Ambigamy

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Consciously unconscious: Reflections on the annual social psychology conference

Consciously unconscious: Reflections on the annual social psychology conference

I just got back from the annual Social Psychology meeting in Las Vegas. Are you following this amazing field? It's not hard to follow, what with the wealth of marvelously accessible books with monosyllabic titles like Blink, Switch, Nudge, and Sway, not to mention The Hidden Brain, Predictably Irrational, The political brain, On being certain, How we decide, and well, really too many to mention.

If you haven't been following, let me summarize. When it comes to the subconscious, Freud didn't know the half of it. He was right that our conscious minds aren't running everything, but it's not as though everything beneath the surface is libidinous. A lot of it is just fast and efficient habitual reaction.

The mind is not a computer but it is an eager computer maker. Instinct and experience turn whatever processes they can into unconscious routines. Very little of what we do is conscious first. Biases, heuristics (rules of thumb), emotions and prejudices drive a lot more than we know.

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They don't ask permission, they ask forgiveness. After the fact, our conscious processes explain the behaviors they never dispatched in the first place. "O, conscious mind," we ask, "please grant me one good reason for what I just did."

The wish is invariably granted.

Academic conferences are like intellectual three ring circuses. At any time as many as seven simultaneous lectures are going on in different rooms. The presentations are twenty minutes each, and people are free to move from room to room. The long day is over by 6:30pm. After dark, the social psychologists spread out to enjoy and, no doubt to analyze the action on the Las Vegas strip.

The strip is an ideal place to ponder automatic unconscious behavior, and a social psychology conference isn't bad either. The running question for me throughout the conference was about the relationship between those of us who analyze unconscious behavior and those of us who don't.

Does analyzing behavior make it less automatic? If so, how much? If not, do social psychologists known that, or do they think analysis makes a bigger difference than it does? In other words, in the battle for dominance between will and flesh, mind and heart, thought and emotion, what are the odds?

There are plenty of studies that show that immediately after you make an unconscious habit conscious, it is less automatic. But here I'm talking about long-term effects. If I know about unconscious habits in principle, does it alter my unconscious habits much? What's the ratio of knowing to changing? If I spend forty hours a week thinking about my unconscious, does that make my behaviors a lot less automatic or a little? If that seems like a lot of hours, remember that a full time social psychologists spends at least that much time studying the unconscious.

I walk down the strip at night looking at these people celebrating obliviousness, guzzling from their foot long Margarita vases. Part of me says, "look at these unconscious people," and part of me says to myself, "look at you, assuming you're more conscious, when really, for all your analysis and book-reading you're probably about as automatically controlled by your unconscious as they are."

Oscar Wilde said, "We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars," a sentiment echoed years ago by a close friend and founder of the field of social psychology. We were having breakfast and I was talking about some insight I had and how it applied to my life. He said, "it's funny, you seem to think that knowing all of this stuff about the unconscious actually changes your behavior."

I confessed that I did. "To name it is to tame it" is my guiding principle. If you can identify a habit, bringing it to consciousness, you can control it.

"I've never believed that," he said. "To me it has always been an intellectual curiosity."

At the conference, most presentations follow a very straightforward format. A question is posed, an experiment is described, the data is presented and interpreted, and then brief broad conclusions are drawn. The questions motivating the research are often very juicy: Why do 85% of people think they're better than average on so many positive traits, when by definition, only 50% could really be? When does forgiving someone make you feel like a doormat? Do we identify with our future selves or think of them as other people? Do we associate dirty thoughts with physical dirt? How does contemplating our own deaths alter our behavior? How much does our self-description match other people's descriptions of us? The research presented however is very cut and dry, usually a few bar charts showing the relationship between two variables and a brief "discussion" of the findings.

I've long thought that experimental psychology can never do as subtle of job of psychology as is done by good fiction. Fiction can give simultaneous voice to the whole cacophonous chorus of conflicting motives, whereas experimental rigor demands that only a few variables be examined at any time. The compromise perhaps is some psychodynamic approach, not Freudian but still an attempt to describe and explain the mind's overall plumbing. You get more of that in the trade books that survey social psychology. They're more expansive and philosophical, sizing up the whole of the human condition more than any twenty-minute conference presentation ever could.

One of the keynote speakers at the conference happens to be a childhood friend. Well, not so much a friend--my elder brother's first girlfriend--I was in awe of them both. I'm still in awe of her, now one of the biggest names in social psychology. She presented on attitudes about status. I love it when life imitates academics and visa versa--a lecture on status by someone with whom I've had status issues.

A keynote by a prestigious luminary in the field is an earned opportunity to be more expansive and philosophical. This luminary didn't indulge in much of that. Mostly she presented experimental results that demonstrate ways that we treat lower status people as though they were less like human beings and more like objects, and ways that we treat higher status people with a mixture of resentment and deference. As I listened, I got interested in her personal identification with her findings. Was she talking about them-people out there--or us, her included?

When she talked about resentment for high status people, she joked about younger academics resenting tenured professors like her for occupying the best jobs. When she talked about the low status of senior citizens she joked about getting older herself.

She presented her research as bad news about the nature of us, but I recognized in her style subtle signs of a tendency we all have that I've called "exempt by contempt." If I shudder at a failing I spot in someone else, I must be an expert at spotting failings. If I am contemptuous of such failings I must have a good moral compass. If I don't spot the same failing in myself, then I must be exempt, because after all, that's the assessment of a real expert-me--someone who both can spot the failings and who knows how bad they are. And the more contempt I show for it in others the more exempt I must be.

She showed weary sad disdain for the objectification of the down and out. Contempt would have been very out of place. So too I think would have been any suggestion that she too objectifies the down and out. If asked point blank she would have said, "of course I'm not exempt," but her wise weariness would naturally sit better with this crowd than would saying to the assembled, "You know, dear colleagues, for all of our studying, you and I are probably not much better than the average at overcoming the contemptible practices I'm describing."

I've coined the term "we-glee" for the subtle smugness of crowds. It's the collective version of "exempt by contempt," the glee at being a member of the "we," the inner circle of above average people. It is hard for a leader or public speaker to resist the temptation to evoke it to motivate and unify a crowd. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glen Beck make and persuade millions with weglee. At the extreme, weglee is one of the deadliest tribal traits on the planet. "But then you and I know that, whereas alas, the dunderheads who aren't reading this don't," he said ironically.

At the conference, there were some fine presentations on hypocrisy too, and what about it animates us so much when we spot it in others. Schadenfreude was one candidate explanation. We take strange enjoyment from the trouble of others. Especially hypocrites, because they've got it coming.

What wasn't mentioned is what might motivate schadenfreude, making it less strange. The big take-away from social psychology these days is that we're all a little bit hypocritical. Our unconscious does things that are inconsistent with our declared motives. Maybe we click our tongues at hypocrites because it makes us feel exempt by contempt . If we can see that they're contemptable hypocrites then we must not be hypocrites ourselves.

I'm subscribed to a service called "Celebrity Death Beeper," which sends me an email every time someone famous dies. I open it enthusiastically. Yes I'm saddened when someone I appreciate dies. John Updike last year, for example, who is the fiction writer who comes most readily to mind when I think about exquisite depictions of subtly cacophonous choruses of conflicted emotions. But there's also a certain glee and I'm pretty sure it's exempt by pity. Death is for losers, not for me. I'm somehow exempt. When others around me drop, I take that as proof that I won't die.

Of course consciously, I realize that that's not true. And consciously I realize that laughing at hypocrites doesn't mean I'm not one. But unconsciously I can't resist. I'm a meta-hypocrite, a hypocrite in pretending that I'm not a hypocrite when I really am one. When I walk down the Las Vegas strip amused and bewildered by the ovinity of humankind, I think I'm above the flock. How much can I admit that I'm not? Indeed how much conscious control do I have over admitting?

 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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