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It’s Not You—It’s Your Unconscious

Why therapy takes so long to work, Part Two

Photo by Faris Mohammed on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Faris Mohammed on Unsplash

Last week, in It’s Not You—It’s Your Unconscious: Why therapy takes so long to work, Part One, we started by outlining how our brain’s natural implicit learning and implicit memory processes may contribute to why therapy is not usually as quick and simple of a solution as we would like it to be. We discussed how our mind has powerful and marvelous pattern-picking mechanisms, which are often activated quickly and outside of our awareness. And patterns, once learned and committed to implicit memory, can turn into core beliefs, biases/prejudices, and relationship cycles. They may be, at least partially, responsible for how you “just know” when it’s going to rain, when your child is sneaking in candy, or when your mother was about to fall into a depressive episode in your childhood. They also can make the therapy process slower and require consistent and sustained effort to change.

Implicit learning and implicit memory are two of several unconscious processes, which we have called normative in our book The Unconscious: Theory, Research, and Clinical Implications (to be published this Fall by the Guilford Press). By normative, we mean that these processes are normal, amotivated, and arational. Much like the laws of physics, they are not good or bad, full of conflicting impulses (like Freud’s unconscious), or self-destructive. They just are, operating in my and your brain every day of the week. Today, we discuss two more unconscious processes, heuristics and affective primacy, and how they may play out in therapy.


The work on heuristics was pioneered by two brilliant psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (see Kahneman & Tversky, 1979, and Kahneman, 2011). In 2002, Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in this area. (Tversky had unfortunately died by then, and Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.) In a nutshell, a heuristic is a kind of a shortcut that your brain takes when solving a problem or making a choice. It is an unconscious strategy, which bypasses rational thought, allowing for quick and efficient decision-making.

Kahneman and Tversky found that we use such strategies all the time and are blissfully unaware that we are doing this at all. For instance, the availability heuristic dictates that what is familiar or comes quickly to mind (in other words, what’s available) is frequently judged as more likely or common. So, if your parents fought all the time growing up, you may consciously know that healthy conflict resolution exists, but become agitated and ready to fight (or flight/escape, or freeze/shut down) as soon as your partner brings up an issue. This reaction is more available to you.

In the representative heuristic, on the other hand, we base categorizations on similarity to a prototype. Say we have a room full of 70 percent CEOs and 30 percent teachers. If I described a person as caring, organized, and as someone who enjoys playing with children, most people will assume the person I am describing is a teacher. This happens even with the knowledge that more than two-thirds of the people in the room are CEOs and so the statistical probability of the person being a CEO is much higher. These shortcuts, while adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint (a big fuzzy object reminds me of a bear—therefore, I have to run), they can have grave consequences on how we form biases and prejudices. They can easily and unconsciously lead to stereotyping because we ignore the probability of something occurring in favor of whether or not the available information reminds us of what it is representative of.

Lastly, Kahneman and Tversky described an anchoring heuristic. In essence, they observed that we tend to "anchor" judgments and estimates to our immediate past experiences. In clinical psychology, we talk about how traumatic events, for example, may impact our ability to trust our judgment or trust other people. If you have experienced a betrayal from someone close to you, you may assume that others, especially ones with similar qualities or characteristics to that person, will betray you too. You may isolate yourself and miss out on potentially rewarding relationships. However, some of this carryover effect, so to speak, is not clearly pathological. It is normative and something to look out for. Rather than viewing it as our patient Jenny from Part One would ("Is my brain broken?"), it may be more beneficial to assume such anchoring is happening and to self-reflect on how or when it may be taking place.

Affective Primacy

Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash
Fear of heights is so powerful, we can feel it just by looking at a photograph
Source: Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

The affective primacy phenomenon was discovered and extensively studied by Robert Zajonc, an American social psychologist. Zajonc (e.g. 1984) observed that affectively charged (highly emotional) information is processed more easily and more quickly than cognitive information. It has even been proposed that emotional and cognitive information is processed through entirely different neurological pathways (LeDoux, 1996). Think an Amtrak train vs Elon Musk's hyperloop tunnel. While it may not be that simple, we now have enough empirical data to support the conclusion that we all make certain split-second decisions based on initial emotional evaluation of stimuli as good or bad, to be approached or to be avoided. This happens outside of awareness and at speeds much faster than the cognitive processing of the characteristics of a stimulus.

What’s more, our automatic initial judgments appear to be even faster in evaluating stimuli with high emotional valence and in processing negative over positive information. This means that we are much more likely to quickly and unconsciously judge a highly negative stimulus than a moderately positive one. This happens outside of our awareness, and it happens very quickly. It also has evolutionary value: You do not want to get eaten by a bear while admiring a pretty butterfly. To protect you from such an unfortunate event, your mind will much more quickly register the bear and, before you have consciously noted that the bear is brown and not gray, you find yourself running. The pretty butterfly may not even be registered as present in this situation.

Unfortunately, affective primacy can also mean that our minds tend to pay more attention to negative emotional experiences. We are drawn to emotionally charged and negatively laden situations—it’s why we simply cannot look away from a car crash. In our personal lives, we also tend to organize information according to its affective charge. Positive experiences go in one drawer of our mind’s filing cabinet, and negative ones in another. All this happens outside of our awareness and control. Our tendency to “fixate” on negatives is, at least partially, determined by a normative implicit process. It is a result of a quality of the brain/mind, like elasticity is a quality of tissues, not a pathological phenomenon.

For our third and last part of this series, where you will learn how all of these normative unconscious processes, taken together, impact our progress in therapy, head over to It’s Not You—It’s Your Unconscious: Why therapy takes so long to work, Part Three.

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Weinberger, J. & Stoycheva, V. (in press). The unconscious: Theory, research, and clinical implications. New York: The Guilford Press.

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263–291.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Zajonc, R. (1984). On the primacy of affect. American Psychologist, 39, 117–123.

LeDoux, J. E. (1996). The Emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Simon & Schuster.