The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘unconscious’

John Bargh on Situational Behavioral Influences

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 8, 2011

Situationist Contributor, John Bargh describes his remarkable research on “unsconscious behavioral guidance systems.”

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Embodied Cognition, Emotions, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Anthony Greenwald on The Psychology of Blink

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 7, 2011


[Situationist friend] Dr. Anthony Greenwald, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, describes his research developing the method (described in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink) that reveals unconscious thought patterns that most people would rather not possess. Learn about these mental contents, as Dr. Greenwald demonstrates the method and describes how these patterns affect our behavior.


In this program from the University of Washington psychology department, MacArthur awardee Dr. Lisa Cooper, professor at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, describes her research on how patient race influences patient-physician communication and physician clinical decision making. She also includes her efforts to design interventions to negate these undesired racial and ethnic health care disparities.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Education, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Our Metaphorical Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 20, 2009

cold personWe recently published a post based on Drake Bennett’s terrific overview of the burgeoning research on the embodied cognition.  Here’s a quick excerpt from that post.

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Now, however, a new group of people has started to take an intense interest in metaphors: psychologists. Drawing on philosophy and linguistics, cognitive scientists have begun to see the basic metaphors that we use all the time not just as turns of phrase, but as keys to the structure of thought. By taking these everyday metaphors as literally as possible, psychologists are upending traditional ideas of how we learn, reason, and make sense of the world around us. The result has been a torrent of research testing the links between metaphors and their physical roots . . . . Researchers have sought to determine whether the temperature of an object in someone’s hands determines how ”warm” or ”cold” he considers a person he meets, whether the heft of a held object affects how ”weighty” people consider topics they are presented with, or whether people think of the powerful as physically more elevated than the less powerful.

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We just encountered an interesting public radio interview, which we thought was worth sharing, of social psychologist Joshua Ackerman on related topics.  You can listen to the interview by clicking here.

To read a sample of related Situationist posts, seeThe Situation of Metaphors,” “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will DebatePart I & Part II” “The Situation of Body Temperature,” Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” “Unclean Hands,” “The Body Has a Mind of its Own,” Ideology Shaping Situation, or Vice Versa?,” “The Situation of Snacking,” “The Situation of Imitation and Mimickry,” and The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Implicit Associations, Life | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 9, 2009

Free Will Debate Image

We recently posted the fascinating video debate between Situationist Contributor John Bargh and Roy Baumeister regarding the study, meaning, and implications of free will.  That debate (which took place at the at the annual convention of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology last February in Tampa) has led to an illuminating exchange between Bargh and Baumeister that we’ll post in  parts on The Situationist.  Below you will find the first two pieces of that post-convention exchange (the first by Baumeister and the second by Bargh).

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Roy Baumeister & Kathleen Vohs, “Determinism Is Not Just Causality” (from Cultural Animal):

The recent debate on free will at SPSP led to the realization that some of the ostensible disagreement, and perhaps most of the surplus emotion swept along with it, stemmed from misunderstandings. Many psychologists say it is important to uphold determinism – yet they do not really know what determinism is.

Determinism is more than belief in causality. The defining feature of determinism is a belief in the inevitability of causality. The essence of determinism is that everything that happens is the only thing that could possibly happen (given the past) under those circumstances. The category of the possible and the category of the actual are exactly the same. If you knew everything about the world today and knew all the causal principles, you could calculate everything in the future and the past with 100% accuracy. To a determinist, the universe is just grinding along as a giant machine with no uncertainty whatsoever. The future and the past are both set in stone, so to speak. Check any textbook or handbook of philosophy.

Many psychologists defend determinism thinking that they are defending the notion of causality itself. They think, science studies causes, and if we abandon causation, we cannot do science. But these fears are irrelevant. Everyone believes in causes. The important difference is between probabilistic causation and deterministic causation.

Determinism might or might not be correct. Determinism is impossible to prove or disprove. It directly contradicts the everyday experience of making choices and having multiple options, but everyday experience could be mistaken. In a similar vein, belief in divine or supernatural forces is possibly true, despite inconsistency with daily experience.

We wish, however, to point out some of the mental gymnastics one must go through in order to practice psychological science while maintaining faith in determinism. Let us return for a moment to choice, which has been an important topic of study in social psychology for decades. To a determinist, there is no such thing as actual choice, in the sense of having more than one possible option and making a selection that makes one option come true and makes the others cease to be possible. To a determinist, choice (in this sense) is an illusion, because only one outcome is possible all along. You subjectively believe you might choose A or B or C, but this belief stems from your ignorance. Causal processes are in motion outside of your awareness that will lead inevitably to make you choose B. There was never a chance that you would actually choose A or C. Your belief that A, B, and C are all possible is a mistake; only B is actually possible.

Statistical probability presents a difficult challenge to determinists. The notion of probability entails that different outcomes are possible, which violates the central point of determinism. To a determinist, there are no probabilities in reality. Again, the determinist must say that the seeming indeterminacy simply reflects our ignorance. For example, suppose that when you flip a coin, the outcome is 100% inevitable once the coin is spinning through the air, given the physics of angular momentum, distance to the ground, and so forth. You simply do not know whether it will be heads or tails, so it seems indeterminate to you. The uncertainty is only in your mind.

Notice, however, that this is not how we talk about statistics in our textbooks, courses, and journal articles. We discuss the probability of an event occurring (e.g., by chance), not the gaps in our knowledge. In determinism there is no such thing as chance. To be true to faith in determinism, it would be necessary to alter the way we think about and discuss probabilities and perhaps even to alter the way we use them. (We apologize to determinists for using the word “perhaps,” which is itself incompatible with determinism.)

Counterfactual thinking is also incompatible with determinism. It is silly to think “If I had not said those things, we could have avoided the argument” if everything that happened was inevitable. To a determinist, people may think such things, indeed cannot avoid thinking them. Technically, such thoughts might be regarded as sound arguments from false premises. What the person said caused the argument, and so if the person had said something different, the argument might not have happened – but the person could not possibly have said something different, so the entire counterfactual thought process is an idle exercise in futility.

Laypersons often confuse determinism with fatalism, but this is a mistake. Fatalism means that the outcome would have been the same regardless of what you did. To a determinist, the outcome stemmed from what you did, and if you had acted differently, the outcome would have been different. (But, again, you could not possibly have acted differently.)

Some researchers say psychologists should believe in determinism in order to be like so-called real scientists. We believe this is also mistaken. Many natural scientists see the physical world as probabilistic, not deterministic. Quantum indeterminacy would entail that determinism is wrong, by definition. Indeed, as far as we know, there is no proof that there is any deterministic causation anywhere, in the sense that any event is 100% inevitable. Obviously, some causal events have extremely high probabilities, having been demonstrated over and over. But there is no way of knowing whether it is merely well above 99% or it is actually 100%.

The so-called “hidden variables” argument may paradoxically allow determinism to survive in psychology even if it becomes untenable in physics. Here is the issue. If we know everything (mass, velocity, etc.) about a tiny particle, we can predict with certainty where it will go. Every so often, empirical observation shows that it fails to go there. Is this because nature is indeterminate? Or is it because there are hidden variables affecting it, other than the variables we know?

In psychology it is easy to always assume hidden variables when a person’s behavior does not conform to predictions, because there are endless additional things that possibly could be known about someone. But with a tiny subatomic particle, there is not much else that could be known, and indeed the set of variables known to physics does not have any room for mysterious other variables.

In conclusion, we think it is possible to maintain a belief in determinism, but it should not be obligatory for psychologists. In fact, psychologists who retain a faith in determinism must keep this an abstract belief and violate it in practice: They must act as if people really make choices, as if multiple possibilities exist for future life, and as if statistical probabilities refer to different possible events. Determinism is not viable in practice but is an elegant theory that people may find appealing as an abstract article of faith. The main alternative to it is a probabilistic universe, in which multiple futures are really possible and causes operate by changing the odds that something will happen rather than guaranteeing it.

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DeterminismJohn Bargh & Brian Earp, “The Will is Caused, not ‘Free'” (from The Natural Unconscious):

We welcome the opportunity to summarize our main points from the SPSP debate; first though we will respond to the additional arguments by Baumeister and Vohs in this issue concerning determinism and causality. We see no problem with the assertions that psychologists need not be strict determinists to practice their science, and that determinism and causality are not the same thing. However, neither of these points is relevant to the basic question of free will. The ‘free’ in free will means freedom from causation, either by external forces (in the political sense of the term) or internal ones (in the psychological sense); and in our view it is just as problematic to claim that the will is uncaused as it is to argue it is not determined.

Free will may be defined as an agent’s ability to act on the world by its own volition, independently of purely physical (as opposed to metaphysical) causes and prior states of the world. The folk notion of free will is laden with the concept of a soul, a non-physical, unfettered, internal source of choice-making-in other words, an uncaused causer. “The soul” may have gone out of fashion, and “the mind” taken over many of its functions and connotations, but the intuitive notion of free will has stayed much the same: there is something inside each of us that allows us to make “real” choices–choices that even an omnipotent being, one who knew every environmental influence, and every physical fact leading up to the choice-making event, could not foretell with perfect confidence and accuracy. Determinism, if it were true, would indeed rule out this sort of free will, or shunt it into the realm of total redundancy. But indeterminism (of whatever flavor) isn’t any kinder to the notion. Just because some event is not strictly determined by prior physical data doesn’t mean it is caused by a free will. It may be simply indeterminately, probabilistically, or (to whatever degree) “randomly” caused by prior physical data. (If one wishes nonetheless to use the existence of error variance as evidence for the existence of free will, we can only point out that our business as scientists is to strive to reduce this unexplained variance by replacing it with explanation. Calling it ‘free will’ and walking away satisfied rather misses the point.)

But let us assume that there is a free, internal source of control that guides our behavior and is ultimately responsible for ‘real’ choices. To attribute human behavior to this mystical source is to place one’s bets on an increasingly shrinking sphere. The project of social psychology, after all, has been to identify (a) external-to-the-individual causes of judgment, motivation, and behavior, such as situational influences, and (b) internal-to-the-individual causes, which research has shown increasingly to operate outside of awareness and conscious intention-not “freely chosen” in any sense of the term. Are there some human behaviors that are possible only if free will exists and is a true causal source of action? There may be. But let’s not give up on the search for non-mystical causes just yet.

This brings us to an area of agreement revealed in the debate: that a belief in free will is important for human strivings. People cherish their sense of control over the world and their own behavior. In the debate, we noted recent empirical articles by Vohs and by Baumeister showing negative consequences (cheating, aggression) of informing participants that free will does not exist. Our response to these ‘new’ articles is that our field revealed the existence of such positive illusions decades ago, and we already know how essential they are to normal functioning. Clearly it is motivating for each of us to believe we are better than average, that bad things happen to other people, not ourselves, and that we have free-agentic control over our own judgments and behavior — just as it is comforting to believe in a benevolent God and justice for all in an afterlife. But the benefits of believing in free will are irrelevant to the actual existence of free will. A positive illusion, no matter how functional and comforting, is still an illusion.

And we must caution against drawing conclusions from such research findings (implicitly or explicitly) that we should either (a) not make findings against the existence of free will known to the public or (b) stop doing such research altogether. The belief in personal free will is a deeply rooted aspect of human phenomenal experience, and is so powerful that even those who do not subscribe to it intellectually still feel it in their personal lives as much as everyone else. It is not uncommon for one’s first-person experience to be at odds with physical reality: 500 years after Copernicus we still see a morning sunrise, not the earth (and ourselves) tilting towards the sun, even though we know better scientifically. As Dan Wegner, Paul Bloom, Dan Dennett, and others have argued, there are strong natural supports for the belief in supernatural entities, just as there are for free will — and sunrises too, for that matter. And if, as countless recent surveys show, the prodigious evidence in favor of evolutionary theory accumulated over the past 150 years has done little to erode the popular belief in a creator-god, then we can rest assured that the relatively nascent research on unconscious causes of motivation, judgment, and behavior will not result in anarchy or the collapse of social norms and moral behavior.

We should also not forget past social psychological research demonstrating that the belief in personal free will is selective: people routinely make self-serving attributions about the causes of their behavior. We take credit for the positive things we do (free will), but not for our misdeeds and failures ( “I had no choice”, “I was abused as a child”, “I was angry”). This suggests to us that much of the emotion surrounding the issue of free will is not about freedom per se but about self-esteem maintenance. We take personal pride in our ancestors, our blue eyes or rich brown skin, our height or birthday or name (as in the name-letter effect)-none of which we chose or had any control over. Accordingly, we analyzed hundreds of individuals’ spontaneous self-descriptions, and indeed 34% of their first-to-mind completions to the stem “I am _____” were such non-chosen aspects of self. It seems that people do not possess a consistent belief in free will so much as they strongly wish to take credit for the good things they are and do (regardless of whether they caused them), and to distance themselves from the bad things (even if they caused them). Evidently, the belief in free will is not principled, but socially strategic in nature.

So what, then, if one’s will is not ‘free’ of internal causation? It is still your will and my will and each is unique: a confluence of genetic heritage, early absorption of local cultural norms and values, and particular individual life experiences. After all, one can claim personal ownership of one’s will just as much as one claims ownership of one’s name, eye color, and birthday, and be as proud of one’s will and its products as one is proud of the exploits of great-great-Grandma the pioneer, even though one’s ‘free will’ played no role in any of these.

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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Bargh and Baumeister and the Free Will Debate,” “The Death of Free Will and the Rise of Cheating,” Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – Part I & Part II,” “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”Interview of Eric Kandel,” and “Coalition of the Will-less.”

Posted in Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 9 Comments »

The Situation of Snacking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 8, 2009

Big Mac WhopperSituationist Contributor John Bargh, with his co-authors Jennifer Harris and Kelly Brownell, recently published an interesting article, “Priming Effects of Television Food Advertising on Eating Behavior” (28 Health Psychology 404 (2009)) on the subconscious behavioral consequences of food advertising.  Here’s the abstract.

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Objective: Health advocates have focused on the prevalence of advertising for calorie-dense low-nutrient foods as a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic. This research tests the hypothesis that exposure to food advertising during TV viewing may also contribute to obesity by triggering automatic snacking of available food. Design: In Experiments 1a and 1b, elementary-school-age children watched a cartoon that contained either food advertising or advertising for other products and received a snack while watching. In Experiment 2, adults watched a TV program that included food advertising that promoted snacking and/or fun product benefits, food advertising that promoted nutrition benefits, or no food advertising. The adults then tasted and evaluated a range of healthy to unhealthy snack foods in an apparently separate experiment. Main Outcome Measures: Amount of snack foods consumed during and after advertising exposure. Results: Children consumed 45% more when exposed to food advertising. Adults consumed more of both healthy and unhealthy snack foods following exposure to snack food advertising compared to the other conditions. In both experiments, food advertising increased consumption of products not in the presented advertisements, and these effects were not related to reported hunger or other conscious influences. Conclusion: These experiments demonstrate the power of food advertising to prime automatic eating behaviors and thus influence far more than brand preference alone.

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You can download a pdf of the article here.

For a collection of related Situationist posts, see “The Benefit of Knowing Your Eating Sins,” “The Situation of Body Image,” “Big Calories Come in Small Packages,”The Situation of Eating – Part II,” The Situation of Eating,” “The Situation of the Dreaded ‘Freshman 15′,” “Our Situation Is What We Eat,” “Social Networks,” Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” “The Situation of Fatness = Our ‘Obesogenic’ Society,” Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health,” Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg,” “McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right,” “The Science of Addiction, The Myth of Choice,” The Situation of our Food – Part I,” “The Situation of Our Food – Part II,”The Situation of Our Food – Part III,” and “The Situation of our Food – Part IV.”

The situation of obesity is explored at length by Situationist Contributors, Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosifon, who devoted a sizeable article to the mistaken but dominant dispositionist attributions made regarding obesity and the actual situational sources of the epidemic. To access their article, entitled “Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America,” click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Life, Marketing, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Daniel Dennett on the Situation of our Brain

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 16, 2009

Daniel Dennett is the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and a University Professor at Tufts University.  Here is a brief Big Think video of Dennett discussing some of the problems of the human brain, including, the “very sharp limit to the depth that we as conscious agents can probe our own activities.”

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Interior Situation of Complex Human Feelings,” “Dan Dennett on our Interior Situation,” “The Situation of Reason,” 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.”

Posted in Illusions, Philosophy, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Reason

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 15, 2009

pantyhose-displayIn 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 // 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.

Biased competition

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.

Confusing cues

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 —lau06-fig1.jpg 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.

Posted in Book, Choice Myth, Classic Experiments, Illusions, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

The Situation of Body Temperature

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 20, 2008

Benedict Carey has an interesting story in the Herald Tribune, “A Cold Stare Can Make You Crave Some Heat.”  Here’s a sample.

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For every congenial character who can warm a room, there’s another who can bring a draft from the north, a whiff of dead winter. And even if the thermometer doesn’t register the difference, people do: social iciness feels so cold to those on the receiving end that they will crave a hot drink, a new study has found.

The paper, appearing in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science, is the latest finding from the field of embodied cognition, in which researchers have shown that the language of metaphor can activate physical sensations, and vice versa.

Just as spreading a bad rumor can make people feel literally dirty, so did research subjects who felt socially excluded perceive a significantly lower room temperature than those who felt included.

“We know that being excluded is psychologically painful,” said the lead author, Chen-Bo Zhong, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, “and here we found that it feels just like it’s described in metaphors,” like icy stare and frosty reception.

[Situationist contributor] John Bargh, a psychologist at Yale who was not involved in the research, said the finding made “perfect sense.” In an e-mail message, he noted that a brain region called the insula tracks both body temperature and general psychological states, and it may be here where social perceptions and sensations of warmth or coldness are fused.

In the new paper, Dr. Zhong and Geoffrey J. Leonardelli, also a psychologist at Toronto, describe two experiments.

In one, they split 65 students into two groups, instructing those in one to recall a time when they felt socially rejected, and those in the other to summon a memory of social acceptance.

Many of the students were recent immigrants and had fresh memories of being isolated in the dorms, left behind while roommates went out, Dr. Zhong said.

The researchers then had each of the participants estimate the temperature in the lab room. The students who had recalled being excluded estimated the temperature to be, on average, 5 degrees Fahrenheit lower than the others.

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To read the rest of the article, including a description of their fascinating second experiment, click here. To read a few related Situationist posts, see “Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Processes,” “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part III,” and”The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV.”

Posted in Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Interior Situation of Undecided Voters

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 23, 2008

From Anne McIlroy’s article, titled “You May Know How You’ll Vote Before You Know It,” in the Science section of the Globe and Mail:

Undecided about how you will vote if there is a federal election this fall? New research suggests you may not know your own mind.

Voters make decisions at an unconscious level before they deliberate about their options, University of Western Ontario psychologist Bertram Gawronski said.

In the latest edition of the journal Science, he and two Italian researchers report on a technique that may allow pollsters one day to read the minds of undecided voters and accurately predict whom they will end up supporting.

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In the Science article, he and colleagues Luciano Arcuri and Silvia Galdi at the University of Padova describe an experiment conducted in Vicenza, Italy. They interviewed 129 residents about a proposed enlargement of a U.S. military base in their community and asked if they were if favour, opposed or undecided about the expansion.

The volunteers also took a computer-based test.

For those who were undecided, the speed at which they linked pictures of the military base to positive words such as “happy” or “luck,” compared with negative words such as “awful” or “pain,” proved to be predictive of the decision they eventually made about the expansion. The test revealed what Dr. Gawronski and his colleagues call positive or negative automatic mental associations.

Other researchers, including Harvard University psychologist [and Situationist contributor] Mahzarin Banaji, have used a similar technique to get at the subtle, ingrained biases that people are not aware of, but which may shape their behaviour.

* * *

From Stefan Lovgren’s article, “‘Undecided” Voters’ Minds Already Made Up, Study Says,” in National Geographic News:

* * *

[Situationist contributor] Timothy Wilson, . . . the author of the book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious [click on book’s cover in right margin for more information], said there are two interpretations of the study results.

“It may be that participants really had made up their minds and just didn’t know it yet,” said Wilson, who was not involved with the study but wrote an accompanying article in this week’s Science.

“Or they may have been leaning in one direction unconsciously and that biased how they interpreted the information they got about the issue in subsequent days.”

Gawronski, the study co-author, says automatic mental associations play a particularly important role in a person’s decision-making when it comes to ambiguous situations, such as political debates.

“In a debate between Obama and McCain, it may not be entirely clear who showed the better performance,” he said.

“But undecided voters with more favorable associations with McCain may see him as the one who did the better job” and vice versa, Gawronski said.

“It’s this biased perception of events that then provide the basis of their future decisions,” he added.

* * *

To download a pdf of the Science article (Silvia Galdi, Luciano Arcuri, & Bertram Gawronski, Automatic mental associations predict future choices of undecided decision-makers, 321 Science 1100-1102 (2008)), click here.

To listen to an NPR Science Friday interview of Dr. Gawronski and discussion of the undecided-voter research, click here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Voting for a Face,” “The Situation of Swift-Boating,” On Being a Mindful Voter,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “The Situation of Political Animals,” and “Your Brain on Politics.” For other posts on the Situation of politics, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Choice Myth, Implicit Associations, Politics, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Situation of a Name

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 28, 2008

Image by alist - flickrRobin Turner has an interesting article in Wales Online, titled “People’s names linked to self-esteem, says Welsh research.” We’ve pasted a few excerpts below.

* * *

What’s in a name? Future happiness, self-esteem and peace of mind, according to research carried out in a Welsh university.

But Jochen Gebauer, lead author of a new psychological study, warns that people really have to like their own names before the peace of mind, happiness and self- esteem kick in.

He claims to have uncovered a clear link between name-liking and overall self-esteem. “People who have high self-esteem tend to like their name more,” said Mr Gebauer, a PhD student in the school of psychology at Cardiff University.

“The reason is known as the ‘mere-ownership effect’ which essentially means that if we like ourselves, we prefer things that are ours to other options.” “Another study established this effect years ago when people were given toasters and other household appliances to compare. No matter what they were given, they always preferred the item that was theirs.

“When you own a certain object, then you put the value you have for yourself into this object.” But he says the connection to name-liking provides a better way to assess self-esteem.

According to Mr Gebauer, self- esteem is one of the most heavily studied psychological concepts and “the Holy Grail of modern times”.

He said, “If you have high self-esteem, everything is good. You have no social problems, you are less aggressive, you feel better about yourself, you have more friends and people like you more.”

His paper on the link between name-liking and self-esteem will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

* * *

More research into names at America’s Yale University conducted by Joseph Simmons, assistant professor of marketing, indicates that people subconsciously make decisions based on their names.

In a paper titled Moniker Maladies: When Names Sabotage Success, he says someone called Sandy is, for instance, more likely to buy a Saturn (a type of car), move to San Diego, and marry someone called Sandler.

A person called Richard, he argues, is more likely to buy a Renault, move to Richmond, and marry Ricarda. He said,”This phenomenon is called the name letter effect (NLE), and appears to be an unconscious effect.”

In America, baseball strikeouts are represented by a K and he found batters with K initials struck out more often than others.

Similarly, he discovered C or D initialled students tended to have lower exam results than A or B initialled students.

Mr Simmons says future parents should consider the name-letter effect but shouldn’t panic. He told a conference in the US, “I will be the first to admit that the effects that we have observed are quite small, and so there’s no need to panic if you recently named your child Christine or Diana.”

* * *

The entire article is here. To read related Situationist post, take a look at “The Situation of Hair Color,” and “Women’s Situation in Economics.”

Posted in Implicit Associations, Life, Situationist Sports | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Big Papi Magic

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on April 15, 2008

Last June, we wrote about Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz and how attributional biases may have explained his increased acrimony toward umpires. Back then, Ortiz was slightly off his normal torrid pace at the plate. One of the top three or four hitters in baseball had morphed into a player about 95% as good and seemingly (if not actually) as clutch. In other words, still one of the best players in the game, if subjectively seeming a bit less heroic, particularly given his constant bickering with umpires over called balls and strikes.

If only Ortiz could go back in time to June 2007. Though the 2008 season is still in its infancy with only 13 of the Sox’s 162 games having been played, Ortiz has the lowest batting average of all Major League Baseball players who have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Put differently, Ortiz–who was second in all of baseball last season in OBS (on base plus slugging) and who led the American League in home runs in 2006 — has been the worst hitter in baseball this season. Until last night, he was batting .070, which even if you are not a baseball fan, you can probably tell is awful. What makes it especially damaging for Ortiz is that he is a designated hitter and thus does not contribute defensively. He’s paid to hit, and he’s currently the worst hitter in baseball. Big Papi has lost his pop!

No doubt, Ortiz will rebound at some point, just like he did last season. But he’s been dogged with assorted questions about why he is slumping so badly. There is speculation about whether minor surgery on his right knee after last season may be a problem, whether the Sox season-opening trip to Japan may have have affected his performance, whether he’s devoted too much of his attention to starring in advertisements, whether his weight and age are beginning to take a toll on his ability to swing the bat, or whether something else is going on. Ortiz has responded by saying the problem is in his head:

This game is very mental. Your mind takes over. I know in my my situation, my mind works more than anything else. Once you get physically prepared your mind takes over and sometimes you’re fighting, fighting, fighting (yourself). Sometimes you have to chill out and come back with a fresh mind . . . I’m fine. I don’t get frustrated at all. I’m just trying to get back to being Big Papi again.

He has a point. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, baseball players are no less dependent on their minds for their job performance than rocket scientists are on theirs–albeit in different ways. Despite the obvious physical nature of sports and the related demands for elite athletic talent, social psychologists and related mind scientists have found that baseball players, like other athletes, depend almost exclusively on the unconscious brain, and its ability to streamline information, to actually play the game. (For related Situationist posts, see The Situation of a Baseball Pitch, (Young) Minds Over Body, The Batting Situation, and the Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players.)

It is in part because of the unconscious automaticity of their behavior that leaves them vulnerable to the potentially harmful interference of conscious or subconscious intrusions–athletes can end up “fighting, fighting, fighting” themselves. As David Ortiz struggles “to get back to being Big Papi again,” some of his fans and foes are left also guessing as to the cause of his aberrational slump.

As noted above, they offer and debate numerous possible causal sources, but there is one that we especially want to highlight (in part because it evinces another common theme on this blog): namely, the surprisingly widespread belief in magic:

Often we don’t even register our wacky beliefs. Seeing causality in coincidence can happen even before we have a chance to think about it; the misfiring is sometimes perceptual rather than rational. “Consider what happens when you honk your horn, and just at that moment a streetlight goes out,” observes Brian Scholl, director of Yale’s Perception and Cognition Laboratory. “You may never for a moment believe that your honk caused the light to go out, but you will irresistibly perceive that causal relation. The fact remains that our visual systems refuse to believe in coincidences.” Our overeager eyes, in effect, lay the groundwork for more detailed superstitious ideation. And it turns out that no matter how rational people consider themselves, if they place a high value on hunches they are hard-pressed to hit a baby’s photo on a dartboard. On some level they’re equating image with reality. Even our aim falls prey to intuition.

(For a sample of previous Situationist posts on magic go to “The Situation of Magical Thinking,” “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!” and “The Magic of Jonathan Papelbon’s ‘Knuckle Knock,’” “Red Sox Magic,” and “Think You’ve Got Magical Powers?“)

So, here we go: David Ortiz’s sudden struggles at the dish are analogous to the street light going out.

What is the honking horn? As it happens, the other big Red Sox story this week is about the faith that baseball fans as well as certain baseball-team owners seem to place in the power of a curse. The New York Post had reported that a Red Sox fan, attempted to curse the Yankees’ new stadium by burying a Red Sox jersey at the site. Not just any Red Sox jersey, it turns out, but a David Ortiz jersey. (For more details, see the remarkable four-minute video below; for a legal analysis, check out Geoff Rapp’s post on Sports Law Blog.)

How do you explain Ortiz’s struggles? Honk! Or, as one blogger put it:

The big news on this chilly Sunday in the Fens is that David Ortiz has been given the night off, a chance to clear his head while in the throes of a 1-for-29 slump since April 2. The other big news comes out of New York, where a David Ortiz jersey has been removed from the new Yankee Stadium, after workers jackhammered their way through to remove the offending article. The thought was that the Sox jersey in Yankee foundation would curse the Yanks. But maybe it’s been the other way around? Maybe the jersey, ensconsed in Yankee foundation, was cursing Ortiz.

Last night, Ortiz did something very Big Papi-like: he got two hits. No, they were not big hits. Nor were they clutch hits. Still, it was a noticeable improvement, and the Papi mojo seemed, perhaps, to be returning. His batting average even managed to trickle into the three digit range.

What caused the light to go back on? Easy: the Yankees had jackhammered their way through concrete to find and remove the (apparently backfiring) hex: Deadspin‘s post, “Ortiz Slump Officially Over. Thanks, Yankees!” says it all:

Here’s the thing, Yankees fans. You may have thought that you were heading off some sort of curse by digging up that David Ortiz jersey that was buried beneath your new stadium. But consider this: While the jersey remained buried, it’s owner was hitting .070; last in the majors. In his first game back since the cloth was extricated, Ortiz went 2-for-5, raising his average 34 points, as the Red Sox beat the Indians 6-4. Hank Steinbrenner : “Re-dig the hole! Turn those machines back on!”

We’re hoping the Ortiz light shines brightly this week as the Sox head to Yankee stadium for two games later this week. If not, we urge Red Sox Nation to crank up the voodoo.

Posted in Situationist Sports, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

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