3 More Things You Didn't Realize About How Your Brain Works

We're judgmental, lazy, and suggestible, and there's little we can do about it.

Posted Aug 19, 2014

We all pride ourselves on making considered, well-thought-out decisions, and avoiding snap judgments based on little or no information. But despite our insistent belief in our “reasoning,” the fact is that a lot of the time, we’re doing nothing of the kind.

Human beings are actually hardwired to make snap judgments, or to engage in what Daniel Kahneman has called “fast” thinking—much of it taking place outside of our conscious awareness. At the risk of making you feel like a puppet on a string (albeit your own brain's string) consider the following research and ask yourself, “Who’s driving the car that’s me?”

(For more on this topic, see my earlier post.)

1. Priming powerfully influences your thoughts, whether you like it or not.

Did you know that if you just ask people to think about a library, they’re more likely to lower their voices to a whisper? Or that the smell of cleanser in the air makes people more likely to clean up after themselves? Cues in our physical environment evoke specific thoughts and reactions, without our being aware of their provenance. There’s a pretty obvious evolutionary advantage to the brain metaphorically sniffing out a potential danger before you actually see it and this trait continues to influence our behavior in meaningful ways. For example, as John Bargh and Tanya Chartrand found, when participants in an experiment were primed to complete sentences with words associated with rudeness (“aggressively,” “annoying,” etc.), they were more likely to behave rudely than those who were primed with neutral or polite words (“respect,” “courteous”).

Even objects in a room can cue behavior, as another experiment by Bargh and his colleagues demonstrated. In this case, the trappings of business and finance (a conference table, briefcase, suit and dress shoes, etc.) provided the priming backdrop, and the question posed was whether these objects would make participants more competitive. It turns out that they did. Given a word fragment to complete, one of which was c_ _p_ _ _tive, 70 percent of those who were primed with objects representing business completed the world as competitive, compared to 42 percent of unprimed subjects. (That fragment, by the way, could also have been completed as cooperative.)

Another recent study, by Adam Pazda and his colleagues, discovered that women judged another woman wearing red to be more sexually receptive and promiscuous than a woman in white—and were more likely to display jealousy and mate-guarding behavior if a woman wearing a red dress, instead of a green one, was on the scene. Think about such factors the next time you accuse your date/lover/spouse of flirting and make sure that you’re reacting to real behavior, and not the flash of a red dress in your peripheral vision.

2. Our brains are lazy and look for shortcuts without telling us.

The problem is that unless we know to look for those shortcuts or biases in thinking, we’re absolutely clueless about the fact they're in play. The key such bias to me is what's known as the availability heuristic. In a nutshell: The faster something comes to mind, the more credibility and importance you assign it. Of course, its popping up first has no bearing on either credibility or importance but is a function of the brain’s really fast sifting for information needed to solve a problem at hand, a question that needs answering, or a decision to be made. As Kahneman notes, availability is enhanced by personal connection (your car was broken into, so you assume robberies are on the rise in your neighborhood), discussions in the media (a focus on recent plane crashes convinces you flying is no longer safe), as well as vividness and drama (mass shootings convince you that movie theaters and schools are universally targeted).

The good news, as Kahneman also reports, is that the availability heuristic can be beaten—by reconsidering your thought and questioning its content. For example, realizing that the availability heuristic is at work, you can reconsider the car break-in and consider it a one-shot happening, not a trend (at least until you seek out local crime statistics) and decide against rushing to install expensive floodlights over your driveway. This particular mental shortcut influences decisions both large and small—from buying a lottery ticket at a convenience store 15 miles away because someone got a winning ticket there last week, to deciding not to move to Florida because of reports about sinkholes—so checking what’s behind what you generously call “thinking” is crucial.

3. First impressions are far faster and stronger than you ever imagined.

You take an immediate shine to Jack or Jill because you’re certain that he or she is open and honest. But you instantly dislike Craig or Caroline because your gut tells you he or she is utterly untrustworthy. Even though you’ll doubtless (eventually) come up with what you think are perfectly reasonable explanations for these beliefs, the reality is that you assigned those traits to these people based almost entirely on your perception of their faces. And how long did it take you to form that first impression? About 100 milliseconds. Yes, the whole process takes a tenth of a second. (If you’re wondering, the blink of an eye takes considerably longer.)

In a series of experiments by Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov, participants viewed photos of individuals for varied lengths of time—100 milliseconds; a half-second; and a second—and identified the traits they associated with the faces. Among the traits considered were trustworthiness, competence, likeability, attractiveness, aggressiveness, ambition, and extraversion. Perhaps most striking about the findings was that these true snap judgments were highly correlated with judgments made in the absence of time constraints. In fact, longer exposure to a face did not necessarily make the first impression more reliable—when the exposure time was increased from 100 milliseconds to a half-second, judgments became more negative.

The researchers propose that yet another bias—the person-positivity bias—may operate when the amount of information we have to go on to make a judgment is minimal but may decrease when there’s more information and time. Increasing the time from a half-second to a full second didn’t necessarily change people’s judgments, but it did increase confidence in those judgments. Thus, the authors write, “Additional encounters with a person may serve only to justify quick, initial, on-line judgments.”

Needless to say, this automatic appraisal is something we need to keep in mind both in the real world and on social media (especially on online dating sites).

Research continues to reveal that human behavior and motivation may not rely on consciousness as much as we like to think. Who’s driving the car that’s you? The answer may prove to be quite complicated.

Copyright© Peg Streep 2014

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Bargh, John A. and Tanya L. Chartrand, “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being,” American Psychologist, 54, no.7 (July,1999), 462-479.

Kay, Aaron C., S. Christian Wheeler, John A. Bargh, and lee Ross, “Material Priming: The Influence of Mundane Physical Objects on Situational Construal and Competitive Behavior Choice,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Process (2004) 93, 83-96.

Pazda, Adam, Pavol Prokop, and Andrew J. Elliot, “Red and Romantic Rivalry” Viewing Another Woman in Red Increases Perceptions of Sexual Receptivity, Derogation, and Intentions to Mate- Guard,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, (2014).

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Willis, Janine and Alexander Todorov, “First impressions: Making Up Your Mind After a 100 MS Exposure of a Face,” Psychological Science (2006), vol.17, no.7, 592-598.