Environmental influence on unconscious volition

Eben Harrel summarizes a paper in an upcoming issue of Science giving exposition to the role of unconscious processing in everyday activities:

Studies have found that upon entering an office, people behave more competitively when they see a sharp leather briefcase on the desk, they talk more softly when there is a picture of a library on the wall, and they keep their desk tidier when there is a vague scent of cleaning agent in the air. But none of them are consciously aware of the influence of their environment.

There may be few things more fundamental to human identity than the belief that people are rational individuals whose behavior is determined by conscious choices. But recently psychologists have compiled an impressive body of research that shows how deeply our decisions and behavior are influenced by unconscious thought, and how greatly those thoughts are swayed by stimuli beyond our immediate comprehension.

In an intriguing review in the July 2 edition of the journal Science, published online Thursday, Ruud Custers and Henk Aarts of Utrecht University in the Netherlands lay out the mounting evidence of the power of what they term the “unconscious will.” “People often act in order to realize desired outcomes, and they assume that consciousness drives that behavior. But the field now challenges the idea that there is only a conscious will. Our actions are very often initiated even though we are unaware of what we are seeking or why,” Custers says.

It is not only that people’s actions can be influenced by unconscious stimuli; our desires can be too. In one study cited by Custers and Aarts, students were presented with words on a screen related to puzzles — crosswords, jigsaw piece, etc. For some students, the screen also flashed an additional set of words so briefly that they could only be detected subliminally. The words were ones with positive associations, such as beach, friend or home. When the students were given a puzzle to complete, the students exposed unconsciously to positive words worked harder, for longer, and reported greater motivation to do puzzles than the control group.

The same priming technique has also been used to prompt people to drink more fluids after being subliminally exposed to drinking-related words, and to offer constructive feedback to other people after sitting in front of a screen that subliminally flashes the names of their loved ones or occupations associated with caring like nurse. In other words, we are often not even consciously aware of why we want what we want.

John Bargh of Yale University, who 10 years ago predicted many of the findings discussed by Custers and Aarts in a paper entitled “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being,” called the Science paper a “landmark — nothing like this has been in Science before. It’s a large step toward overcoming the skepticism surrounding this research.”

Braugh isn’t the only theorist in this vein.  The Illusion of Conscious Will  by Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner is  one of the most-discussed texts of free will literature of the 21st century. I know this because I’ve never had the chance to read it; Raynor Memorial Library’s only copy was either checked out or reserved for two solid years, corresponding with the latter half of my undergraduate career. (Now that I’ve graduated and moved out of Milwaukee, it is, of course, now available.)

But back to Harrel’s piece. Though the author doesn’t himself use the term, the research under discussion research also lends more evidence to the thesis of embodied congnition:

But Bargh says the field has actually moved beyond the use of subliminal techniques, and studies show that unconscious processes can even be influenced by stimuli within the realms of consciousness, often in unexpected ways. For instance, his own work has shown that people sitting in hard chairs are more likely to be more rigid in negotiating the sales price of a new car, they tend to judge others as more generous and caring after they hold a warm cup of coffee rather than a cold drink, and they evaluate job candidates as more serious when they review their résumés on a heavy clipboard rather than a light one.

“These are stimuli that people are conscious of — you can feel the hard chair, the hot coffee — but were unaware that it influenced them. Our unconscious is active in many more ways than this review suggests,” he says.

All this brings to mind John Dewy’s critique of traditional accounts of mind. He claimed the fundamental error underlying previous theories of consciousness and knowledge was their passivity; humans weren’t the detatched observers of the world as previous epistemologists (supposedly) characterized them, but active organisms assertively seeking to fulfill needs in their environment, and in so doing interacting with and changing that environment. What he didn’t seem to have recongized just how far the environment impresses on us, how much it changes (dictates?) our behavior.

Going forward, I can imagine embodied cognition theorists frequently fending off accusations of behaviorism.


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