2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

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Cultural psychologist, writer, and consultant
Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University; Co-Editor, Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century

You Think, Therefore I Am

"I think, therefore I am." Cogito ergo sum. Remember this elegant and deep idea from René Descartes' Principles of Philosophy? The fact that a person is contemplating whether she exists, Descartes argued, is proof that she, indeed, actually does exist. With this single statement, Descartes knit together two central ideas of Western philosophy: 1) thinking is powerful, and 2) individuals play a big role in creating their own I's—that is, their psyches, minds, souls, or selves.

Most of us learn "the cogito" at some point during our formal education. Yet far fewer of us study an equally deep and elegant idea from social psychology: Other people's thinking likewise powerfully shapes the I's that we are. Indeed, in many situations, other people's thinking has a bigger impact on our own thoughts, feelings, and actions than do the thoughts we conjure while philosophizing alone.

In other words, much of the time, "You think, therefore I am." For better and for worse.

An everyday instance of how your thinking affects other people's being is the Pygmalion effect. Psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson captured this effect in a classic 1963 study. After giving an IQ test to elementary school students, the researchers told the teachers which students would be "academic spurters" because of their allegedly high IQs. In reality, these students' IQs were no higher than those of the "normal" students. At the end of the school year, the researchers found that the "spurters'" had attained better grades and higher IQs than the "normals." The reason? Teachers had expected more from the spurters, and thus given them more time, attention, and care. And the conclusion? Expect more from students, and get better results.

A less sanguine example of how much our thoughts affect other people's I's is stereotype threat. Stereotypes are clouds of attitudes, beliefs, and expectations that follow around a group of people. A stereotype in the air over African Americans is that they are bad at school. Women labor under the stereotype that they suck at math.

As social psychologist Claude Steele and others have demonstrated in hundreds of studies, when researchers conjure these stereotypes—even subtly, by, say, asking people to write down their race or gender before taking a test—students from the stereotyped groups score lower than the stereotype-free group. But when researchers do not mention other people's negative views, the stereotyped groups meet or even exceed their competition. The researchers show that students under stereotype threat are so anxious about confirming the stereotype that they choke on the test. With repeated failures, they seek their fortunes in other domains. In this tragic way, other people's thoughts deform the I's of promising students.

As the planet gets smaller and hotter, knowing that "You think, therefore I am" could help us more readily understand how we affect our neighbours and how our neighbours affect us. Not acknowledging how much we impact each other, in contrast, could lead us to repeat the same mistakes.