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Business, Science

Human Behavior and the Unconscious Mind

extracts from John A. Bargh, Scientific American, (Jan 2014) 32-37

The ability to regulate our own behavior depends on more than genes, temperament, or social support. It also hinges on our capacity to identify and overcome automatic impulses and emotions.

“Snap” (subconscious) judgements of others allow us to make decisions about how we will act to people we do not expect to meet again. Our default unconscious perceptions generate expectations about their behavior and personality. Our implicit associations color our view of others. Our reflexive views and internal stereotypes are imposed on individuals we meet for the first time, and last even if they run counter to our conscious beliefs. Instead of acknowledging an unconsciously held bias, we instead focus on a negative feature or characteristic of the individual in support of our judgement. In addition, we have a hard time untangling the sources of various positive and negative feelings and are prone to misunderstanding proximal causes. (For example, the state of the weather affects people’s perceptions of their life up to that point.) 

“Stereotype threat” is often sufficient to affect performance. Reminding people of their particular race, gender or ethnicity affects their ability in standardised tests.

Watching or listening to someone makes us behave in ways we may not realize, such as mimicing their actions. The strongest form of mimicry occurs when two or more people engage in the same activity at the same time: marching in unison or singing in church, for example. Behavioral synchrony increases cooperation even between individuals who have not previously met.

Studies in Embodied Cognition show that a host of physical actions and sensations trigger psychological states that are metaphorically related to those behaviors and feelings. (Having volunteers first smile or frown before examining an object affected their perception of its value  positively or negatively respectively.) Conceptual scaffolding shows that we are also influenced by our physical environment during the formation of value judgements – holding a hot coffee-cup makes us think of someone as “warm”; sitting on a hard chair makes us negotiate “harder” and so on.

Modern theories on what drives behavior have settled for a single psychological system that can operate in both conscious and unconscious mode. The ways in which we go about pursuing a goal are very similar regardless of whether the stimulus is consciously or unconsciously perceived. We often pursue goals without any awareness of where they orginated – no conscious deliberation or free will needed. Our unconscious mind not only nudges us to a particular option, it also helps muster the neccessary motivation to help achieve it. Fortunately, many people’s (conscious) goals are directed towards the welfare of others (parenting, for example). Power causes these individuals to assume more of an altruistic perspective, become more preoccupied with what others think, and less likely to hold racial or other biases.

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