What Happens When Your Unconscious Mind Is In Charge

17:00 minutes

Ever have a gut feeling about a person you just met? What about a burst of inspiration for solving a tricky puzzle? You might have chalked the experience up to your above-average street smarts or creative genius. But according to John Bargh, professor of psychology at Yale University, it was actually the work of hidden mental processes influencing our everyday behaviors. Bargh joins Ira to discuss his new book Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do (Touchstone, 2017) and the many ways our thoughts, feelings, and decisions are not entirely our own.

You can read the excerpt for Dr. Bargh’s book here.

Segment Guests

John Bargh

John Bargh is the James Rowland Angell Professor of Psychology and Director of the Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation, and Evaluation (ACME) Laboratory at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Ever had a gut feeling about a person you just met? What about a burst of inspiration for solving a tricky puzzle? You might have chalked the experience up to what you consider your above average street smarts or your creative genius. But according to my next guest, it was actually the work of unconscious thinking, the hidden mental processes influencing our everyday behaviors.

John Bargh, professor of psychology at Yale and the director of the Automaticity cognition lab at Yale. He’s also the author of, Before You Know It– the Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do. Dr. Bargh, welcome to Science Friday.

JOHN BARGH: Thank you, Ira. It’s a pleasure to be here.

IRA FLATOW: You’re quite welcome. What do you mean by unconscious reasons?

JOHN BARGH: Well, I’m using the term the way that Darwin used it and Freud used it. It’s sort of the historical use of the term and it’s the influences on us that we don’t intend to happen and that we are not aware of operating. So since we’re not aware of them, we usually figure out the reasons for how we’re feeling about somebody, or opinions, and so forth in terms of what we are aware of. And we think that we’re angry right now because of what’s right in front of us, when it could have been something that just recently happened to us.

Or, for example, I have a pug dog named Edgar. And the other day, I had to take some anti-poison sumac steroids, prednisone, and that has a side effect of making you a little more angry than usual. And Edgar was knocking me around, and I was a little irritated and I was angry at Edgar. And my wife said, you know, you’re looking sort of angry right now. And I called my attention to the fact I was angrier than usual and I realized what was going on.

But usually we feel– even then I thought it. I thought, no. That was a bad dog. He was really being bad right then. He deserved me to be angry at him. And it’s a very hard thing to shake that even though there are these other influences on us, we’re pretty sure we know what’s going on in terms of what we are aware of, and that’s the disconnect.

IRA FLATOW: So let’s say I need to hire a new employee. I’m going to look at that person’s resume and interview and make a judgment based on that. But you’re saying there could be other things, maybe how I got along with my dog this morning, that could be influencing my decision unconsciously.

JOHN BARGH: Absolutely. For one thing, there are large studies, for example, in Italy of actual job postings and 1,000 people who applied. And they deliberately sent the same application in, exactly the same qualifications and so forth, and the only thing they varied was the photograph that was attached to the application. And some of the resumes had attractive photographs, and some unattractive, but everything else was the same.

And it was shocking what they found because 54% of the attractive women were called in for job interviews and only 7% of the unattractive women, even though the job resume was identical in both cases. For men, it was not as bad. It was 43% to 27%, something like that. But it was pretty overwhelming that there’s a beauty premium out there.

And the research in neuroscience has shown that looking at attractive people, just photographs, just looking at them does activate the reward center of your brain. So what’s going on here is that these other factors are influencing how you feel, but then you attribute how you feel to plausible things that should affect you such as their letters of recommendation, or their job experience, or something that is supposed to affect you.

IRA FLATOW: Is there a scientific definition for what attractive means?

JOHN BARGH: That’s a great question. Usually the research has shown that more symmetrical faces are found more attractive. For example, the studies that have used these morphing techniques on computers to average a bunch of faces together to see what the average looks like, the more faces they put into that morph, the more it’s an average face. And those are actually judged by people who think they’re real faces, they’re judged as more attractive than the ones that are based on fewer people.

And they’ve looked at Miss Universe and these beauty pageants and the faces of the contestants from the different continents and found that if they average those faces together, that face is judged even more beautifully as being even more beautiful than any of the individual faces.

IRA FLATOW: 844-724-8255 is our number. 844-SCI-TALK. You can also tweet us @scifri. I mentioned earlier in the program that I was going to talk about the coffee cup in the room. You ran an experiment where you had people hold a cup of coffee without knowing it, and describe for us what you were looking for there.

JOHN BARGH: Well, it’s been around for a while, but we know when we talk about somebody being a warm person, we know that that’s saying a lot. That’s saying a very good thing. And saying somebody is a cold person is not a very good thing. And usually a warm person is somebody who has your interests at heart, you can trust them, they’re generous, they’re pro-social, they’re a nice person.

A cold person doesn’t care about you, they care only about themselves and they often will betray you for their own gain. And this has been known for a while, and we realized after 50 or 60 years of the importance of this warm cold dimensions and impressions people form of others that maybe it’s something literally true about warmth.

There were some people working– John Bowlby, who is a longtime attachment theorist with infant to parent attachment and wrote about this in the ’60s and ’70s. Actually noticed that he thought that physical warmth is actually conflated in an infant’s mind with social warmth in that the mother is holding the infant close to her during breastfeeding.

And that’s also associated that warmth then is felt and associated with the infant with the social warmth of a mother being the one who’s taking care, who’s watching out, who’s keeping the infant safe from predators, feeding, doing all those having your interests at heart kind of caretaking. And over time, Bowlby argued that this actually would become hardwired in the human brain.

And he didn’t know this, but neuroscience 30 years later actually started showing that. That the same small region of the human brain, insula, is active both when you hold something warm and when you’re texting to family and friends or thinking about the significant others in your life.

And this was not known to Bowlby but, you know, it’s funny because, culturally, I was watching a documentary on the History Channel about hell, actually. And they have a lot of these on the History Channel. And this was about Dante and the inferno. And they got down to the ninth level, which is the lowest, worst sinners in the ninth level. Lowest as you can go. Satan is there.

And this is for people who betrayed the trust of others. Betrayed the trust of close others like Judas Iscariot who betrayed Christ, and also the person who betrayed Dante is right there, too. What is the punishment in the middle of fiery hell for betraying the trust of others? According to Dante, who came up with poetic justice and contrapasso and the punishment fits the crime–

IRA FLATOW: I got to bring you back to the cup of coffee, though. I mean, is that–

JOHN BARGH: Yeah. Oh, I’m sorry. Well, Dante’s punishment for betraying the trust of others was to freeze them in ice for eternity. And so that’s the other side of the coin. But what goes on here is that there’s actually a channel between feeling physical warmth and trusting and feeling positive towards other people.

And that channel can be activated just by studies, for example, by incidentally holding something physically warm will actually make you more trusting and more liking of another person. And the opposite works for a cup of iced coffee instead. And all we did was we had them hold this just because our hands were full with the papers.

Here, please hold this for a second. We got their papers for them and we took it right back and said, thank you. So it wasn’t even part of the actual experiment they thought, and yet it had the same effect in the study as the words warm or cold hand in these classic experiments from 50 years ago.

IRA FLATOW: So if you wanted someone to have warm feelings toward you, introducing you, you come into the office with a warm cup of coffee or tea for them.

JOHN BARGH: That’s not a bad idea. People who have just had a rejection experience, say they’ve had a bad encounter with somebody, they prefer warm foods for lunch instead of cold cuts.

IRA FLATOW: Maybe we knew that subconsciously all the time. That’s why we always say, hey, I’m going out for a cup of coffee. Do you want something, or tea?

JOHN BARGH: I’ve always greeted people in my office with hot coffee. I’m sure many people do. And it’s always been a socially warm kind of thing, like a fireplace in the wintertime.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s go to the phones. Let’s go to Alex in New Haven. Some place you should know about, Bargh. Go ahead, Alex.

ALEX: Hello, I’m Alex. I am a law student in New Haven. I was really interested concerning subconscious bias with attractive people and conventionally unattractive people. But I’m curious what you’d say how your analysis applies to race. Does the same subconscious bias effect work would you say for applicants concerning different race?

JOHN BARGH: Well, absolutely. This is a major problem. And, you know, like the orchestras often now have blind tryouts where you don’t even see the person who’s performing, you just listen to their music and you don’t know anything about them. You don’t know if they’re male or female. You don’t know what race or ethnicity. Sometimes you don’t even know their age.

And that’s a good idea because these biases can operate, and they do clearly operate in even well intentioned people. And this is the problem. These things get in from our culture even for people who want to be egalitarian and non-racist, and still influence. There’s still a negativity associated with minority groups in societies all over the world.

The negativity, then, is attributed to something in front of you like, well, they don’t have good letters of recommendation or they didn’t play that music well. In other words, you don’t realize the influence coming in from these cultural biases. And another sad thing about those cultural biases is the affect the group themselves.

So for example, this is a very scary study actually because it was on five year olds at a Harvard preschool about 10 years ago. And these are Asian American girls and five year olds. Now, they either colored in cartoons or coloring things for their Asian identity, that emphasized that, or their female identity.

And if it was the Asian, they actually scored on this math test afterwards, age appropriate, significantly higher than average. But if they had colored in the ones with the two girls playing with dolls or something, their score was actually significantly lower than average. And that was at five years of age.

IRA FLATOW: That’s amazing. Do these biases come from being around other people? I mean, you’re not saying these are hardwired by five years of age.

JOHN BARGH: Absolutely not. The studies of little infants, newborns, for example. Do they prefer to look at people who are like them? Same race, and so forth? They don’t. They don’t have any experience yet, but after three months they do. So they have to learn who their caretakers are and who the people who are like them, similar to them are. It doesn’t come at birth.

IRA FLATOW: So is there any way for us to control these influences, these unconscious influences in ourselves?

JOHN BARGH: The hopeful news here is that if you really want to and you really have that motivation, you can definitely do things to control it. You can tell yourself, when I see a person of color or I see a person of a certain group, I will be fair.

And you can basically take control over that process by making your own sort of unconscious process that sets it up in advance that this will be the stimulus, this will be the signal. A person who’s of color, a person, a woman, whoever the minority group is, and that will trigger this goal that you would have to be fair and treat them fairly. This actually works.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. You can give us a call 844-724-8255. Let’s go to Cleveland. [? Pankaj, ?] welcome to Science Friday.

SPEAKER: Hi. Really interesting discussion that you guys are having today. There is actually an article that I heard about where if you look at judges, their determination on guilty or innocent can be related to how much they have eaten or how hungry they are. I don’t know if you guys have any comments on that.

JOHN BARGH: Yeah. Yeah, I have heard about that. That was frightening. I was actually in the court system in an assault case, I was the victim of an assault. And I was in the court system and that study came out at that time. And I think it was something like if the judge is making the verdict, the sentencing of you as the defendant right before lunch, that’s not good because they’re hungry, they’re impatient, they’re a little crabby because they’re hungry.

And if they’ve just come back from lunch and you’re the next case, actually the sentences are significantly less harsh and not as severe if they’ve just had a nice lunch. And this was tremendously upsetting because these are arbitrary, whimsical kinds of influences that actually affect people’s lives in dramatic ways.

Now, the judge would say, oh, no, of course not. The judge would say, no. That’s not part of their own theory of what influences their sentences and decisions at all. And yet that was a shocking finding. I remember that story.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. And we live in this politically divisive world now. Are we unconsciously making decisions about people we meet by just their political leaning? You’re a good person because of this. I don’t want to date you because you voted for so-and-so.

JOHN BARGH: Well, we definitely people like people who are similar to us. There are stories about if you share a birthday with somebody, you sort of have a feeling that you can be like them, too. High school students in New Haven actually had their math scores improved at the end of the school year, the grades by the end of the school year were better if they had read about somebody who won a math award who just happened to have the same birthday as they did.

It was manipulated in a fake news, but it was pretended to be a story out of the newspaper. And they put that person just happening to have in a bio box that same birthday as the student. If they had the same birthday, this is in October when they read this, they actually had higher math grades at the end of the school year back in May or June.

And so the similarity is very powerful that if we feel similar to– and the opposite of that is if you don’t feel similar to somebody, then you don’t really feel like, you know, you don’t treat them as well as you do with the similar people.

The thing about these political issues, though, a good part of before you know it has to do with the underlying reasons for political attitudes. And there are some very topical things that are relevant. For example, we actually move people’s attitudes towards immigration around by whether they had just had a flu virus shot or not.

Now, what in the world is that about? That’s because there’s a metaphor that’s being used a lot, and it’s been used in the past by political leaders, that immigrants coming into your country are like germs or bacteria invading your body. And it’s a very powerful metaphor that speaks to our very important and very useful physical goal to avoid disease and to be physically safe.

And so if you make that metaphor, then you really do want to get rid of– you want to build walls and you want to get rid of these germs out of your body by deporting them and so forth. What we did was we raised this flu issue, and then we have the people in the study fill out questionnaires about their attitudes towards immigration. And then we found out afterwards, had they had the flu virus shot or not?

If we raised the threat and they had the flu virus shot, they were protected. Their attitudes towards immigration were significantly positive, more positive than usual. But if they had not had the shot, their attitudes towards immigration were significantly more negative than usual.

And that’s a scary thing because it’s saying these physical, these very reasonable, important, and necessary physical motivations to avoid disease and to be safe are really underlying our political attitudes towards these– actually, in a way, we’re treating people as if they’re germs. We’re considering in our mind, anyway, maybe without realizing it, that we’re treating these actual fellow human beings as if they were bacteria or viruses.

IRA FLATOW: And you can read more about all of this in John Bargh’s book, Before You Know It– the Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do. John Bargh is a professor of psychology at Yale University. Thank you for taking time to be with us today. Very interesting.

JOHN BARGH: My pleasure, Ira. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

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