Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Unconscious Control of the Unconscious Mind

There's a wonderful experiment I heard described at a conference in Kyoto a few months ago. What the Japanese scientists did was to get their subjects to play a cooperation game, a prisoner's dilemma game, online. Subjects could choose to act generously, trust the opponent, or mistrust and default on the exchange.

Now, to one side of the computer on which subjects were playing this game, the experimenters had set up another computer with a screen-saver on it. There were two conditions. In one the screen-saver showed a little animation of two balls, one of which was helping another one over a barrier, coming up underneath it and giving it a shove-over; in the other, one of the balls was hindering another from getting over the barrier by getting in its way.

Astonishingly, the subjects of this experiment who had the cooperative animation running on the screen to one side were twice as likely to cooperate in their game with another player online, even though they didn't acknowledge that they'd noticed anything on the secondary screen. And even if they had noticed it, so what? I mean why should they copy something which is just going on a screen-saver? _Edge Nicholas Humphrey
Nicholas Humphrey is a theoretical psychologist and author, living and working in the UK. In this Edge.org piece, Humphrey draws parallels between the unconscious mental mechanisms which operate in "the placebo affect," and the unconscious mental mechanisms which influence the nature of our daily behaviour. Specifically, he is looking at how culture can mould behaviour unconsciously, and on a moment-to-moment basis.
Can cultural signals encourage people to reveal sides of their personality or faculties that they wouldn't have dared to reveal in the past? Or for that matter can culture block them? There's good reason to think this is in fact our history.

Go back 10 or 20,000 years ago. Eccentricity would not have been tolerated. Unusual intelligence would not have been tolerated. Even behaving "out of character" would not have been tolerated. People were expected to conform, and they did conform, because they picked up the cues from their environment about the right and proper—the adaptive—way to behave. In response to cultural signals people were in effect policing their own personality.

And they still are. In fact we now have plenty of experimental evidence about the operation of "sub-conscious primes", how signals from the local environment get to people without their knowing it and, by changing their character and attitudes, regulate the face they present to the world. It can be a change for the worse (at least as we'd see it today). But so too it can be a change for the better. People become, let's say, more pro-social, more generous.

...I've come round to the idea that humans have in fact evolved a full-blown self management system, with the job of managing all their psychological resources put together, so as to optimise the persona they present to the world.... Our ancestors needed to develop a system for managing the face they present to the world: how they came across to other people, when to flirt, when to hold back, when to be generous, when to be mean, when to fall in love, when to reject, when to reciprocate, when to punish, when to take the lead, when to retire, and so on. . . All these aspects had to be very carefully balanced if they were going to maximize their chances of success in the social world.

...Once we have a theoretical understanding of how all this works, can we exploit it in practical ways to change people's lives for the better? Does it offer us tools for social engineering? Just as we've discovered how to use placebo medicine to persuade people to heal themselves when they wouldn't have dared to otherwise, can we discover placebo treatments for the self—pretenses about the environment they're in that persuade people to reveal sides of their character they wouldn't have dared to reveal otherwise?

... When I think about how events in our evolutionary past still shape our lives today, I like to draw a parallel with the echoes of the Big Bang, the background microwave radiation, which can still be detected in the telescopes we send to space. Likewise, the human genome carries vibrations from the deep, deep childhood of our species, which still show up in contemporary behavior. Every one of us brings the past into the present. _Edge Nicholas Humphrey
Humphrey's dichotomy between our evolutionary heritage and our cultural heritage is reminiscent of the old "nature vs nurture" debate. Most of us understand that it is impossible to separate "nature" from "nurture," and so it is also impossible to separate "culture" from the "genetic complement" of a closely related group. The sooner psychology as a whole comprehends this basic fact, the sooner we will be able to move on to more important matters.

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