“The Unseen mind”

When we think about implicit biases (see here), it might be worth realizing how their existence fits into a fairly new (or rediscovered) and interesting view of the mind.  This view is probably familiar to lots of our readers, but the references might be useful, and reminding ourselves of it might be helpful when we think about how to get people to entertain the idea that their actions are biased.

  One way to start thinking about the view is to look at a pretty amazing story that got a lot of attention in the US last year (from Buckley, Cara. 2007. Man Is Rescued by Stranger on Subway Tracks. The New York Times, Jan. 3, 1) :

Autrey and his daughters
Autrey and his daughters

Mr. Autrey was waiting for the downtown local at 137th Street and Broadway in Manhattan around 12:45 p.m. He was taking his two daughters, Syshe, 4, and Shuqui, 6, home before work.  Nearby, a man collapsed, his body convulsing. Mr. Autrey and two women rushed to help, he said. The man, Cameron Hollopeter, 20, managed to get up, but then stumbled to the platform edge and fell to the tracks, between the two rails.

The headlights of the No. 1 train appeared. “I had to make a split decision,” Mr. Autrey said.

So he made one, and leapt.

Mr. Autrey lay on Mr. Hollopeter, his heart pounding, pressing him down in a space roughly a foot deep…

….“I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help,” Mr. Autrey said. “I did what I felt was right.”

We’re used to the idea that we can do some things pretty automatically:  tying show laces, brushing teeth and clearing  one’s throat might be examples.  But as this example illustrates, there’s a lot going on that results in adjusting one’s body to a very complex environment and we can do it with little or no conscious thought.  Autrey had to get himself on that  track and fold his body over the other’s exceptionally quickly and he simply couldn’t have spent time figuring out how to do it.

Such actions can be novel ones we haven’t done before.  Autrey’s unusual action may in fact be in part the product of his military training, which enabled him to act ‘single mindedly,’ without regard to the consequences for himself or the children he left on the platform.  (Soldiers who fall on a grenade to protect others may be acting similarly.)  For many of us, our actions tend to be congruent with a wider range of our other goals.  For example, walking on a busy sidewalk, one’s actions will be sensitive to a number of one’s goals and values additional to getting to a certain destination.  But slowing down before you run into someone is something many of us will or can do without any conscious thought.

How in the world do we produce such complicated and nuanced actions so quickly?  Certainly not by consciously thinking them through and calculating our every move.  Rather,

The human mind operates largely out of view of its owners, possibly because that’s the way it evolved to work initially, and because that’s the way it works best, under many circumstances. Without such an efficient, powerful, and fast means of understanding and acting on the world, it would be difficult to survive. We would be stuck pondering every little decision, such as whether to put our left or right foot forward first, as the world sped by.

(from Wilson, Timothy D., and Yoav Bar-Anan. 2008. PSYCHOLOGY: The Unseen Mind. Science 321 (5892):1046-1047).

From this point of view, having implicit biases is not like having a dark stain on one’s soul and it does not mean that somehow one is unusually clueless.  Rather, it is just one of many quick and unconscious ways one copes with a very complex world.  What makes them a concern are their effects. 

Another thing that we can see is the role of speed in these mechanisms; they have to affect us very quickly.  That is probably one reason that the implicit attitude test has a lot to do with timing.

Relatedly, a friend was remarking recently about how silly it is for male graduate students on the job market to worry about whether or not to wear a suit, or how to find the right tie, since that  sort of thing doesn’t affect the interview.  Is that true?  Maybe, but also maybe not.  It is not out of the realm of psychological possibility that a significant number of interviewers have a pro- or an anti-suit implicit bias.  And if so, they won’t be thinking consciously about it at all.

8 thoughts on ““The Unseen mind”

  1. In social psychology, we talk about Epstein’s “rational” and “experiential” modes of thinking, or Kahneman’s “System 1” and “System 2.” These two systems run in parallel. Experiential (System 1) thinking happens rapidly and automatically and is informed by biology, cultural biases, and previous learning; it’s what we mean by “intuition” but also includes stereotyping, etc. “Rational” thinking (System 2) is slower, more deliberate, usually less emotion-laden, and can override experiential (System 1) thinking with effort. System 2 is believed to have probably evolved later, although it is by no means always superior in its results to System 1.

    Intuition (System 1) always operates. The question is, when is System 1 2 (added jj) most likely to operate too? First, it takes more effort, so it’s much less likely to operate when a person is stressed or rushed (or enjoying being relaxed and happy, for that matter). Second, people vary in how much they enjoy thinking – some actively seek out opportunities to do so, and others consider it too much work, so they only do it if they think accuracy really matters.

    Regarding the suit question, I’m not sure that the two modes of thinking are even relevant – a person might implicitly judge that the interviewee didn’t understand the norms of social behavior for that situation, or might think about it consciously, but the net effect would be the same.

  2. Thanks, lga. For people who’d like to follow up on Kahneman, you can find his Nobel Prize lectures at:

    You can listen to it or read it. The charts in the written form are really useful.

    He’s got lots of examples of the heuristics we use to get to rapid conclusions, which tend to work well in some situations, but not others. Others don’t exactly work well, but they show deeper patterns in our thought. For example, lots of people find it more likely that a women is a feminist and a lawyer than that she is a feminist. That’s got to be wrong. (The occurrence of A-and-B can’t be more likely than the occurrence of A.) So what are we doing when we make what seem to be probability judgments like this?

  3. Oops! I see I made a typo – should be Intuition (System 1) always operates. The question is, when is System 2 most likely to operate too?

    Kahneman’s research (for those who don’t follow the link) also points to the importance of framing. Patients offered surgery with a 90% chance of survival are much more likely to accept than those told they have a one-in-ten chance of dying. Here intuition lets us down; deliberative thought tells us that the two outcomes are the same.

  4. From an evolutionary perspective, those split second decisions do make some sort of sense.
    Image yourself some 15,000 years ago, or so, happily hopping along in your bearskin, and all of a sudden you perceive a thing across your path, it’s an elongated shape and…
    Well, here are the scenarios:
    1. you think “oh, how fascinating” (translated from “uh, hurgg haggg”) “an elongated shape, now what could it be, is it a branch? is there some branch nearby that could cast a shadow like that? oh! it’s coming towards me, it sort of wiggles, wow, that could be just a deception of my senses, or there is an elongated shape coming towards me. Now, let’s see…
    Followed by a snakebite and agonized but fortunately quick death.
    2. you think “ack! snake!” (from “ugga aaaaaah!”) and run for it. Only to discover later that a) you were correct, there was a snake, or b) it was just some shadow that looked like one, or something like that.

    Scenario 2 thinkers have a larger chance to survive, so it seems that evolution is in favour of us being biased.

    Now, as to sheer altruism, I have no idea. I am very happy people do make those split second decisions in favour of another life but theirs, and I do like to think that it stems from sheer goodness.

  5. Saskia, I just saw a reference to a paper that might interest you:

    Human social interaction is strongly shaped by other-regarding preferences, that is, a concern for the welfare of others. These preferences are important for a unique aspect of human sociality—large scale cooperation with genetic strangers—but little is known about their developmental roots. Here we show that young children’s other-regarding preferences assume a particular form, inequality aversion that develops strongly between the ages of 3 and 8. At age 3–4, the overwhelming majority of children behave selfishly, whereas most children at age 7–8 prefer resource allocations that remove advantageous or disadvantageous inequality. Moreover, inequality aversion is strongly shaped by parochialism, a preference for favouring the members of one’s own social group. These results indicate that human egalitarianism and parochialism have deep developmental roots, and the simultaneous emergence of altruistic sharing and parochialism during childhood is intriguing in view of recent evolutionary theories which predict that the same evolutionary process jointly drives both human altruism and parochialism.


  6. ah yes! I came across that one.
    I am working on an article on internet friendship, it’s amazing what you run into. Thanks though!

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