Friday, April 18, 2008

makes you think

In his blog, Science and Reason, Charles Daney has a current post on Consciousness, free will, etc.. It deals with experiments that show our conscious decision-making to be strongly influenced by our subconscious decision-making, and in some cases not just influenced but fully determined by the subconscious.

He and the scientists he quotes tend to conclude from these experiments that there's precious little free-will, Untainted, conscious, decision-making may be much more rare than we have thought it to be.

The evidence seems strong and there's lots of it. He quotes one experiment reported in New Scientist in which computer brain scans showed subconsious decision-making to precede conscious decision-making by a full seven seconds: "Researchers pinpointed a signal that divulged the decision about seven seconds before people ever realised their choice."

I know something of this from self-observation. I've always been uncomfortable at how susceptible I am to manipulation by sales people, whether car salesmen (invariably men for some reason) or people trying to get me to buy a time-share (having been enticed to listen to the sales pitch by a valuable perk of some kind).

On the other hand, an article to which Daney points, tells us that "using subtle cues for self-improvement is something like trying to tickle yourself, priming doesn’t work if you’re aware of it. Manipulating others, while possible, is dicey." It quotes one researcher: “We know that as soon as people feel they’re being manipulated, they do the opposite; it backfires."

And so, though I'm sure I've been unwittingly manipulated time and time again, I've found I tend to end up purchasing my car from the least-overtly manipulative sales people and I've never signed on the dotted line for a time-share.

The article quoted above, from the NYT in July 2007, also reminds us that "subliminal suggestion" was a hoax. Flashing the names of foods on a movie screen too rapidly to be perceived by our vision does not increase sales of Coke and pop corn. So too, we found that you couldn't learn a new language or finally come to understand algebra by putting a cassette player under your pillow to instruct you while you slept. Another hoax.

Still, it's disconcerting how easy it is to manipulate people without their knowledge. The experiments are generally trivial in nature, but they point to ominous conclusions. Among these are the sorts of mass hysteria that lead to the obliteration of entire peoples -- the Jews in Europe by the Germans, Muslims in Bosnia by Christians, ethnic Africans in Darfur by ethnic Arabs, urban residents in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. These tragedies must partly be caused by subconscious effects of political rhetoric. Daney links to an article that deals with this subject. The research sought to find out whether "reminders of death increase the need for psychological security and therefore the appeal of leaders who emphasize the greatness of the nation and a heroic victory over evil." And the experiment found that subjects were eight times more likely to choose a charismatic political candidate over others who were either pragmatic or relationship-oriented.

I'd like to believe this crude manipulation could not occur on subjects who were alert to its likelihood. And, indeed, half of American voters might be said to have some resistance to fear mongering by the Bush presidential campaign of 2004.

Daney's blog post proceeds from subconscious manipulation to consider other ways in which our consciousness is altered by external conditions. He brings up the fixation of memories, the importance of attention and its connection to memory, and the effects of mind-altering drugs. It's worth a read.

I'll close with an extract from the New York Times article:
Who’s Minding the Mind?, by Benedict Carey. Published: July 31, 2007

Extracts:

“When it comes to our behavior from moment to moment, the big question is, ‘What to do next?’ ” said John A. Bargh, a professor of psychology at Yale and a co-author, with Lawrence Williams, of the coffee study, which was presented at a recent psychology conference. “Well, we’re finding that we have these unconscious behavioral guidance systems that are continually furnishing suggestions through the day about what to do next, and the brain is considering and often acting on those, all before conscious awareness.”

Dr. Bargh added: “Sometimes those goals are in line with our conscious intentions and purposes, and sometimes they’re not.”

The results suggest a “bottom-up” decision-making process, in which the ventral pallidum is part of a circuit that first weighs the reward and decides, then interacts with the higher-level, conscious regions later, if at all, Dr. Frith said.

Scientists have spent years trying to pinpoint the exact neural regions that support conscious awareness, so far in vain. But there’s little doubt it involves the prefrontal cortex, the thin outer layer of brain tissue behind the forehead, and experiments like this one show that it can be one of the last neural areas to know when a decision is made.

Using subtle cues for self-improvement is something like trying to tickle yourself, Dr. Bargh said: priming doesn’t work if you’re aware of it. Manipulating others, while possible, is dicey. “We know that as soon as people feel they’re being manipulated, they do the opposite; it backfires,” he said.

And researchers do not yet know how or when, exactly, unconscious drives may suddenly become conscious; or under which circumstances people are able to override hidden urges by force of will. Millions have quit smoking, for instance, and uncounted numbers have resisted darker urges to misbehave that they don’t even fully understand.

Yet the new research on priming makes it clear that we are not alone in our own consciousness. We have company, an invisible partner who has strong reactions about the world that don’t always agree with our own, but whose instincts, these studies clearly show, are at least as likely to be helpful, and attentive to others, as they are to be disruptive.

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