Life on Autopilot

Exploring the mind's accidents, curve balls, and backfires

Do you own the thoughts that occur to you?

Where do thoughts come from?

Has a thought ever passed through your mind that you didn't feel was your own? I'm not talking about tin foil hats and thoughts beamed from outer space. I mean the ordinary moments when something occurs to you and you have to wonder where it came from. These orphan thoughts are especially common when we encounter someone different from us. Some people see a Pakistani in the airport and think, suicide bomber. Others see a young Black man on the street and think, mugger. These kinds of stereotypical thoughts cross the minds of many people even if they do not consciously agree with them. Where do those thoughts come from?

In many cases they feel uninvited. Even the language we use to describe the appearance of thoughts is passive. They pass through our minds. They occur to us. We treat them like telemarketing calls or visiting in-laws. They simply show up, like cognitive spam.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

When stereotypical thoughts occur to you, do you think they reflect your own personal beliefs, or something else, like the media, or society at large? In a recent study with Fleming Lei and Erin Cooley, I found that where you think they came from makes a big difference for what you think they mean.

We wanted to know if how people thought about the origin of their stereotypical thoughts would make them more or less likely to discriminate.

The study had three parts. First, we needed to measure what automatically popped to mind. We used a test called the affect misattribution procedure to capture people's implicit attitudes - the thoughts and feelings that immediately come to mind - in response to gay couples. The test presented pictures of gay and straight couples on a computer monitor (nothing X-rated, just PG-level hand holding and embracing). Immediately after each picture was flashed, a Chinese writing symbol flashed. Research volunteers rated each symbol as pleasant or unpleasant, but were told to ignore the photos of couples and not to let them influence their judgments. But they couldn't do it -- the ratings were influenced by the pictures, leading to much more negative ratings when the symbol was paired with the pictures of gay couples.

Now that we had a measure of the reactions that spontaneously popped to mind, we randomly assigned half the volunteers to think of two reasons that their gut reactions were NOT representative of their own feelings and beliefs (the not-me group). The other half were assigned to think of reasons that their gut reactions did in fact reflect their own feelings and beliefs (the it's-me group). Because the volunteers were randomly assigned to these groups, the attitudes of the people in each group were about the same. People were good at finding reasons in support of either position. The most common reason in the not-me group was that the test was probably slanted to create anti-gay feelings. (It's not me - the test made me do it!)The most common reasons in the it's-me group were family upbringing and religious beliefs. (This is me - it's just how I was raised!)

These are all perfectly reasonable ways to think about the feelings of uneasiness that came over the research subjects when they looked at gay couples. In fact, perfectly reasonable psychologists have been debating with each other for years about whether implicit attitudes reflect people's real selves, or whether they are the product of culture and upbringing. The fact that research volunteers could be so easily nudged to think about their implicit feelings from either perspective suggests that they may both be right - the critical question is where the person thinks those thoughts came from.

Which brings us to the third part of the study. Now we asked the research subjects to express their own real views about homosexuality. Some of the questions included: whether gay men should be allowed to serve in the military; whether hospitals should refuse to hire gay people as doctors; and whether the research participant would vote for an openly gay politician.

The way participants were led to think about their implicit feelings made an important difference. In the not-me group, beliefs about how gay people should be treated were unrelated to their implicit feelings. But the results were completely different in the it's-me group. Here, people's views about how gays should be treated were highly consistent with their implicit feelings. The more negative their implicit feelings were in the first phase of the study, the more they agreed that gay men should be excluded as soldiers, doctors, and leaders. Among those with the most anti-gay implicit responses, participants in the it's-me group were about 50% more likely to endorse discrimination than those in the not-me group. It seemed that when people thought about their implicit feelings as reflecting who they really were, they took them to heart and were ready to act on them.

These findings are especially interesting because all it took was two minutes of thinking about the origins of their thoughts. It's as if thinking about an idea as reflecting your self, even for a moment, flips a switch from stray thought, to my thought. Remember this study the next time a thought or feeling passes through your mind and you wonder where it came from. I can't tell you the right answer, but I can tell you that your answer could make an important difference for how you act. So be careful: the thoughts you think may be your own.

Keith Payne is an associate professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

more...

Subscribe to Life on Autopilot

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?