In the mid-1970s, Situationist contributor Timothy Wilson with Richard Nisbett conducted one of the best known social psychology experiments of all time. It was strikingly simple and involved asking subjects to assess the quality of hosiery. Situationist contributors Jon Hanson and David Yosifon have described the experiment this way:
Subjects were asked in a bargain store to judge which one of four nylon stocking pantyhose was the best quality. The subjects were not told that the stockings were in fact identical. Wilson and Nisbett presented the stockings to the subjects hanging on racks spaced equal distances apart. As situation would have it, the position of the stockings had a significant effect on the subjects’ quality judgments. In particular, moving from left to right, 12% of the subjects judged the first stockings as being the best quality, 17% of the subjects chose the second pair of stockings, 31% of the subjects chose the third pair of stockings, and 40% of the subjects chose the fourth—the most recently viewed pair of stockings. When asked about their respective judgments, most of the subjects attributed their decision to the knit, weave, sheerness, elasticity, or workmanship of the stockings that they chose to be of the best quality. Dispositional qualities of the stocking, if you will. Subjects provided a total of eighty different reasons for their choices. Not one, however, mentioned the position of the stockings, or the relative recency with which the pairs were viewed. None, that is, saw the situation. In fact, when asked whether the position of the stockings could have influenced their judgments, only one subject admitted that position could have been influential. Thus, Wilson and Nisbett conclude that “[w]hat matters . . . is not why the [position] effect occurs but that it occurs and that subjects do not report it or recognize it when it is pointed out to them.”
One of the core messages of more recent brain research is that most mental activity happens in the automatic or unconscious region of the brain. The unconscious mind is the platform for a set of mental activities that the brain has relegated beyond awareness for efficiency’s sake, so the conscious mind can focus on other things. In his book, “Strangers to Ourselves,” Timothy Wilson notes that the brain can absorb about 11 million pieces of information a second, of which it can process about 40 consciously. The unconscious brain handles the rest.
The automatic mind generally takes care of things like muscle control. But it also does more ethereal things. It recognizes patterns and construes situations, searching for danger, opportunities or the unexpected. It also shoves certain memories, thoughts, anxieties and emotions up into consciousness.
A lot has been learned about how what we think we know about what moves us is wrong. And much has also been learned about how what we don’t know we know can influence us. Psychologist Susan Courtney has an absolutely terrific article in Scientific American titled “Not So Deliberate: The decisive power of what you don’t know you know.” We excerpt portions of her article below.
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When we choose between two courses of action, are we aware of all the things that influence that decision? Particularly when deliberation leads us to take a less familiar or more difficult course, scientists often refer to a decision as an act of “cognitive control.” Such calculated decisions were once assumed to be influenced only by consciously perceived information, especially when the decision involved preparation for some action. But a recent paper by Hakwan Lau and Richard Passingham, “Unconscious Activation of the Cognitive Control System in the Human Prefrontal Cortex,” demonstrates that the influences we are not aware of can hold greater sway than those we can consciously reject.
We make countless “decisions” each day without conscious deliberation. For example, when we gaze at an unfamiliar scene, we cannot take in all the information at once. Objects in the scene compete for our attention. If we’re looking around with no particular goal in mind, we tend to focus on the objects most visually different from their surrounding background (for example, a bright bird against a dark backdrop) or those that experience or evolution have taught us are the most important, such as sudden movement or facial features — particularly threatening or fearful expressions. If we do have a goal, then our attention will be drawn to objects related to it, such as when we attend to anything red or striped in a “Where’s Waldo” picture. Stimulus-driven and goal-driven influences alike, then, bias the outcome of the competition for our attention among a scene’s many aspects.
The idea of such biased competition (a term coined in 1995 by Robert Desimone and John Duncan, also applies to situations in which we decide among many possible actions, thoughts or plans. What might create an unconscious bias affecting these types of competition?
For starters, previous experience in a situation can make some neural connections stronger than others, tipping the scales in favor of a previously performed action. The best-known examples of this kind of bias are habitual actions (as examined in a seminal 1995 article by Salmon and Butters and what is known as priming.
Habitual actions are what they sound like — driving your kids to school, you turn right on Elm because that’s how you get there every day. No conscious decision is involved. In fact, it takes considerable effort to remember to instead turn left if your goal is to go somewhere else.
Priming works a bit differently; it’s less a well-worn route than a prior suggestion that steers you a certain way. If I ask you today to tell me the first word that comes to mind that starts with the letters mot and you answer mother, you’ll probably answer the same way if I ask you the same thing again four months from now, even if you have no explicit recollection of my asking the question. The prior experience primes you to repeat your performance. Other potentially unconscious influences are generally emotional or motivational.
Of course, consciously processed information can override these emotional and experience-driven biases if we devote enough time and attention to the decision. Preparing to perform a cognitive action (“task set”) has traditionally been considered a deliberate act of control and part of this reflective, evaluative neural system. (See, for example, the 2002 review by Rees, Kreiman and Koch — pdf download.) As such, it was thought that task-set preparation was largely immune to subconscious influences.
We generally accept it as okay that some of our actions and emotional or motivational states are influenced by neural processes that happen without our awareness. For example, it aids my survival if subliminally processed stimuli increase my state of vigilance — if, for example, I jump out of the way before I am consciously aware that the thing at my feet is a snake. But we tend to think of more conscious decisions differently. If I have time to recognize an instruction, remember what that means I’m supposed to do and prepare to make a particular kind of judgment on the next thing I see, then the assumption is that this preparation must be based entirely on what I think I saw — not what I wasn’t even aware of.
Yet Lau and Passingham have found precisely the opposite in their study — that information we’re not aware of can more strongly influence even the most deliberative, non-emotional sort of decision even more than does information we are aware of.
Lau and Passingham had their subjects perform one of two tasks: when shown a word on a screen, the subjects had to decide either a) whether or not the word referred to a concrete object or b) whether or not the word had two syllables. A cue given just before each word — the appearance of either a square of a diamond — indicated whether to perform the concrete judgment task or the syllables task. These instruction cues were in turn preceded by smaller squares or diamonds that the subjects were told were irrelevant. A variation in timing between the first and second cues determined whether the participants were aware of seeing both cues or only the second.
As you would expect, the task was more difficult when the cues were the not same — that is, when a diamond preceded a square or a square a diamond. The surprising finding was that this confusion effect was greater when the timing between the cues was so close that the participants didn’t consciously notice the first cue. When the cues were mixed but the subjects were consciously aware of only the second instruction, their responses — and their brain activity as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — indicated that the “invisible” conflicting cue had made them more likely to prepare to do the “wrong” task. Although similar effects have been shown on tasks that involved making a decision about the appearance of the image immediately following the “invisible” image, this is the first time this effect has been demonstrated for complex task preparation.
It may not be surprising that we juggle multiple influences when we make decisions, including many of which we are not aware — particularly when the decisions involve emotional issues. Lau and Passingham, however, show us that even seemingly rational, straightforward, conscious decisions about arbitrary matters can easily be biased by inputs coming in below our radar of awareness. Although it wasn’t directly tested in this study, the results suggest that being aware of a misleading cue may allow us to inhibit its influence. And the study makes clear that influences we are not aware of (including, but not limited to, those brought in by experience and emotion) can sneak into our decisions unchecked.
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Susan Courtney is an associate professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University, where she runs the Courtney Lab of Cognitive Neuroscience and Working Memory. To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Confabulation,” “The Situation of Constitutional Beliefs – Abstract,” “Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” “Jonathan Haidt on the Situation of Moral Reasoning,” “The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,”and “Unconscious Situation of Choice.”
This post was originally published in November of 2007.