A fascinating piece “Who’s Minding the Mind?” (Science Times, NYT, 7/31/07) discusses accumulating evidence of the influence of the subconscious on individuals’ actions. Researchers think that smells, touch, sights, and other senses prime our brain to respond in a certain way, sometimes overwhelming or shifting our more normal, patterned conscious response.
There are lots of interesting experiments described (including the apochrophyal subliminal advertising for concessions in a NJ movie theater in the late ’60s). But some of the following experiments relate most to how we treat others (trust or generosity or like/dislike):
Yale psychologists manipulated test subjects’ judgments of a lab assistant — a stranger to them – by whether they asked them on the way to “an experiment” to hold a warm cup of coffee or iced coffee. The iced coffee created, as you might suspect, icier views of the lab assistant. (The lab assistant according to these subjects was colder, less social and more selfish” than the one that gave other random students a hot cup of coffee to hold.) [I’m sure there is a dating/mating how-to book to be written from these and other such studies — i.e., no iced lattes on a first date!] “The study participants, college students, had no idea that their social instincts were being deliberately manipulated. On the way to the laboratory, they had bumped into a laboratory assistant, who was holding textbooks, a clipboard, papers and a cup of hot or iced coffee — and asked for a hand with the cup….That was all it took:”
- A 2004 experiment (at Stanford University, under Aaron Kay, psychologist) found that students could be subconsciously conditioned to respond in a more competitive or cooperative manner depending on whether there was a briefcase or a backpack on the other end of a table. The students played a 1-on-1 investment game with an unseen opponent. “Half the students played while sitting at a large table, at the other end of which was a briefcase and a black leather portfolio. These students were far stingier with their money than the others, who played in an identical room, but with a backpack on the table instead. The mere presence of the briefcase, noticed but not consciously registered, generated business-related associations and expectations, the authors argue, leading the brain to run the most appropriate goal program: compete. The students had no sense of whether they had acted selfishly or generously.”
- “Mark Schaller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, has done research showing that when self-protective instincts are primed — simply by turning down the lights in a room, for instance — white people who are normally tolerant become unconsciously more likely to detect hostility in the faces of black men with neutral expressions.”
Northwestern University undergraduates in a 2006 experiment were asked to remember something unethical or virtuous they had done, “like betraying a friend…[or] returning lost property. Afterward, the students had their choice of a gift, an antiseptic wipe or a pencil; and those who had recalled bad behavior were twice as likely as the others to take the wipe. They had been primed to psychologically ‘cleanse’ their consciences…..Once their hands were wiped, the students became less likely to agree to volunteer their time to help with a graduate school project. Their hands were clean: the unconscious goal had been satisfied and now was being suppressed, the findings suggest.”
And brain imaging suggets that the brain uses the same neural circuits for subconscious as conscious processing. The subconscious responses originate in the more reptilian part of the brain but then rise and compete against more conscious responses. And the subconscious impact can be greater since we can’t easily moderate it, since we’re unaware of it being employed.
The article notes: “In several studies, researchers have also shown that, once covertly activated, an unconscious goal persists with the same determination that is evident in our conscious pursuits. Study participants primed to be cooperative are assiduous in their teamwork, for instance, helping others and sharing resources in games that last 20 minutes or longer. Ditto for those set up to be aggressive.”
The article doesn’t mention it, but the findings are consistent with findings of Mahzarian Banaji with her Implicit Association Test where they find lots of implicit/subconscious discrimination against lots of groups (people of color, elderly, etc.). One of the rare ways to improve people’s scores on the IAT is to have people spend some time prior to the test looking at pictures of inspirational figures from the discriminated against group; for example, if the test was to test implicit bias against blacks, subjects could lessen their implicit bias by looking at pictures of Jackie Robinson, Louis Armstrong, Maya Angelou, Barack Obama, etc.
The article relates to issues like social trust or social capital because it suggests potentially that one of the reasons why we are less generous or trusting to others might be that we receive more subliminal and subconscious signals (through others’ behavior or news broadcasts or advertisements) that leave us subconciously a lot less likely to be generous or trust than what our conscious might decide is our “approach.” And in an environment like today when we are relatively more socially isolated, one can easily imagine that the relative weight of these subconscious influences is greater than when our conscious might be able to have stronger intuitions based on all our socializing, but I’m speculating on the latter. Moreover, if our subsconscious does pick up on a lot of these signals, it certainly helps explain another reason why social capital tends to move in virtuous circles or viscious spirals because the actions (positive or negative) by others may be subconsciously spreading these to others who then in turn influence others subconsciously.
And on a lighter note, with so many women complaining that men don’t do their share of housecleaning, another experiment mentioned in this article suggested that people clean more (picking up loose crumbs in the experiment) when they smell citrus-scented cleaning fluid even though they aren’t aware that they are doing this. So how about a product idea — boxer shorts (smelling of citrus-scented cleaning fluid) as a Christmas gift of women to their loved ones.
The full article, Who’s Minding the Mind? is available here