had won some money or one had lost some money.
Participants in the experiment were asked to select cards from any of the four decks and turn them over one at a time. The subjects were tasked with developing a strategy concerning the decks of card that would permit a subject to maximize winnings.
Unknown to the subjects, there was a considerable difference in the values of the cards within the four decks. Cards in the red decks sometimes offered higher rewards than cards in the blue decks did, but some red cards also brought greater losses than some of the blue cards did.
The best strategy for maximizing winnings involved consistently choosing from the two blue decks. Despite small losses here and there, the blue cards provided a means to steadily increase the amount of winnings, while drawing cards from the red decks would, in time, lead to substantial losses.
The experimenters wanted to determine how long it would take for subjects to realize that selecting blue cards was the better long-term winning strategy. The experiment entailed some interesting results.
In the first phase of the experiment, the researchers discovered that after turning over approximately 50 cards from the four decks most subjects were able to develop a correct hunch concerning the nature of the best strategy to pursue. However, subjects were often inarticulate at that point about why selecting cards from the blue decks tended to be more advantageous than selecting cards from the red decks was.
Subjects didn’t seem to arrive at a clear understanding of the experimental situation -- and, therefore, become able to articulate the nature of that understanding -- until quite a few cards beyond the initial 50 had been turned over. The transition point between hunch and clear understanding took place when approximately 80 cards had been selected and turned over.
The researchers then carried out a second group of trials. During this part of the study, subjects were hooked up to sensors that were capable of measuring changes in the activity of sweat glands that were located just beneath the surface in the palms of the subjects’ hands.
The aforementioned sweat glands responded to changes in temperature as well as to shifts in levels of stress experienced by an individual. The Iowa researchers wanted to see if those measurements revealed anything of interest concerning their card experiment.
The researchers discovered that subjects began to display a stress response in relation to the red cards after turning over approximately just ten cards. In the earlier phase of the study, subjects didn’t begin to develop a hunch concerning the idea that the best strategy involved choosing blue cards rather than red cards until they had turned over roughly 50 cards, but in this new phase of the experiment, the sweat glands of the subjects were providing data that indicated something within the subjects seemed to know five times more quickly (i.e., forty cards sooner than had been demonstrated during the previous phase of the experiment) that red cards were associated with greater risk than the blue cards were.
The increased activity of the sweat glands was accompanied by changes in the behavior of the subjects. In other words, beginning around the tenth card, the subjects subsequently became more inclined toward favoring a selection of cards from the blue decks while also becoming more hesitant with respect to selecting cards from the red decks.
According to Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink (as well as The Tipping Point), the foregoing Iowa experiment demonstrates that there are two kinds of processes that occur within the brains of human beings. One of those two systems of information processing involves consciously reflecting on what is learned and working out a logical analysis concerning any patterns that are perceived to be present in the data one has encountered, while the other system of information processing takes place in an unconscious manner.
The conscious method of information processing often seems to require the accumulation of considerable data before relevant conclusions can be generated, and, consequently, it is a relatively slow process. The unconscious method of information processing requires less information and, therefore, tends to occur much more quickly than does the conscious method of processing data.
For example, in the case of card experiment that took place at the University of Iowa, the first phase of that experiment determined that subjects began to develop a hunch concerning the risky nature of the red cards around the time that 50 cards had been turned over, but subjects did not have a fully articulated understanding concerning card selection strategy until some 80 cards had been turned over. According to Gladwell, the foregoing set of circumstances illustrates the conscious way of reasoning about what one is learning, and this takes time as well as exposure to a fair amount of information in order for a person to be able to successfully resolve the four deck, two-color, multiple-valued card problem.
However, the second phase of the Iowa card experiment (involving measurements of sweat gland activity) demonstrated that ‘something’ within the participating subjects – referred to as the unconscious -- was aware that red cards seemed to be more risky than blue cards were as far as maximizing one’s winnings was concerned. Moreover, this allegedly unconscious ‘something’ was able to understand – at least to a degree – more quickly and with less information than was the case for the allegedly conscious way of devising a strategy concerning the cards.
For the time being, let’s put aside the idea that Malcolm Gladwell believes that both of the foregoing methods for developing a strategy concerning the decks of cards are generated by the brain. After all, at the present time, neither Malcolm Gladwell nor anyone else is capable of showing how the brain accomplishes what he claims it does (and I acknowledge the possibility that this state of ignorance could change in the future), and, therefore, one can’t be sure at this point that the brain actually is responsible for generating the awareness, intelligence, reason, memory, and so on that are necessary for coming to an understanding about how to maximize one’s winnings in the four deck experiment.
Irrespective of what is making consciousness, intelligence, memory, reasoning, and insight possible, Gladwell’s manner of describing the significance of the University of Iowa card experiment is problematic in another way as well. More specifically, he is referring to a mode of processing information that is quicker than the so-called conscious way of arriving at a strategy and, in addition, he is referring to a method of processing information that appears to require less information in order for a correct conclusion to be drawn than is required by the ‘conscious’ modality of processing information, and, yet, Gladwell refers to the quicker method as being unconscious in nature.
While it might be true that the so-called conscious method of processing information is not aware of how the other, quicker method of processing information accomplishes what it does, the ignorance of normal, waking consciousness concerning those matters does not mean that the quicker and less data-dependent method of reaching conclusions gives expression to an unconscious process. That which permits a human being to detect a difference in the risk value associated with red and blue cards five times more quickly than one can achieve through a so-called conscious method -- and do so despite being exposed to far less information -- is not an unconscious process in any way except from the degree of ignorance that is present in normal, waking consciousness.
The quicker, less data-dependent method of processing information exhibits the presence of awareness with respect to the color and values of the card. If the so-called ‘unconscious’ were not aware of the colors and values of the cards, then, it could not arrive at any conclusions concerning which strategy to pursue in order to maximize one’s winnings.
Furthermore, the so-called unconscious modality of processing information appears to indicate that there are qualities of reasoning, insight, logic, memory, and understanding that are engaging the experimental task. After all, if the foregoing qualities were not present, then, the ‘unconscious’ would not be able to come up with a successful strategy as quickly as it does and substantially prior to what occurs in normal, waking consciousness.
Normal waking consciousness is, at best, only dimly aware of what is taking place in the “conscious unconscious.” For instance, when approximately 50 cards had been turned over by subjects during the first phase of the Iowa card experiment, the conscious mind had a sense or hunch that red cards were riskier than blue cards.
The foregoing hunch, sense, or intuition is the result of a seemingly lethargic and delayed process through which a subject becomes aware of the understanding or insight that had been generated 40 cards earlier by the “conscious unconscious.” No one knows why it takes so long for normal, waking consciousness to become aware of what transpired 40 cards earlier in the “conscious unconscious” mind, and no one knows – at least at the present time – how normal waking consciousness becomes aware of the results that have been generated through the “conscious unconscious”.
However, the fact of the matter is that we also don’t know what transpires in the Iowa card subjects between the 50 and 80-card mark. At around the 50-card mark, subjects have a hunch or sense concerning how to proceed with respect to the four decks of cards, and at around the 80-card mark, they are capable of articulating the strategy, but how the transition in understanding came about between the 50 and 80-card junctures is unknown.
Is Malcolm Gladwell correct when he claims that two modes of information processing are taking place in subjects who are participating in the Iowa card experiment? Or, could it be the case that there is only one mode of information processing taking place but that more and more of the results of the “conscious unconscious” mode of processing information are seeping into normal waking consciousness and, as a result, the conscious mind is developing – over time -- a better sense of what the “conscious unconscious” already knows and understands?
In other words, perhaps the “conscious unconscious” is merely providing normal, waking consciousness with an understanding concerning the four decks of two-color and multiple value cards, and this transfer of understanding takes time. If this is the case, it still leaves unexplained how normal, waking consciousness becomes aware of and understands what is transpiring in the “conscious unconscious”.
Irrespective of how this latter realization comes about, it does not necessarily involve a separate instance of information processing that is taking place in normal, waking consciousness. That is, normal, waking consciousness does not necessarily undergo a separate, additional instance of information processing in which it takes the results of the “conscious unconscious” as data and subjects that data to an array of analytical, logical, and reflective processes which produces an understanding that reflects or confirms what already had been generated through the “conscious unconscious” mode of information processing.
Furthermore, even if the foregoing possibility concerning an additional mode of information processing taking place in normal, waking consciousness were the case, nonetheless, that mode of information processing would still be taking place beyond the parameters of awareness with respect to normal waking consciousness. When reflection, critical analysis, or questioning of some kind occurs in a context of normal, waking consciousness, we never really witness the actual nature of the processes involving: Reflection, critical analysis, or questioning, but, instead, we only see the results of those processes as they bubble to the surface within normal, waking consciousness.
Consequently, even if two modes of information processing were taking place, nevertheless, at the present time, we really don’t know how either of those processes takes place. Whether things are occurring on a so-called unconscious level or on the level of normal, waking consciousness, we really don’t know how: Awareness, intelligence, memory, reasoning, reflection, analysis, insight, learning, or understanding work.
The only thing that seems to be exhibiting a degree of unconsciousness is normal waking consciousness with respect to what is transpiring in the ”conscious unconscious”. Normal waking consciousness is aware of its own contents, but it is unaware of how those contents come to have phenomenological status or how one comes to understand the significance, meaning, value, or potential of those contents.
In light of the foregoing considerations, the idea that the unconscious constitutes a realm that is lacking in awareness seems problematic. As the Iowa card experiment tends to demonstrate, the “conscious unconscious” is alive with awareness, intelligence, insight, understanding, reflection, and analysis, but normal, waking consciousness is unaware of all of this and, therefore, it is unconscious relative to what is transpiring in the “conscious unconscious”.
In a sense, what is taking place during, for example, the second phase of the University of Iowa card experiment resonates with certain aspects of what used to be known as multiple personality disorder and is now referred to as dissociative identity disorder. More specifically, often times the fractured personality that occupies normal waking consciousness tends to be unaware of other personalities that are present even though some of these other personalities appear to know about what is transpiring in the personality that is occupying normal waking consciousness.
Similarly, in the four-deck card experiment, the “conscious unconscious” appears to be aware of the same data to which normal, waking consciousness has access. Nonetheless, the “conscious unconscious” is capable of processing information in a way that generates insight into the significance and value of that data in a manner that does not appear to be present in normal waking consciousness … at least not until a hunch surfaces after 50 cards have been turned over, or not until the understanding present in normal waking consciousness becomes fairly clear at around the 80-card mark.
Assuming that the brain is responsible for the foregoing sorts of phenomena, many researchers refer to the part of our brain that is capable of arriving at decisions fairly quickly based on relatively limited information as giving expression to the “adaptive unconscious”. The ‘adaptive unconscious’ is differentiated from the Freudian unconscious by noting how the latter dimension of being is considered to be a bubbling cauldron of unacceptable desires and repressed memories, whereas the adaptive unconscious supposedly gives expression to a computer-like system of information processing that is capable of effectively engaging the exigencies of life.
Apparently, just as a modern commercial jet plane is able – as a result of on-board computers -- to continue to fly without the assistance of human beings when the aircraft is placed on auto-pilot, so too, the adaptive unconscious is described as being able to generate sophisticated, high-level modes of analysis and information processing that are quite independent of normal, waking consciousness. While it might be true that there are intelligent capacities associated with us that operate outside the awareness of normal, waking consciousness, nevertheless, as the previous discussion concerning the Iowa card experiment indicated, those capacities are not necessarily of an unconscious nature.
Antonio Damasio, the individual who led the research team at the University of Iowa involving the aforementioned four deck, two-color, multiple-value card experiment conducted the same kind of experiment using subjects who had damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex … an area of the brain that is considered to have something to do with decision-making in human beings. Apparently, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex has the capacity to differentially sort through incoming sensory data and identify issues that require attention and, in addition, help bring about a decision with respect to those issues.
Professor Damasio indicates that although the foregoing subjects are able, eventually, to arrive at an understanding concerning the risky nature of red-colored cards relative to blue cards, nonetheless, they are unable to make decisions that give expression to that understanding. Furthermore, unlike the “normal” subjects who participated in earlier versions of the experiment, subjects with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex did not develop any hunches concerning the red and blue cards when approximately 50 cards had been turned over, and, as well, the latter subjects did not exhibit any increased activity in their sweat glands after ten – or more – cards had been turned over.
The foregoing account doesn’t explain how subjects with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex come to understand that red cards are risky relative to blue cards. In other words, if – as is the case with so-called “normal” subjects – sweat gland activity does not increase when approximately ten cards have been turned over, or hunches do not arise after roughly 50 cards have been turned over, then what is the nature of the process through which understanding is acquired in subjects with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex?
Apparently, damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex interferes, in some fashion, with the process of notifying sweat glands that some information of significance is present. In addition, damage to that portion of the brain also seems to be interfering with the capacity to develop hunches about the degree of riskiness that is associated with red cards.
Yet, despite those problems, individuals with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex are still able to grasp that red cards are risky relative to blue cards. They are just unable to use that understanding to affect how they go about choosing cards.
Individuals with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex share one thing in common with so-called “normal” subjects. No one really understands how understanding arises in either case.
Moreover, in each case, ‘something’ is aware of the situation and capable of gaining insight into the differential values of red and blue cards. Nonetheless, whatever that process of understanding or insight involves, it does not take place in a way that is visible to normal, waking consciousness.
That is, normal, waking consciousness is aware that it does happen but normal, waking consciousness does not know how it happens. Yet, that process exhibits elements of awareness and intelligence.
Nalini Ambady, a psychologist, conducted an experiment that observed subjects who were tasked with judging the effectiveness of a teacher based on viewing brief, soundless, videotape clips of teachers who were engaged in the activity of teaching. Initially, subjects were provided with three, ten-second, video clips of a teacher teaching, and, during several follow up experiments, Professor Ambady reduced the length of video exposure to five seconds, and, subsequently, to just two seconds per clip.
In all three of the foregoing instances – namely, using ten-second, five-second, and two-second video clips of a teacher teaching – the subjects in the experiment rated the effectiveness of teachers in a manner that closely resonated with the manner in which actual students of the teachers being evaluated rated their instructors. Apparently, decisions based on a quick analysis of very limited information were not all that different from the judgments reached by students who were exposed to a teacher over the course of a much longer period of time.
Leaving aside questions concerning methodological issues involving the meaning and measurement of effectiveness, as well as whether, or not, judgments concerning effectiveness (whether made quickly or more slowly) were even accurate, something seems to be missing in the foregoing study. More specifically, irrespective of whether judgments concerning a teacher’s effectiveness were made slowly (i.e., involving actual students) or quickly (i.e., involving subjects in experiments), we don’t really know how judgments concerning effectiveness were made.
When I taught psychology, students had the opportunity toward the end of each course I taught to evaluate my effectiveness … or lack thereof. Although the evaluation forms were fairly lengthy and consisted of both boxes to be filled in as well as spaces for extended commentary, one often had little, or no, idea how students arrived at their judgments concerning my degree of effectiveness as a teacher or to what (and why) they were responding in relation to me that shaped their judgments concerning my effectiveness, or lack thereof.
They liked this or that in conjunction with what I did in the classroom, or they disliked this or that in relation to the way in which I conducted things in the classroom. Nonetheless, one didn’t actually know why they liked the things they did or why they disliked the things they did.
A subject in an experiment sees a two-second, five-second, or ten-second clip of a soundless video that shows a teacher, teaching. My students fill out a fairly detailed evaluation form based on a semester’s worth of exposure to my style of teaching.
In each case, judgments are rooted in modes of analysis, reflection, feeling, and judgment to which normal, waking consciousness does not necessarily have access. The subjects in Professor Ambady’s study might not know how they reached the judgments they did, but they generate an observable result that gives expression to their sense of how effective a given teacher might be, and, similarly, the students in my classroom (and in the classrooms of the teachers who are being evaluated in the foregoing experiment) fill out evaluation forms but the nature of the processes that led to such a behavioral output are hidden … perhaps even to the one filling out the evaluation form.
‘Something’ is aware of a teacher’s actions – irrespective of whether those actions occur in the context of an experimental study or in a classroom. ‘Something’ is analyzing that behavior according to an array of values, expectations, needs, hopes, interests, pressures, questions, and difficulties, and ‘something’ is arriving at conclusions concerning the degree of effectiveness that are deemed to be present in the actions of a teacher as a function of the factors that were taken into consideration during the processes of analysis and evaluation.
Are those processes of analysis, evaluation, and judgment conducted in an unconscious manner? Or, are they done consciously – that is, with awareness -- but in a way that falls outside of normal, waking consciousness and, therefore, merely “appear” to be conducted in an unconscious fashion?
The term “adaptive unconscious” might be somewhat oxymoronic when describing such forms of information processing. In other words, the very quality of being adaptive would seem to imply the presence of an intelligence that, in some sense, is aware and capable, within certain parameters, of flexibly responding to incoming data and, consequently, such an adaptive capacity does not seem to be unconscious in character.
I have used the term “conscious unconscious” in an ironic and not oxymoronic sense in order to bring attention to the idea that what takes place outside of the parameters of waking consciousness is not necessarily unconscious in nature. The truth of the matter is that we – speaking from the perspective of waking consciousness -- don’t know what is going on beyond the horizons of waking consciousness or how the dimensions of our beings that fall outside of waking consciousness actually accomplish what they do … and, yet, ‘something’ appears to be quite aware of what is taking place and that awareness seems to be of an intelligent nature.
Moreover, if, as previously indicated, the ‘adaptive unconscious’ is considered to be a computer-like system, then, how did the architecture and programming for that system come into being? To respond with the word “evolution” in conjunction with such questions is an empty gesture because, at the present time, the modern theory of evolution is not even remotely capable of explaining how the capacities for awareness, intelligence, memory, language, reason, insight, understanding, creativity, and so on came into being or how any of these capacities actually operate … as Sir Paul McCartney once indicated, ‘we’re in the middle of something that we really don’t understand’.
“Thin-slicing” is the term that has been coined to describe what the adaptive unconscious is supposedly doing when it makes rapid judgments or conducts quick evaluations of a given set of circumstances based on limited information. The subjects in the University of Iowa card experiment were engaged in the process of thin-slicing when their sweat glands began to react to the stress surrounding the riskiness associated with red cards, as were the subjects in the teacher effectiveness study conducted by Professor Ambady when they were able to reach judgments within ten, five, and two seconds concerning the potential effectiveness of a given teacher.
There are many experiments demonstrating that the adaptive unconscious of human beings has the capacity to thin-slice, often with very useful results. What no one has shown, as of yet, is how thin-slicing actually works.
How does the allegedly ‘unconscious’ dimension of human beings have the capacity to interact with reality in a manner that displays both awareness and intelligence? What were the subjects in the University of Iowa card experiment picking up on (and how did they understand its significance)? Within the time that it took subjects to select ten cards, something in them was sufficiently aware in an intelligent manner about the nature of the experimental situation to induce their sweat glands to respond to the stress generated by the riskiness associated with red cards – a riskiness that normal waking consciousness did not possess (at least not in a detectable fashion), even as a hunch, until 50 cards had been turned over and which waking consciousness could not articulate until approximately 80 cards had been turned over. What were the subjects in the teacher effectiveness study picking up on (and how did they understand its significance), when they were able to judge -- as well as students could who had spent an entire course with such teachers -- the effectiveness of teachers with just 6 seconds (3 clips of 2 seconds each), 15 seconds (3 clips of five seconds each), and 30 seconds (3 clips of 10 seconds each) of exposure to soundless, videotape clips?
To say that all of the foregoing takes place unconsciously and automatically through a process of thin-slicing does not really explain anything at all. That terminology is devoid of the sort of content which would allow one to understand what is transpiring in the adaptive unconscious during the process of thin-slicing or what makes that phenomenon possible.
We know it happens. We just don’t necessarily know how it happens or what makes it possible.
In the case of the teacher-effectiveness study conducted by Professor Ambady, subjects might have been picking up on just a few features in the clips of a teacher engaged in teaching – such as physical signs that suggested the presence of: Warmth, respect for students, and/or enthusiasm concerning subject matter. If so, this could explain why only a short time of exposure was required by subjects to evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher because, in the past, subjects – as might be the case for students in general – had learned that teachers who exhibited warmth, respect for their students, and were enthusiastic about their subject matter were generally found to be effective teachers.
The subjects in the teacher-effectiveness study – as also might be true with respect to most students – were probably quite familiar with an array of moods, looks, gestures, attitudes, and so on that have been displayed by many different teachers over decades of classroom experience. They are likely to have become quite skilled in being able to size up, or evaluate, teachers and, consequently, those subjects might not need to have to be exposed to a great deal of information in order for them to be able to quickly make a fairly accurate judgment concerning a teacher’s potential effectiveness.
One also might raise a question, or two, about the nature of the selection process that was used by the researchers in order to compile their ten-second, five-second, and two-second clips of teachers teaching. Were the clips taken at random, or were the clips selected because teachers were exhibiting qualities of (or lack thereof), say, warmth, respect for students, and enthusiasm for teaching that the researchers believed were qualities that effective teachers had and ineffective teachers did not have.
If the video clips consisted of a random sampling of what teachers did in the classroom and if the subjects in the teacher-effectiveness study were not picking up on signs indicating the presence of, for example: Warmth, respect for students, and enthusiasm for teaching, in order to make their judgments, then, the nature of the process of thin-slicing in that context becomes much more mysterious and elusive. Furthermore, additional study might have to be undertaken in order to determine whether, or not, experimental subjects reached their conclusions through a different kind of evaluation process than was used by actual students who were exposed to their teachers for a much longer period of time than the experimental subjects were.
The University of Iowa card experiment, on the other hand, might involve a much more complicated and subtle set of issues than is the case in the teacher effectiveness study. For instance, how does one come to recognize the potential for risk after turning over just ten cards, and why does it take so long for that understanding to surface to a sufficient extent in waking consciousness to enable a person to have either a hunch concerning the situation or to articulate its character?
Is it possible that something within the subjects in that experiment was noticing that red cards had both higher payouts and higher penalties associated with them while also noticing that blue cards had lower payouts and lower losses associated with them? Is it possible that such a trend would show up in the time that it took to turn over ten cards?
In either case, we don’t know what is responsible for being able to be aware of the differential value of the two kinds of colored cards or how that capacity works. Whatever is taking place during thin-slicing, that process, or set of processes, does not appear to be automatic and unconscious, but, instead, seems to give expression to a process that exhibits qualities of both awareness and intelligence executed in some sort of deliberative, evaluative fashion in order to provide individuals with a basis for informed – but not necessarily correct -- action.
In psychology, priming refers to a process in which people are exposed – often unknowingly – to a certain kind of stimulus that, subsequently, tends to influence how we respond to some other stimulus. For example, Joshua Aronson and Claude Steele conducted an experiment involving black college students. The students were asked to provide answers to 20 questions drawn from a standardized test that often is used to help evaluate the suitability of students for graduate school.
When subjects were asked prior to the aforementioned test to identify their race when filling out a questionnaire, those subjects tended to do only half as well as when subjects were not asked to identify their race prior to taking the test. One of the destructive dimensions of living in a society that is steeped in racist tendencies of one kind or another is that individuals who are on the receiving end of racist behavior – namely, black people – might (quite unknowingly) internalize some of those racist attitudes and, as a result, develop negative opinions concerning themselves or their abilities.
The foregoing experiment by Aronson and Steele seems to illustrate the nature of the priming phenomenon. Prior to the experiment, the subjects had gone through several decades of being exposed to all manner of racist ideas, attitudes, and stimuli concerning black people, and, therefore, the subjects had been primed to be influenced by a subsequent stimulus – i.e., filling out a questionnaire that asks about race – and, consequently, tended to do only half as well answering the standardized test questions as when they were not asked about their race.
Following the foregoing experiment, individuals participating in the experiment were asked by the researchers about whether they were bothered because they had to identify their race in the questionnaire they filled out prior to being required to answer test questions. Individuals seemed to dismiss the possibility that having to respond to the racial identity issue on the questionnaire might have affected their performance in an adverse manner, and, yet, not only did the test results appear to indicate otherwise, but, as well, many of the participants in the experiment expressed words to the effect that they just didn’t have what it takes to do well in school.
In another experiment, conducted by psychologist John Bargh, subjects were tasked with playing board games that had been set up so that the only way in which subjects could win is if they co-operated with one another. Prior to playing the board games, participants were either primed -- through being exposed in subtle, indirect ways to an array of stimuli that emphasized a theme of co-operation – or subjects were not primed in that manner.
When subjects were primed, the subsequent games tended to proceed without conflict, and, as well, the subjects were more inclined toward interacting cooperatively with one another relative to those instances in which games were played when subjects had not been primed to act in a cooperative manner. Furthermore, in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of the Aronson/Steele study involving black college students, when subjects in the Bargh experiment were asked -- following the completion of the games – about what role co-operation might have played in their strategies or thoughts concerning the board games, the answers the subjects gave seemed to be devoid of any considerations involving the theme of co-operation.
In other words, the subjects seemed to have no idea that their behavior in the board games had been influenced by the priming process that occurred prior to the playing of those games. The subjects believed their behavior was due to choices made during the course of any given game just as the subjects in the Aronson/Steele experiment believed that their performance on the test had nothing to do with being required to indicate their race prior to taking the test.
Subjects in both experiments had been primed by being exposed to certain kinds of stimuli prior to having to act with respect to some given subsequent task. How those subjects engaged the latter tasks appeared to be influenced by the process of priming that had taken place prior to engaging such tasks, and, yet, the subjects seemed to have little, or no, understanding that their behavior had been shaped, to varying degrees, by the priming process.
Malcolm Gladwell indicates in his book, Blink, that the foregoing experiments appear to indicate that free will is illusory. In other words, behavior that, supposedly, is taking place in the context of normal, waking consciousness is not being directed by what is transpiring within normal, waking consciousness but, instead, is being shaped by events that took place earlier and about which individuals seem to be unaware.
Gladwell’s foregoing perspective might be both right and wrong. On the one hand, Gladwell could be correct that normal, waking consciousness is not necessarily the locus of free will that we often tend to believe is the case because, oftentimes, normal waking consciousness generates behaviors that are actually being shaped by influences that have taken place and/or are taking place beyond the horizons of a surface mode of consciousness. On the other hand, Gladwell might be wrong about the idea that free will is illusory since there appears to be something going on in the adaptive unconscious – what I have termed the “conscious unconscious” -- that requires choices to be made and which is sufficiently aware of various issues to be able (through certain kinds of reasoning and logic) to direct those choices to shape various forms of subsequent behavior.
More specifically, in order to be primed, something within an individual has to take notice of the stimuli that are being used during the priming process. Furthermore, ‘something’ within an individual has to generate various forms of meaning, significance, value, or influence, and, as well, ‘something’ has to choose to use some meanings and values, rather than others, to shape and direct subsequent behavior.
Normal, waking consciousness might be unaware of the foregoing sorts of dynamics. Nonetheless, this does not mean that those dynamics are taking place automatically or unconsciously
For instance, when black college students in the Aronson/Steele experiment performed only half as well on a bank of test questions when they were required to fill out a questionnaire asking about their racial identity, one might suppose that there might be a very complex dynamic taking place within those individuals that occurs beyond the horizons of normal, waking consciousness … a dynamic that gives expression to all manner of feelings concerning race that are rooted in years of being subjected to racist attitudes, ideas, and behaviors.
The foregoing experiences are frequently not written in the language of words but are coded in the language of emotions, impressions, and attitudes about which some dimension of the individual is keenly aware. Those feelings are not necessarily linear in character but often are caught up in non-linear feedback systems whose inner dynamics are very difficult to disentangle and, yet, that whole carries a determinate meaning or value for an individual … a whole that ‘something’ within the individual is aware of and selects to shape behavior.
Those choices do not necessarily have to be in the best interests of the individual who is doing the choosing. Rather, such choices are the result of a nuanced set of dynamics that generate coping strategies that are intended to help a person navigate the emotional mine fields of life as best he or she can.
In the case of some black individuals – for example, the subjects in the Aronson/Steele experiment -- the cost of surviving in a racist society appears to have been a Hobson choice of internalizing certain negative impressions concerning themselves to which they were subjected repeatedly while growing up in a racist society. Those internalizations are forced “negotiations” that society has imposed on them across years of their attempting to resolve, or cope with, the many problems that racism has thrown into the lives of those individuals.
Presumably, if one were to try to assist the subjects in the Aronson/Steele experiment to overcome their inclination to continue looking at themselves through the racist filters of the surrounding society, one would have to help enable those individuals to realize that – under duress – certain choices concerning identity had been made and that, now, new choices concerning those matters needed to be fashioned in order to be able to develop a constructive sense of self. In other words, they would have to learn how to not allow themselves to be primed by questions involving racial identity … and in order to be able to accomplish that resolution, they would have to permit two different centers of awareness within themselves – namely, normal waking consciousness and the so-called adaptive consciousness (the conscious unconscious) – to interact with one another with the help of someone who could help guide them through the process of facilitating the exchange of different understandings between normal, waking consciousness and the adaptive unconscious (i.e., the conscious unconscious).
What is transpiring in the so-called adaptive unconscious is not devoid of consciousness, nor is it devoid of intellect, choice, reasoning, logic, or insight. Moreover, what is taking place in the adaptive unconscious is not necessarily automatic but often consists of an on-going dynamic involving shifting themes, issues, considerations, and choices that are conducted against, and playing off, a backdrop of existing feelings beliefs, values, meanings, attitudes, and memories.
As is true in the case of identity diffusion disorder – i.e., multiple personality disorder – the foregoing cases involve different centers of consciousness that have a compartmentalized or partitioned relationship with respect to one another. Normal, waking consciousness and the “conscious unconscious” are both engaged in making various kinds of choices within contexts that are governed by properties of awareness, intelligence, and reasoning that are not necessarily automated in nature (although some forms of automation – such as habits – might be present) and, from time to time, the choices that are made in each center of consciousness influence, if not interfere, with one another.
Many of us have been conditioned – by psychology, philosophy, neurobiology, and evolutionary science -- to look at human functioning in hierarchical terms in which intelligence, awareness and choice are the exclusive purview of normal, waking consciousness. However, what goes on in conjunction with the so-called adaptive unconscious also involves processes that are characterized by conscious, intelligent, reasoned choices … but the forms of intelligence and reasoning that take place in the conscious unconscious often seem alien to the modalities of understanding that are associated with the processes of logic, intelligence, and reasoning that occur in waking consciousness.
If choices that are made through the adaptive unconscious – i.e., the conscious unconscious – come to shape behavior, is there not something within an individual that still is exercising choice or expressing a modality of will (although it might not be entirely free of various influences)? Just because normal, waking consciousness might not be the source of choice or the exercise of free will in those cases, one cannot necessarily conclude that choice and free will are illusory but, rather, one might have to consider the possibility that the locus of some instances of choice and free will comes from a dimension of the individual that is other than the locus that usually is cited when discussing issues involving choice and free will – namely, normal waking consciousness.
More than a decade ago, Raymond Fisman, an economist, and Sheena Iyengar, a psychologist, conducted an experiment. It involved speed dating.
Speed dating makes use of the phenomenon of thin-slicing. In other words, based on very limited interaction with another individual (usually less than ten minutes), two individuals make decisions about whether, or not, they would like to spend more time (i.e., go out on an actual date) with their speed dating partner.
With one exception, the Fisman/Iyengar experiment was set up like real world speed dating situations. That exception had to do with a relatively short questionnaire that subjects had to fill out on four occasions – namely, prior to a given speed date, shortly after the occasion of that speed date, and, then, a month following, as well as six months after, a speed date had occurred.
The questionnaire consisted of a number of categories (e.g., shared interests, ambition, humor, intelligence, attractiveness, and sincerity). Subjects were required to indicate – using a scale of one to ten – what they were seeking in a potential dating partner, and, then, they were also required to evaluate the extent to which a given individual (i.e., speed date) had reflected the preferences that had been indicated prior to the speed date.
After compiling and analyzing the data collected during their experiment, Raymond Fisman and Sheena Iyengar discovered something interesting. More specifically, the qualities that subjects claimed were of interest to them prior to a speed date often did not correspond with the qualities of the individuals to whom they were attracted in speed dates.
Furthermore, the qualities subjects claimed to be looking for prior to a speed date often changed as a result of the qualities of an individual to whom they were attracted during a speed date. For example, if a subject claimed to be looking for someone who was funny and ambitious, and, then, had a speed date with someone who was sincere and intelligent, those subjects often would change the nature of the qualities they claimed to be looking for prior to the next speed date in order to reflect the qualities of a previous speed date to whom they had been attracted.
Preferences were given before the fact of a speed date, and, sometimes, those preferences would change after a speed date had occurred. However, subjects often did not have any understanding in normal, waking consciousness about how their preferences had been, or were being, formed.
Many psychologists argue that the foregoing activity is taking place in the adaptive unconscious and, therefore, often is considered to be giving expression to some sort of unconscious, automatic process in which choice does not play a role. Nevertheless, even if normal, waking consciousness is clueless about where preferences come from or how they are formed, this does not rule out the possibility that there is ‘something’ in the adaptive unconscious – i.e., the conscious unconscious – that is keenly aware of what it is seeking in a potential date and recognizes the presence of what it is seeking when that set of qualities shows up and, as a result, that ‘something’ within us is attracted to those qualities when they are present irrespective of whatever normal, waking consciousness claims to be seeking.
Once again, evidence seems to suggest that there is more than one locus of consciousness/awareness operating within human beings. Normal, waking consciousness considers the foregoing sort of activities to be unconscious but, in reality, normal waking consciousness is merely referring to its own ignorance concerning those matters and, as a result, normal, waking consciousness tends to ignore, or to dismiss, that activity because it is considered to be inconsistent with what appears to be taking place in normal, waking consciousness.
Margaret Heffernan uses a two word term to give expression to the tendency of normal, waking consciousness to manifest a resistance to, if not hostility toward, that which occurs beyond the parameters of normal, waking consciousness – no matter how obvious, intelligent, and insightful the products of that “conscious unconscious” activity might be. She refers to the foregoing phenomenon as “willful blindness”.
Sometimes normal, waking consciousness is responsible for instances of willful blindness, and sometimes the adaptive unconscious (conscious unconscious) is the source of willful blindness. In either case, a locus of consciousness and form of reasoning actively resists the presence of certain kind of data or evidence.
All human beings engage in the process of thin-slicing. We often do not have, or do not take, the time to examine -- with any degree of rigorous, critical reflection -- the vast amounts of information that are generated through experience, and, consequently, we develop coping strategies that are intended to permit us to cut through the mounds of existential data to which life gives expression and arrive at heuristically valuable conclusions.
However, a great deal of thin-slicing takes place outside of normal, waking consciousness. As a result, in order to be able to gain some insight into what is transpiring beyond the parameters of normal, waking consciousness, we have to undertake a certain amount of reverse engineering and try to reconstruct in normal, waking consciousness the nature of the structures, influences, dynamics, and so on that are impinging on – in both constructive and problematic ways – normal waking consciousness.
Some forms of thin-slicing seem to be capable of accurately accessing certain dimensions of reality. For example, the University of Iowa four deck, two-color, multiple-valued card experiment revealed a human capacity to correctly parse experience in advantageous ways.
On the other hand, the previously discussed Aronson/Steele experiment involving black college students demonstrates how some stimuli (e.g., a box asking about racial identity on a questionnaire) have come to play a problematic priming role that results from a faulty manner of thin-slicing reality (e.g., adopting negative ideas about oneself based on how one has been treated by others on account of one’s race).
Biases constitute modes of thin-slicing. For instance, human beings develop biases for, and against, religion as a result of processes that often take place outside of normal, waking consciousness.
Biases also give expression to forms of willful blindness. In other words, despite the existence of evidence to the contrary, human beings often have a tendency to ignore that evidence and proceed to thin-slice experience through the filters of their biases.
Arguably, one of the most important questions confronting every human being concerns the issue of religion. Seen from the perspective of the present volume, nothing seems to be more important than trying to determine the truth about the nature of one’s relationship with Being/Reality.
Each individual faces the same problem in conjunction with the issue of religion. We need to determine whether, or not, one’s manner of thin-slicing existence does, or does not, give expression to instances of bias and willful blindness capable of distorting one’s understanding concerning the truth about the nature of one’s relationship with Being/Reality.
In effect, many theists claim that atheists are guilty of willful blindness with respect to the manner in which they thin-slice experience and disregard evidence that, supposedly, reveals the truth concerning the nature of one’s relationship with Being/Reality. On the other hand, many atheists claim that theists are the ones who are guilty of willful blindness when it comes to the manner in which theists thin-slice existence and ignore evidence that, supposedly, demonstrates that the truth concerning the nature of one’s relationship with Being/Reality has nothing to do with the existence of a god or gods.
Both theists and atheists often fail to critically reflect, in any rigorous fashion, on the contents of normal, waking consciousness. Furthermore, both theists and atheists often fail to critically explore the realm of the adaptive unconscious or conscious unconscious in order to try to understand what is transpiring beyond the parameters of normal, waking consciousness that might affect – constructively or problematically – one’s attempt to discover the truth about the nature of one’s relationship with Being/Reality.
What makes normal, waking consciousness possible? What makes the adaptive unconscious or conscious unconscious possible? How does each of the foregoing realms of consciousness facilitate, or undermine, one’s attempt to arrive at the truth concerning the nature of one’s relationship with Being/Reality?
In its own way, the adaptive unconscious or the “conscious unconscious” gives expression to modes of: Awareness, intelligence, logic, reasoning, and forms of choice just as much as does normal, waking consciousness – or, as it might be termed: “unconscious consciousness”. Yet, we do not understand how either form of awareness is possible or is capable of carrying out intelligent, logical, reasoned choices that might, or might not, reflect the truth concerning the nature of one’s relationship with Being/Reality.
Both realms of information processing invite critical scrutiny. We fail to do so at our own peril.