Don't Drink the Water

Idle thoughts about not thinking... while waiting for water to boil.

Posted May 03, 2010

water leakWe have no water in Boston. Well, that's not exactly true... since Saturday afternoon, we have had no drinking water thanks to a rupture in the pipe that connects a major treatment plant with the city and 29 of its most populous suburbs.

With the benefit of perspective and hindsight, it really hasn't been that big a deal. Yes, there were scenes of chaos at local grocery stores Saturday evening as people stocked up on bottled water as if the apocalypse was at hand. Sure, for the foreseeable future we have to boil tap water before using it to cook, brush teeth, or even wash hands. And, yes, many an addict has had a tough 48 hours as all that one can currently buy at our local Starbucks outlets are pastries and bottled water.  I haven't heard this much public use of the word "potable" outside of a Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions episode.

But the fix is near and it's certainly hard to get too worked up over what amounts to a minor aggravation when you consider, say, the ongoing crisis of the Gulf Coast oil spill.  Still, it's been an interesting few days here from a psychological perspective. For one, watching the "Don't Drink the Water" mantra spread from house to house in our neighborhood the other night was a fascinating demonstration of the structure of social networks. It was also an amusing exercise in rumor perpetuation–a bit like an adult version of the old kids' game "Telephone."

Another thing the water main break has reinforced for me is just how dependent we are on automatic thoughts and automated processes as we go through our regular routine. I've posted before about this idea of operating on auto-pilot, often in the context of the stereotypes we use to navigate our social world more efficiently (like here and here). But our reliance on automatic thought processes and behavioral tendencies saves us time, energy, and effort in a wide range of daily pursuits. From drawing quick first impressions of others to following familiar rules-of-thumb when making decisions, we depend on psychological short-cuts and heuristics to keep us on track and to conserve cognitive resources for the really important tasks we need to complete.

We do this mentally, as when we use our previous experiences to provide a script for how we expect new events to proceed. Going to a restaurant, for example. It's a familiar act we've now done hundreds of times. We know the drill: check in with the host; wait for a table; peruse the menus; hear the specials; order food; start eating; have some guy you've never seen before and will never see again inexplicably stop by to "check on how everything is going tonight" without introducing who he is or why he's asking; get the leftovers boxed up; pay the bill; leave.

It's such a familiar set of experiences that when someone later asks, "how was dinner the other night?" you skip over most of what happened because it was totally unremarkable–it literally goes without saying. Only deviations from the norm are likely to make their way into your recap of events.

autopilotWe operate on auto-pilot behaviorally as well. Effective multi-tasking is made possible by some of the tasks being so well-learned that we devote to them little to any conscious thought. And how many times have you suddenly realized that you've been driving for 10 minutes without really thinking about where you going? Or found that you actually did turn off the lights and lock the door even though you have no recollection of having done so?

These automatic tendencies often serve us well by making life easier. But thrust into a very different environment than the one in which these tendencies were honed–as we have been the past 48 hours in Boston–throws a wrench into the well-oiled machine that is routine:

• I know very well that the understandably cautious powers-that-be have advised us not to wash our hands with tap water for now. Indeed, I have a pitcher of pre-boiled water next to the sink for that very purpose. Yet after every damned time I used the bathroom this weekend, I still started to wash my hands using the faucet before remembering to switch over and start again.

• I have bottled water sitting next to my toothbrush. This morning, I had every intention of using it to wet my brush and then rinse after brushing. But then I started brushing, and, let's face it, those 2 minutes with an electric toothbrush are a long 2 minutes, so my mind started to wander. When Sonicare finally granted me a reprieve, I was so happy that I started to rinse my brush off in the sink as usual. So now I get to hold the brush head under boiling water for a minute to sterilize it all over again.

water fountain• And I can't tell you how many times I've taken a step towards the water fountain at work today while coming around the corner where it sits. Fortunately, someone well aware of the power of automatic processes was wise enough to human-proof it in dramatic fashion before I got to the office (picture at left).

Just as you don't know what you got ‘til it's gone, you don't realize how reliant you are on automaticity until it starts causing you problems. Like when the airline desk agent ends your interaction with "have a nice flight," and you respond "you too" before realizing that, unlike you, he isn't going anywhere. Or when your young kids sleep over somewhere else for the night, but your body still rouses you at 6:15 in anticipation of an early morning visit. Much of how we see and interact with the world around us is guided by processes to which we've come to give little conscious thought.

Descartes famously suggested, "I think, therefore I am." Fair enough. But it is also the case that I am human, therefore I do not always think.



Sam Sommers is a social psychologist at Tufts University in Medford, MA. His first book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, will be published by Riverhead Books (Penguin) in December 2011. You can follow him on Facebook here and on Twitter here.