This is scary: you believe you are acting honorably & wisely,

but you are not.

For readers of this blog, this worry may signal a familiar theme:  the extent to which unconscious biases can be completely outside the awareness of well intentioned people  while  still leading them to act.  And now there’s a good book by a leading science journalist, Shankar Vedantam, called The  Hidden Brain: How  our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, wage wars and save lives, which takes a good look at what we know about unconscious biases and the ills they can cause.

There’s a very common theoretical position behind the kind of mainline research he is looking at:  at almost every moment of your waking life you are in charge of a large jointed physical object – one with jiggly bits – that you have to negotiate safely through a very complex physical environment and an exceptional and fairly unique social environment.  Your world is full of information and you need to pick up tons of it, from the fact that the pavement beneath the two little platform this object is positioned on to the emotional reactions of the people you are talking to.  And if you get some of it wrong, you might be in big trouble, from a damaging fall or a lost love interest.

How do you cope?  You could not cope with all this consciously, so an enormous amount is taken care of by your extraordinary brain.  You get the results, but you do not get the input and you are most often not aware of the selection process or what in the environment is tilting that process. 

And Hume was really right:  your mind picks up the patterns in the world and anticipates their continuing. 

Just from this, you can see there’s a huge downside.  If someone doesn’t act in accord with those patterns, your reaction can be very negative in ways you find it hard to justify rationally.  Your brain is conservative, one could say, though if you are reading this, you probably are not.  Others can figure out how to manipulate the brain in ways you will almost certainly not notice.  In fact, it becomes not so surprising that you feel sure you are doing the honorable and wise thing, while you are not.

Malcolm Gladwell talked a bit about the unconscious mind in Blink, but the present book is much more focus on the area and at least some of the ways in which the brain is guiding decisions and actions you would not approve of if you really got what’s going  on. 

It may not be a book for academics in the relevant field unless you enjoy quick gossipy reads that includes stuff about an academic couple in trouble (all my idea of fun, I have to say).  But for all of us who are not engaged in the experimental background, it’s got a lot to think about. 

In addition, there’s a very valuable discussion of it on Salon, brought to our attention by Mr. Jender.  It gives you a bit of a sense of the book and, even more importantly, it raises the MORAL ISSUES!  Given that most of us are more inclined toward racist and sexist actions than we think, how should  we judge our moral responsibility for such actions?  And how about those of others?  It’s pretty awful to think that society’s attitudes result in poor health care for minorities (or overweight people), but the attitudes are ours, for goodness’ sake, even if we do not want to own them.

(Thanks to Jender, Mr Jender, and AB who also sent us this link.)

So have a think and let us know what you think about moral responsibility and things like that…

16 thoughts on “This is scary: you believe you are acting honorably & wisely,

  1. “If someone doesn’t act in accord with those patterns, your reaction can be very negative in ways you find it hard to justify rationally.”

    The stuff I’ve perused suggests to me a grimmer twist: we find it all too easy to rationally justify such reactions, most of which are produced outside the reach of our conscious powers of reflection, as if most of the moral life necessarily escapes us as it is happening.

    Timothy D. Wilson, a familiar reference in experimental philosophy, provides a brief overview of how various strands of empirical psychology have thus far addressed the topic of self-knowledge, and some general suggestions on how (if possible) to improve it.

  2. Rob, thanks so much!
    for people who don’t have time to go to the link, here are 3 ways to improve your self-knowledge, according to TW:

    First, we can try to be objective observers of our own behavior.

    Second, we can try to see ourselvesthrough the eyes of other people, at least considering the possibility that they have picked up on something about us that wehave missed.

    Finally, we can try to learn about ourselves by reading and assimilating findings from psychological science.

  3. In agreement with Rob, Allan Johnson, in _Privilege, Power and Difference_, argues that we take the path of least resistance, that is the one we are constructed to take. Most people know, consciously or not, that going against the grain for social justice brings repercussions.

  4. First, we can try to be objective observers of our own behavior.

    Second, we can try to see ourselvesthrough the eyes of other people, at least considering the possibility that they have picked up on something about us that wehave missed.

    Finally, we can try to learn about ourselves by reading and assimilating findings from psychological science.

    It sounds good in theory – using the points above — and it can at least be a starting point.

    However, it is very difficult to be an objective observer of one’s own behaviour. Less so if one feels that one doesn’t have to act under duress. But the more that one feels a sensation of duress from other people, to be or act in a way that one would rather not do, the less one is able to separate one’s own behaviour as a subject of independent study, from the behaviour of others. So then it becomes, in a way, an ethical issue of “where does the other stop, and I begin?” (and vice versa!)

    The problem is similar when it comes to seeing oneself through the eyes of others. One can and should take in this data, but then what to do with it? As an example, when I came to Australia I was seen through the eyes of others as a white supremacist monster, since I was a white child from Rhodesia. There was no truth in this perspective at all, but it was how others had been taught to see me even before they had met me. Now, if I was to say “maybe there is some truth in it” — which is the attitude I partly ended up adopting — then I am distorting my own reality in order to accommodate the reality of others. In fact, my internalisation of “maybe there is some truth in it” gave me a really distorted self-image for a very long time, until I realised that the externally imposed image was not actually (and had never been!) part of my psychology at all.

  5. Lani, et al, but I was supposing we were really trying to be wise and honorable. Perhaps that doesn’t preclude rationalizing and taking the path of least resistence, but then it seems to me one has more problems than unconscious bias. Being honorable and wise isn’t supposed to be easy.

    Jennifer, I think you in effect point out how unclear these suggestions are. His gloss on them might make them a bit clearer, but I’m not sure. I think he meant for the first to be aware of what one is actually accomplishing. E.g., look and see if you do actually grade men and women the same, see who you do actually invited, and so on. And I have to say that I am surprised that in general we aren’t all much more vigilant.

    I think the other people thing is also very difficult. It’s often enough hard to know when one disagrees whether one is giving others’ ideas a fair trial, I find. It can be particularly difficult when one is a stranger in a society – e.g., a foreigner or perhaps someone with a fairly unusual background, like philosophy grad school!

  6. However, it is very difficult to be an objective observer of one’s own behaviour.
    And Wilson, of all people, should know that since this is one of the main conclusions of his book “Strangers to Ourselves.”

    Maybe, we need to develop self-knowledge based on all data gathered but as Jennifer pointed out that has perils as well! Especially when we’re dealing with stereotypes…

    If I recall correctly, in Wilson’s book, he suggested that instead of trying to get to know ourselves, we create ourselves as we would like to be. For example, if I want to be less sexist, I imagine what my behavior would look like then and start incorporating that into my life. Of course, that raises (at least) the issue of how we’d evaluate the success of this method, i.e., who decides that I am actually less sexist than before…

  7. JJ – I completely and wholeheartedly agree that we, some or most of us, try to be wise and honorable and we should. And, it is quite difficult, as you’ve noted. My “path of least resistance” comment was just to help show how very difficult this is. If we are not aware of where we are lead, we cannot choose otherwise. I have been thinking a whole lot about moral self-deception, especially the techniques laid out in 1750 by Samuel Johnson. Oh my gosh. I recognize all of them, in myself and others. I guess I don’t want to underestimate the forces arrayed in opposition to my commitment to be as honorable as I can be.

  8. Lani, I am glad I’m not the only one who has to work hard! Could you give more details about the1750 reference?

  9. Sure thing. Here’s the full cite and it’s on line:
    Johnson, Samuel. “The Rambler: No. 28. Saturday, 23 June 1750.” The Works of Samuel Johnson, in Sixteen Volumes, Volume I. 1750: 180-187.

    I’m giving a talk for two years for our state humanities organization on this topic. Much of the time, people titter, I think in uncomfortable recognition.

  10. The “blank” pseudonym was unintended.

    Vedantam’s response to Kramer strikes me as very problematic. He claims “we are always responsible for our actions, regardless of whether they spring from conscious or unconscious motives” and that “taking personal responsibility […] must extend to examining our unconscious minds as well.” Yet it is not at all clear, to me at least, how the unconscious, as revealed by contemporary empirical psychology, is supposed to be available to examination in a responsibility-conferring kind of way.

  11. Rob, there are two things that aren’t clear to me.
    1. What does he really mean by examining our unconscious minds?
    2. How unconscious are implicit biases?

    I’m just not sure how anyone entirely misses their own biases, especially maybe once they’ve done one of those tests. Once one’s seen that it’s harder, e.g., to associate “physics” with “grandmother” than with “grandfather,” can’t you sort of feel that your images of women aren’t exactly spot on for your ideas of what scientists are?

    I’m beginning to think that an answer to 1 might be pretty hard. I was thinking about looking at other unconsious effects – e.g., the extent to which lip reading influences hearing – the McGurk effect. That was something of which I was unaware totally. But if I were as interested in the sound of language as I am in attitudes towards people, maybe I (or anyone else) could have gotten some clue about it. You might notice that it is easier to understand the words of someone you are facing, etc.

  12. I think a lot depends on the definition of unconscious! Wilson’s definition, for example, is not Freudian. Freud – and based on the quote from Vedantam Rob posted above – postulated that we can make things from our unconscious conscious (after a lot of psychoanalysis). Wilson, in his book “Strangers to Ourselves” defines the unconscious as “mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgment, feelings, or behavior” (23). So, by this definition, then we cannot “examine our unconscious mind.” However, we can still become aware of the reflections of some unconscious beliefs, such as implicit biases, and then be responsible for counteracting them. Things like the implicit bias tests can help us be observers to our own behavior (maybe that’s what Wilson meant in the article summarized by Jennifer in #5 above…). Maybe we can then postulate a different way of looking at responsibility: We are responsible for (a) detecting any possible implicit biases (for example) and (b) counteracting these biases, if necessary.

  13. Rachel, I think that’s right, though I’m a bit worried about the idea that there’s some inaccessibility that holds accross species. No doubt some processes are unavailable to everyone, but some may vary among individuals even if their becoming inaccessible is rare or at least very unusual. Or so I’d bet, based on the fact that some unusual physical or social conditions can remove some of factors that keep certain things out of consciousness.

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