2006 : WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

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Philosopher and Cognitive Scientist, University of Edinburgh; Author: Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension
The quick-thinking zombies inside us

So much of what we do, feel, think and choose is determined by non-conscious, automatic uptake of cues and information.

Of course, advertisers will say they have known this all along. But only in recent years, with seminal studies by Tanya Chartrand, John Bargh and others has the true scale of our daily automatism really begun to emerge. Such studies show that it is possible (it is relatively easy) to activate racist stereotypes that impact our subsequent behavioral interactions, for example yielding the judgment that your partner in a subsequent game or task is more hostile than would be judged by an unprimed control. Such effects occur despite a subject's total and honest disavowal of those very stereotypes. In similar ways it is possible to unconsciously prime us to feel older (and then we walk more slowly).

In my favorite recent study, experimenters manipulate cues so that the subject forms an unconscious goal, whose (unnoticed) frustration makes them lose confidence and perform worse at a subsequent task! The dangerous truth, it seems to me, is that these are not isolated little laboratory events. Instead, they reveal the massed woven fabric of our day-to-day existence. The underlying mechanisms at work impart an automatic drive towards the automation of all manner of choices and actions, and don't discriminate between the 'trivial' and the portentous.

It now seems clear that many of my major life and work decisions are made very rapidly, often on the basis of ecologically sound but superficial cues, with slow deliberative reason busily engaged in justifying what the quick-thinking zombies inside me have already laid on the table. The good news is that without these mechanisms we'd be unable to engage in fluid daily life or reason at all, and that very often they are right. The dangerous truth, though, is that we are indeed designed to cut conscious, aware choice out of the picture wherever possible. This is not an issue about free will, but simply about the extent to which conscious deliberation cranks the engine of behavior. Crank it it does: but not in anything like the way, or extent, we may have thought. We'd better get to grips with this before someone else does.