The Social Unconscious
How the unconscious helps, and how it can be helped
Posted March 12, 2011
Nature is full of examples of animals that pool their wisdom in the service of survival. Man too has that potential, but it is lost in the confusion and noise of individual conflict.
"Lesser creatures" moving about in a crowd seem to make "wise decisions," according to Iain Couzin of Princeton University, "even when most of the members of those groups are ignorant of what is going on." Schools of fish, for example, or herds of animals have the uncanny knack of responding to faint signals of danger and coordinating their behavior. His research suggests that a few "leaders" pick up the information and others simply follow. (See The Economist, "Follow My Leader.")
The evolutionary advantage of such spontaneous, unconscious responsiveness is obvious. In the struggle for survival, it allows them to move as one and to move fast.
Our human brains, too, are extraordinarily sensitive, picking up far more information that we can ever use - including key information about threats and opportunities. And we act on that information, often without ever being aware that we're doing it. Moreover, our collective judgments can be extraordinarily accurate. As James Surowiecki noted in The Wisdom of Crowds, if we average out our individual guesses about the number of pennies in a jar, for example, the result will be uncannily accurate.
So, like other members of the animal kingdom, we too are wired for survival. Why, then, don't we do a better job of working together to utilize that wisdom?
The reason is that we are preoccupied with our relations with each other. Constantly jockeying among ourselves, we search for a competitive advantage, or we look for ways to fit in and belong. Either we want to win or we want to be accepted. Each choice puts our individual interests ahead of the community. We don't easily trust that we could work together and also remain ourselves.
With the pennies in the jar, for example, if we stand around and talk it over, we will either start competing to win the prize for the best guess or we will try to figure out what others are thinking and join the consensus. When we are together, it's very hard to simply exercise our own judgments -- or to follow leaders, even when it would be to our advantage.
That's also in our wiring - and it has to do with another form of security we seek, the emotional security of belonging. We worry about external dangers, like the fish, but we also worry about our place in the crowd. We could do a better job of reconciling these two sets of worries. But as a culture, by and large, we have chosen competition over cooperation. Cooperation is good if it's in a team competing with another team, but that's about it.
On the other hand, we have an evolutionary advantage not given to schools or fish and herds of animals: conscious awareness. That gives us the opportunity to reflect on the choices we are about to make and to reconcile conflicting sets of information.
We need to rely on our unconscious impulses because, by and large, it makes us smarter and quicker. But there are times - particularly when we are jostling with each other -- that we need to step back and think about our choices. That's where we can easily let ourselves down, and surrender our competitive advantage as a species.