The Social Unconscious
Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us. —OLIVER SACKS
IN THE EARLY 1950s, a twenty-five-year-old woman named Chris Costner Sizemore walked into a young psychiatrist’s office complaining of severe and blinding headaches.1 These, she said, were sometimes followed by blackouts. Sizemore appeared to be a normal young mother, in a bad marriage but with no major psychological problems. Her doctor would later describe her as demure and constrained, circumspect, and meticulously truthful. He and she discussed various emotional issues, but nothing that occurred over the next few months of treatment indicated that Sizemore had actually lost consciousness or that she suffered from any serious mental condition. Nor was her family aware of any unusual episodes. Then one day during therapy she mentioned that she had apparently gone on a recent trip but had no memory of it. Her doctor hypnotized her, and the amnesia cleared. Several days later, the doctor received an unsigned letter. From the postmark and the familiar penmanship, he knew it had come from Sizemore. In the letter, Sizemore said she was disturbed by the recovered memory—how could she be sure she remembered everything, and how could she know the memory loss wouldn’t happen again? There was also another sentence scrawled at the bottom of the letter, in a different handwriting that was difficult to decipher.
On her next visit Sizemore denied having sent the letter, though she recalled having begun one that, she said, she had never completed. Then she began to exhibit signs of stress and agitation. Suddenly she asked—with obvious embarrassment—if hearing an imaginary voice meant she was insane. As the therapist thought about it, Sizemore altered her posture, crossed her legs, and took on a “childishly daredevil air” he had never before seen in her. As he later described it, “A thousand minute alterations of manner, gesture, expression, posture, of nuances in reflex or instinctive reaction, of glance, of eyebrow tilting and eye movement, all argued that this could only be another woman.” Then that “other woman” began to speak of Chris Sizemore and her problems in the third person, using “she” or “her” in every reference.
When asked her identity, Sizemore now replied with a different name. It was she, this person who suddenly had a new name, she said, who had found the unfinished letter, added a sentence, and mailed it. In the coming months Sizemore’s doctor administered psychological personality tests while Sizemore took on each of her two identities. He submitted the tests to independent researchers, who were not told that they’d come from the same woman.2 The analysts concluded that the two personalities had markedly different self-images. The woman who’d originally entered therapy saw herself as passive, weak, and bad. She knew nothing of her other half, a woman who saw herself as active, strong, and good. Sizemore was eventually cured. It took eighteen years.3
Chris Sizemore’s was an extreme case, but we all have many identities. Not only are we different people at fifty than we are at thirty, we also change throughout the day, depending on circumstances and our social environment, as well as on our hormonal levels. We behave differently when we are in a good mood than when we are in a bad one. We behave differently having lunch with our boss than when having lunch with our subordinates. Studies show that people make different moral decisions after seeing a happy film,4 and that women, when ovulating, wear more revealing clothing, become more sexually competitive, and increase their preference for sexually competitive men.5 Our character is not indelibly stamped on us but is dynamic and changing. And as the studies of implicit prejudice revealed, we can even be two different people at the same time, an unconscious “I” who holds negative feelings about blacks—or the elderly, or fat people, or gays, or Muslims—and a conscious “I” who abhors prejudice.
Despite this, psychologists have traditionally assumed that the way a person feels and behaves reflects fixed traits that form the core of that individual’s personality. They’ve assumed that people know who they are and that they act consistently, as a result of conscious deliberation.6 So compelling was this model that in the 1960s one researcher suggested that, rather than performing costly and time-consuming experiments, psychologists might collect reliable information by simply asking people to predict how they would feel and behave in certain circumstances of interest.7 Why not? Much of clinical psychotherapy is based on what is essentially the same idea: that through intense, therapeutically guided reflection we can learn our true feelings, attitudes, and motives.
But remember the statistics on Browns marrying Browns, and investors undervaluing the IPOs of companies with tongue-twister names? None of the Browns had consciously set out to choose a spouse who shared their name; nor did professional investors think their impressions of a new company had been influenced by the ease of pronouncing that company’s name. Because of the role of subliminal processes, the source of our feelings is often a mystery to us, and so are the feelings themselves. We feel many things we are not aware of feeling. To ask us to talk about our feelings may be valuable, but some of our innermost feelings will not yield their secrets to even the most profound introspection. As a result, many of psychology’s traditional assumptions about our feelings simply do not hold.
“I’VE GONE THROUGH years of psychotherapy,” a well-known neuroscientist told me, “to try to find out why I behave in certain ways. I think about my feelings, my motivations. I talk to my therapist about them, I finally come up with a story that seems to make sense, and it satisfies me. I need a story I can believe, but is it true? Probably not. The real truth lies in structures like my thalamus and hypothalamus, and my amygdala, and I have no conscious access to those no matter how much I introspect.” If we are to have a valid understanding of who we are and, therefore, of how we would react in various situations, we have to understand the reasons for our decisions and behavior, and—even more fundamentally—we have to understand our feelings and their origins. Where do they come from?
Let’s start with something simple: the feeling of pain. The sensory and emotional feeling of pain arises from distinct neural signals and has a well-defined and obvious role in our lives. Pain encourages you to put down that red-hot frying pan, punishes you for pounding your thumb with that hammer, and reminds you that when sampling six brands of single-malt Scotch, you should not make them doubles. A friend may have to draw you out before you understand your feelings toward that financial analyst who took you to the wine bar last night, but a pounding headache is a feeling you’d think you could get in touch with without anyone’s help. And yet it is not that simple, as evidenced by the famous placebo effect.
When we think of the placebo effect, we may imagine an inert sugar pill that relieves a mild headache as well as a Tylenol, as long as we believe we’ve taken the real thing. But the effect can be dramatically more powerful than that. For example, angina pectoris, a chronic malady caused by inadequate blood supply in the muscle of the heart wall, often causes very severe pain. If you have angina and attempt to exercise—which can mean simply walking to answer the door—nerves in your heart muscle act like a “check engine” sensor: they carry signals via your spinal cord to your brain to alert you that improper demands are being placed on your circulatory system. The result can be excruciating pain, a warning light that is hard to ignore. In the 1950s, it was common practice for surgeons to tie off certain arteries in the chest cavity as a treatment for patients with severe angina pain. They believed new channels would sprout in nearby heart muscle, improving circulation. The surgery was performed on a large number of patients with apparent success. Yet something was amiss: pathologists who later examined these patients’ cadavers never saw any of the expected new blood vessels.
Apparently the surgery was a success at relieving the patients’ symptoms but a failure at addressing their cause. In 1958, curious cardiac surgeons conducted an experiment that, for ethical reasons, would not be permitted today: they carried out sham operations. For five patients, surgeons cut through the skin to expose the arteries in question but then stitched each patient back together without actually tying off the arteries. They also performed the true operation on another group of thirteen patients. The surgeons told neither the patients nor their cardiologists which subjects had had the real operation. Among the patients who did receive the real operation, 76 percent saw an improvement in their angina pain. But so did all five in the sham group. Both groups, believing that a relevant surgical procedure had been performed, reported far milder pain than they had had before surgery. Since the surgery produced no physical changes in either group (in terms of the growth of new blood vessels to improve circulation to the heart), both groups would have continued to experience the same level of sensory input to the pain centers of their brains. Yet both groups had a greatly reduced conscious experience of pain. It seems our knowledge of our feelings—even physical ones—is so tenuous that we can’t even reliably know when we are experiencing excruciating pain.8
The view of emotion that is dominant today can be traced not to Freud—who believed that unconscious content was blocked from awareness via the mechanism of repression—but to William James, whose name has already come up in several other contexts. James was an enigmatic character. Born in New York City in 1842 to an extremely wealthy man who used some of his vast fortune to finance extensive travels for himself and his family, James had attended at least fifteen different schools in Europe and America by the time he was eighteen—in New York; Newport, Rhode Island; London; Paris; Boulogne-sur-Mer, in northern France; Geneva; and Bonn. His interests flitted similarly, from subject to subject, landing for a while on art, chemistry, the military, anatomy, and medicine. The flitting consumed fifteen years. At one point during those years he accepted an invitation from the famous Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz to go on an expedition to the Amazon River basin in Brazil, during which James was seasick most of the time and, in addition, contracted smallpox. In the end, medicine was the only course of study James completed, receiving an MD from Harvard in 1869, at the age of twenty-seven. But he never practiced or taught medicine.
It was an 1867 visit to mineral springs in Germany—where he traveled to recuperate from the health problems resulting from the Amazon trip—that led James to psychology. Like Münsterberg sixteen years later, James attended some of Wilhelm Wundt’s lectures and got hooked on the subject, in particular the challenge of turning psychology into a science. He began to read works of German psychology and philosophy, but he returned to Harvard to complete his medical degree. After his graduation from Harvard, he became deeply depressed. His diary from that time reveals little but misery and self-loathing. His suffering was so severe that he had himself committed to an asylum in Somerville, Massachusetts, for treatment; however, he credited his recovery not to the treatment he received but to his discovery of an essay on free will by the French philosopher Charles Renouvier. After reading it, he resolved to use his own free will to break his depression. In truth, it doesn’t seem to have been that simple, for he remained incapacitated for another eighteen months and suffered from chronic depression for the rest of his life.
William James self-portrait. By permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Still, by 1872 James was well enough to accept a teaching post in physiology at Harvard, and by 1875 he was teaching The Relations Between Physiology and Psychology, making Harvard the first university in the United States to offer instruction in experimental psychology. It was another decade before James put forth to the public his theory of emotions, providing the outline of that theory in an article he published in 1884 called “What Is an Emotion?” The article appeared in a philosophy journal called Mind, rather than in a psychology journal, because the first English-language journal of research psychology wouldn’t be established until 1887.
In his article, James addressed emotions such as “surprise, curiosity, rapture, fear, anger, lust, greed and the like,” which are accompanied by bodily changes such as quickened breath or pulse or movements of the body or the face.9 It may seem obvious that these bodily changes are caused by the emotion in question, but James argued that such an interpretation is precisely backward. “My thesis on the contrary,” James wrote, “is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of [an] exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion.… Without the bodily state following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colorless, destitute of emotional warmth.” In other words, we don’t tremble because we’re angry or cry because we feel sad; rather, we are aware of feeling angry because we tremble, and we feel sad because we cry. James was proposing a physiological basis for emotion, an idea that has gained currency today—thanks in part to the brain-imaging technology that allows us to watch the physical processes involved in emotion as they are actually occurring in the brain.
Emotions, in today’s neo-Jamesian view, are like perceptions and memories—they are reconstructed from the data at hand. Much of that data comes from your unconscious mind, as it processes environmental stimuli picked up by your senses and creates a physiological response. The brain also employs other data, such as your preexisting beliefs and expectations, and information about the current circumstances. All of that information is processed, and a conscious feeling of emotion is produced. That mechanism can explain the angina studies—and, more generally, the effect of placebos on pain. If the subjective experience of pain is constructed from both our physiological state and contextual data, it’s no surprise that our minds can interpret the same physiological data—the nerve impulses signifying pain—in different ways. As a result, when nerve cells send a signal to the pain centers of your brain, your experience of pain can vary even if those signals don’t.10
James elaborated on his theory of emotion, among many other things, in his book The Principles of Psychology, which I mentioned in Chapter 4 regarding Angelo Mosso’s experiments on the brains of patients who had gaps in their skulls following surgery. James had been given a contract to write the book in 1878. He began it, with a flurry of work, on his honeymoon. But once the honeymoon was over, it took him twelve years to finish it. It became a classic, so revolutionary and influential that, in a 1991 survey of historians of psychology, James ranked second among psychology’s most important figures, behind only his early inspiration, Wundt.11
Ironically, neither Wundt nor James was pleased with the book. Wundt was dissatisfied because James’s revolution had by then strayed from Wundt’s brand of experimental psychology, in which everything must be measured. How, for instance, do you quantify and measure emotions? By 1890, James had decided that since one couldn’t, psychology must move beyond pure experiment, and he derided Wundt’s work as “brass instrument psychology.”12 Wundt, on the other hand, wrote of James’s book that “It is literature, it is beautiful, but it is not psychology.”13
James had much more stinging criticism for himself. He wrote, “No one could be more disgusted than I at the sight of the book. No subject is worth being treated of in 1000 pages. Had I ten years more, I could rewrite it in 500; but as it stands it is this or nothing—a loathsome, distended, tumefied, bloated, dropsical mass, testifying to nothing but two facts: 1st, that there is no such thing as a science of psychology, and 2nd, that W. J. is an incapable.”14 After publication of the book, James decided to abandon psychology in favor of philosophy, leading him to lure Münsterberg from Germany to take over the lab. James was then forty-eight.
JAMES’S THEORY OF emotion dominated psychology for a while, but then gave way to other approaches. In the 1960s, as psychology took its cognitive turn, his ideas—now called the James-Lange theory—experienced a new popularity, for the notion that different sorts of data are processed in your brain to create emotions fit nicely into James’s framework. But a nice theory does not necessarily equate to a correct theory, so scientists sought additional evidence. The most famous of the early studies was an experiment performed by Stanley Schachter, the famed Dr. Zilstein in the University of Minnesota experiment, but then at Columbia. He partnered in the research with Jerome Singer, who would later be called the “best second author in psychology” because he held that position on a number of famous research studies.15 If emotions are constructed from limited data rather than direct perception, similar to the way vision and memory are constructed, then, as with perception and memory, there must be circumstances when the way the mind fills in the gaps in the data results in your “getting it wrong.” The result would be “emotional illusions” that are analogous to optical and memory illusions.
For example, suppose you experience the physiological symptoms of emotional arousal for no apparent reason. The logical response would be to think, Wow, my body is experiencing unexplained physiological changes for no apparent reason! What’s going on? But suppose further that when you experience those sensations they occur in a context that encourages you to interpret your reaction as due to some emotion—say, fear, anger, happiness, or sexual attraction—even though there is no actual cause for that emotion. In that sense your experience would be an emotional illusion. To demonstrate this phenomenon, Schachter and Singer created two different artificial emotional contexts—one “happy,” one “angry”—and studied physiologically aroused volunteers who were placed in those situations. The researchers’ goal was to see whether those scenarios could be used to “trick” the volunteers into having an emotion that the psychologists themselves had chosen.
Here is how it worked. Schachter and Singer told all their experimental subjects that the purpose of the experiment they were participating in was to determine how the injection of a vitamin called “Suproxin” would affect their visual skills. Actually, the drug was adrenaline, which causes increased heart rate and blood pressure, a feeling of flushing, and accelerated breathing—all symptoms of emotional arousal. The subjects were divided into three groups. One group (the “informed”) was accurately told about the effects of the injection, explained as the “side effects” of the Suproxin. Another group (the “ignorant”) was told nothing. Its members would feel the same physiological changes but have no explanation for them. The third group, which acted as a control group, was injected with an inert saline solution. This group would feel no physiological effects and was not told that there would be any.
After administering the injection, the researcher excused himself and left each subject alone for twenty minutes with another supposed subject, who was actually a confederate of the scientists. In what was called the “happiness” scenario, this person acted strangely euphoric about the privilege of participating in the experiment, providing the artificial social context. Schachter and Singer also designed an “anger” scenario, in which the person the subjects were left alone with complained incessantly about the experiment and how it was being conducted. The experimenters hypothesized that, depending on which social context they’d been placed in, the “ignorant” subjects would interpret their physiological state as arising from either happiness or anger, while the “informed” subjects would not have any subjective experience of emotion because, even though they had been exposed to the same social context, they already had a good explanation for their physiological changes and would therefore have no need to attribute them to any kind of emotion. Schachter and Singer also expected that those in the control group, who did not experience any physiological arousal, would not experience any emotion, either.
The subjects’ reactions were judged in two ways. First, they were surreptitiously watched from behind a two-way mirror by impartial observers, who coded their behavior according to a prearranged rubric. Second, the subjects were later given a written questionnaire, in which they reported their level of happiness on a scale from 0 to 4. By both measures, all three groups reacted exactly as Schachter and Singer had expected.
Both the informed and the control subjects observed the apparent emotions—euphoria or anger—of the confederate who had been planted in their midst but felt no such emotion in themselves. The ignorant subjects, however, observed the fellow and, depending on whether he seemed to be expressing euphoria or anger about the experiment, drew the conclusion that the physical sensations they themselves were experiencing constituted either happiness or anger. In other words, they fell victim to an “emotional illusion,” mistakenly believing that they were reacting to the situation with the same “emotions” the fake subject was experiencing.
The Schachter and Singer paradigm has been repeated over the years in many other forms, employing means gentler than adrenaline to stimulate the physiological reaction and examining a number of different emotional contexts, one of which—the feeling of sexual arousal—has been particularly popular. Like pain, sex is an area in which we assume we know what we are feeling, and why. But sexual feelings turn out not to be so straightforward after all. In one study, researchers recruited male college students to participate in two back-to-back experiments, one ostensibly having to do with the effects of exercise, and a second in which they would rate a series of “short clips from a film.”16 In reality, both phases were part of the same experiment. (Psychologists never tell their subjects the truth about the point of their experiments, because if they did so the experiments would be compromised.) In the first phase, exercise played the role of the adrenaline injection to provide an unrecognized source of physiological arousal. It would be reasonable to wonder what kind of burnouts wouldn’t realize that their quickened pulse and breathing were due to their just having run a mile on the treadmill, but it turns out that there is a window of several minutes after exercise during which you feel that your body has calmed but it is actually still in an aroused state. It was during that window that the experimenters showed the “uninformed” group the film clips. The “informed” group, on the other hand, saw the clips immediately after exercising, and thus knew the source of their heightened physiological state. As in the Schachter-Singer experiment, there was also a control group, which did no exercise and, hence, experienced no arousal.
Now for the sex. As you may have guessed, in the second phase the “short clips from a film” weren’t taken from a Disney movie. The film was an erotic French movie, The Girl on a Motorcycle, renamed, in America, Naked Under Leather. Both titles are descriptive. The French title relates to the plot: the film is a road movie about a newlywed who deserts her husband and takes off on her motorcycle to visit her lover in Heidelberg.17 That may sound like a compelling plot line to the French, but the American distributor apparently had a different idea about how to telegraph to an audience the nature of the film’s appeal. And it is indeed the “naked under leather” aspect of the movie that inspired the researchers’ choice of clips. On that score, however, the film did not seem to succeed. When asked to rate their degree of sexual arousal, the students in the control group gave the film a 31 on a scale of 100. The informed group agreed; its members rated their sexual stimulation at just 28. But the subjects in the ignorant group—who were aroused by their recent exercise but didn’t know it—apparently mistook their arousal as being of a sexual nature. They gave the film a 52.
An analogous result was obtained by another group of researchers, who arranged for an attractive female interviewer to ask male passersby to fill out a questionnaire for a school project. Some of the subjects were intercepted on a solid wood bridge only ten feet above a small rivulet. Others were queried on a wobbly five-foot-wide, 450-foot-long bridge of wooden boards with a 230-foot drop to rocks below. After the interaction, the interviewer gave out her contact information in case the subject “had any questions.” The subjects interviewed on the scary bridge presumably felt a quickened pulse and other effects of adrenaline. They must have been aware, to some extent, of their bodily reaction to the dangerous bridge. But would they mistake their reaction for sexual chemistry? Of those interviewed on the low, safe bridge, the woman’s appeal was apparently limited: only 2 of the 16 later called her. But of those on the high-anxiety bridge, 9 of the 18 phoned her.18 To a significant number of the male subjects, the prospect of falling hundreds of feet onto an assemblage of large boulders apparently had the same effect as a flirtatious smile and a black silk nightgown.
These experiments illustrate how our subliminal brain combines information about our physical state with other data arising from social and emotional contexts to determine what we are feeling. I think there’s a lesson here for everyday life. There is, of course, a direct analogue, the interesting corollary that walking up a few flights of stairs before evaluating a new business proposal may cause you to say, “Wow” when you would have normally said, “Hmm.” But think, too, about stress. We all know that mental stress leads to unwanted physical effects, but what is less discussed is the other half of the feedback loop: physical tension causing or perpetuating mental stress. Say you have a conflict with a friend or colleague that results in an agitated physical state. Your shoulders and your neck feel tight, you have a headache, your pulse is elevated. If that state persists, and you find yourself having a conversation with someone who had nothing to do with the conflict that precipitated those sensations, it could cause you to misjudge your feelings about that person. For example, a book editor friend of mine told me of an instance in which she had an unexpectedly acrimonious exchange with an agent and concluded that the agent was a particularly belligerent sort, someone she’d try to avoid working with in the future. But in the course of our discussion it became clear that the anger she felt toward the agent had not arisen from the issue at hand but had been baggage she had unconsciously carried over from an unrelated but upsetting incident that had immediately preceded her conflict with the agent.
For ages, yoga teachers have been saying, “Calm your body, calm your mind.” Social neuroscience now provides evidence to support that prescription. In fact, some studies go further and suggest that actively taking on the physical state of a happy person by, say, forcing a smile can cause you to actually feel happier.19 My young son Nicolai seemed to understand this intuitively: after breaking his hand in a freak accident while playing basketball, he suddenly stopped crying and started to laugh—and then explained that when he has pain laughing seems to make it feel better. The old “Fake it till you make it” idea, which Nicolai had rediscovered, is now also the subject of serious scientific research.
THE EXAMPLES I’VE talked about so far imply that we often don’t understand our feelings. Despite that, we usually think that we do. Moreover, when asked to explain why we feel a certain way, most of us, after giving it some thought, have no trouble supplying reasons. Where do we find those reasons, for feelings that may not even be what we think they are? We make them up.
In one interesting demonstration of that phenomenon, a researcher held out snapshots of two women’s faces, each about the size of a playing card, one in each hand. He asked his subject to choose the more attractive one.20 He then flipped both photos facedown, and slid the selected picture over to the participant. He asked the participant to pick up the card and explain the choice he or she had made. Then the researcher went on to another pair of photos, for about a dozen pairs in all. The catch is that in a few cases the experimenter made a switch: through a sleight of hand, he actually slid to his subjects the photograph of the woman they had found less attractive. Only about one-quarter of the time did the subjects see through the ruse. But what is really interesting is what happened the 75 percent of the time they did not see through it: when asked why they preferred the face they really hadn’t preferred, they said things like “She’s radiant. I would rather have approached her in a bar than the other one” or “I like her earrings” or “She looks like an aunt of mine” or “I think she seems nicer than the other one.” Time after time, they confidently described their reasons for preferring the face that, in reality, they had not preferred.
The research was no fluke—the scientists pulled a similar trick in a supermarket, with regard to shoppers’ preferences in taste tests of jam and tea.21 In the jam test, shoppers were asked which of two jams they preferred and were then supposedly given a second spoonful of the one they said they liked better so that they could analyze the reasons for their preference. But the jam jars had a hidden internal divider and a lid on both ends, allowing the deft researchers to dip the spoon into the nonpreferred jam for the second taste. Again, only about a third of the participants noticed the switch, while two-thirds had no difficulty explaining the reasons for their “preference.” A similar ruse, with a similar outcome, occurred in an experiment involving tea.
Sounds like a market researcher’s nightmare: ask people their opinion about a product or packaging to pick up insights about their appeal, and you get wonderful explanations that are sincere, detailed, and emphatic but happen to bear little relation to the truth. That’s also a problem for political pollsters who routinely ask people why they voted the way they did or why they will vote the way they plan to. It’s one thing when people claim to have no opinion, but quite another when you can’t even trust them to know what they think. Research, however, suggests that you can’t.22
The best hints as to what is going on come from research on people with brain abnormalities—for example, a series of famous studies on split-brain patients.23 Recall that information presented to one side of such a patient’s brain is not available to the other hemisphere. When the patient sees something on the left side of his visual field, only the right hemisphere of his brain is aware of it, and vice versa. Similarly, it is the right hemisphere alone that controls the movement of the left hand, and the left hemisphere alone that controls the right hand. One exception to this symmetry is that (in most people) the speech centers are located in the left hemisphere, and so if the patient speaks, it is usually the left hemisphere talking.
Taking advantage of this lack of communication between brain hemispheres, researchers instructed split-brain patients, via their right hemisphere, to perform a task and then asked their left hemisphere to explain why they’d done it. For example, the researchers instructed a patient, via his right hemisphere, to wave. Then they asked the patient why he’d waved. The left hemisphere had observed the waving but was unaware of the instruction to wave. Nevertheless, the left hemisphere did not allow the patient to admit ignorance. Instead, the patient said he’d waved because he’d thought he’d seen someone he knew. Similarly, when researchers instructed the patient, through the right hemisphere, to laugh and then asked him why he was laughing, the patient said he’d laughed because the researchers were funny. Again and again, the left hemisphere responded as if it knew the answer. In these and similar studies, the left brain generated many false reports, but the right brain did not, leading the researchers to speculate that the left hemisphere of the brain has a role that goes beyond simply registering and identifying our emotional feelings, to trying to understand them. It’s as though the left hemisphere has mounted a search for a sense of order and reason in the world in general.
Oliver Sacks wrote about a patient with Korsakoff’s syndrome, a type of amnesia in which victims can lose the ability to form new memories.24 Such patients may forget what is said within seconds, or what they see within minutes. Still, they often delude themselves into thinking that they know what is going on. When Sacks walked in to examine the patient, a Mr. Thompson, Thompson would not remember him from his previous encounters. But Thompson wouldn’t realize he didn’t know. He would always latch onto some available hint and convince himself that he did remember Sacks. On one occasion, since Sacks was wearing a white coat and Thompson had been a grocer, Thompson remembered him as the butcher from down the street. Moments later he forgot that “realization” and altered his story, remembering Sacks as a particular customer. Thompson’s understanding of his world, his situation, his self, was in a constant state of change, but he believed in each of the rapidly changing explanations he evolved in order to make sense of what he was seeing. As Sacks put it, Thompson “must seek meaning, make meaning, in a desperate way, continually inventing, throwing bridges of meaning over abysses of meaninglessness.”
The term “confabulation” often signifies the replacement of a gap in one’s memory by a falsification that one believes to be true. But we also confabulate to fill in gaps in our knowledge about our feelings. We all have those tendencies. We ask ourselves or our friends questions like “Why do you drive that car?” or “Why do you like that guy?” or “Why did you laugh at that joke?” Research suggests that we think we know the answers to such questions, but really we often don’t. When asked to explain ourselves, we engage in a search for truth that may feel like a kind of introspection. But though we think we know what we are feeling, we often know neither the content nor the unconscious origins of that content. And so we come up with plausible explanations that are untrue or only partly accurate, and we believe them.25 Scientists who study such errors have noticed that they are not haphazard.26 They are regular and systematic. And they have their basis in a repository of social, emotional, and cultural information we all share.
IMAGINE YOU’RE BEING driven home from a cocktail party that was in the penthouse of a posh hotel. You remark that you had a lovely time, and your designated driver asks you what you liked about it. “The people,” you say. But did your joy really stem from the fascinating repartee with that woman who wrote the best seller about the virtues of a vegan diet? Or was it something far subtler, like the quality of the harp music? Or the scent of roses that filled the room? Or the expensive champagne you quaffed all night? If your response was not the result of true and accurate introspection, on what basis did you make it?
When you come up with an explanation for your feelings and behavior, your brain performs an action that would probably surprise you: it searches your mental database of cultural norms and picks something plausible. For example, in this case it might have looked up the entry “Why People Enjoy Parties” and chosen “the people” as the most likely hypothesis. That might sound like the lazy way, but studies suggest we take it: when asked how we felt, or will feel, we tend to reply with descriptions or predictions that conform to a set of standard reasons, expectations, and cultural and societal explanations for a given feeling.
If the picture I just painted is correct, there is an obvious consequence that can be tested by experiment. Accurate introspection makes use of our private knowledge of ourselves. Identifying a generic, social-and-cultural-norms explanation as the source of our feelings doesn’t. As a result, if we are truly in touch with our feelings, we should be able to make predictions about ourselves that are more accurate than predictions that others make about us; but if we merely rely on social norms to explain our feelings, outside observers should be just as accurate in predicting our feelings as we are, and ought to make precisely the same mistakes.
One context scientists used to examine this question is familiar to anyone involved in hiring.27 Hiring is difficult because it is an important decision, and it is hard to know someone from the limited exposure afforded by an interview and a résumé. If you’ve ever had to hire people, you might have asked yourself why you thought a particular individual was the right pick. No doubt you could always find justification, but in hindsight, are you sure you chose that person for the reasons you thought you did? Perhaps your reasoning went the other way—you got a feeling about someone, formed a preference, and then, retroactively, your unconscious employed social norms to explain your feelings about that person.
One doctor friend told me that he was certain he had gotten into the top-rated medical school he’d attended for only one reason: he had clicked with one of the professors who’d interviewed him; the man’s parents, like his, had immigrated from a certain town in Greece. After matriculating at the school he got to know that professor, who maintained that my friend’s scores, grades, and character—the criteria demanded by social norms—were the reasons their interview had gone so well. But my friend’s scores and grades were below that school’s average, and he still believes it was their shared family origin that really influenced the professor.
To explore why some people get the job and others don’t, and whether those doing the hiring are aware of what drove their choices, researchers recruited 128 volunteers. Each subject—all of them female—was asked to study and assess an in-depth portfolio describing a woman applying for a job as a counselor in a crisis intervention center. The documents included a letter of recommendation and a detailed report of an interview the applicant had had with the center’s director. After studying the portfolio, subjects were asked several questions regarding the applicant’s qualifications, including How intelligent do you think she is? How flexible? How sympathetic would she be toward clients’ problems? How much do you like her?
The key to the study is that the information given to different subjects differed in a number of details. For example, some subjects read portfolios showing that the applicant had finished second in her class in high school and was now an honor student in college, while others read that she had not yet decided whether to go to college; some saw a mention of the fact that the applicant was quite attractive, others learned nothing about her appearance; some read in the center director’s report that the applicant had spilled a cup of coffee on the director’s desk, while others saw no mention of such an incident; and some portfolios indicated that the applicant had been in a serious automobile accident, while others didn’t. Some subjects were told they’d later meet the applicant, while others were not. These variable elements were shuffled in all possible combinations to create dozens of distinct scenarios. By studying the correlation of the facts the subjects were exposed to, and the judgments they made, researchers could compute mathematically the influence of each piece of information on the subjects’ assessments. Their goal was to compare the actual influence of each factor to the subjects’ perception of each factor’s influence, and also to the predictions of outside observers who didn’t know the subjects.
In order to understand what the subjects thought influenced them, after assessing the applicant, the subjects were polled with regard to each question: Did you judge the applicant’s intelligence by her academic credentials? Were you swayed in your assessment of her likability by her physical attractiveness? Did the fact that she spilled a cup of coffee over the interviewer’s desk affect your assessment of how sympathetic she’d be? And so on. Also, in order to find out what an outside observer would guess the influence of each factor would be, another group of volunteers (“outsiders”) were recruited; they were not shown the portfolios but were simply asked to rate how much they thought each factor would influence a person’s judgment.
The facts that were revealed about the applicant had been cleverly chosen. Some, such as the applicant’s high grades, were factors that social norms dictate ought to exert a positive influence on those assessing the job application. The researchers expected both the subjects and the outsiders to name these factors as an influence. Other factors, such as the coffee-spilling incident and the anticipation of later meeting the applicant, were factors that social norms say nothing about in this regard. The researchers therefore expected the outsiders not to recognize their influence. However the researchers had chosen those factors because studies show that, contrary to the expectations dictated by the norms, they do have an effect on our judgment of people: an isolated pratfall such as the coffee-spilling incident tends to increase the likability of a generally competent-seeming person, and the anticipation of meeting an individual tends to improve your assessment of that individual’s personality.28 The crucial question was whether the subjects, upon self-reflection, would do better than the outsiders and recognize that they’d been swayed by those surprisingly influential factors.
When the researchers examined the subjects’ and the outsiders’ answers, they found that they showed impressive agreement, and that both were way off the mark. Both groups appeared to draw their conclusions about which factors were influential from the social-norms explanations, while ignoring the actual reasons. For example, both the subjects and the outsiders said the coffee-spilling incident would not affect their liking of the applicant, yet it had the greatest effect of all the factors. Both groups expected that the academic factor would have a significant effect on their liking the applicant, but its effect was nil. And both groups reported that the expectation of meeting the applicant would have no effect, but it did. In case after case, both groups were wrong about which factors would not affect them and which factors would. As psychological theory had predicted, the subjects had shown no greater insight into themselves than the outsiders had.
EVOLUTION DESIGNED THE human brain not to accurately understand itself but to help us survive. We observe ourselves and the world and make enough sense of things to get along. Some of us, interested in knowing ourselves more deeply—perhaps to make better life decisions, perhaps to live a richer life, perhaps out of curiosity—seek to get past our intuitive ideas of us. We can. We can use our conscious minds to study, to identify, and to pierce our cognitive illusions. By broadening our perspective to take into account how our minds operate, we can achieve a more enlightened view of who we are. But even as we grow to better understand ourselves, we should maintain our appreciation of the fact that, if our mind’s natural view of the world is skewed, it is skewed for a reason.
I walked into an antiques store while on a trip to San Francisco one day, meaning to buy a beautiful vase in the window that was reduced from $100 to just $50. I walked out carrying a $2,500 Persian rug. To be precise, I’m not sure it was a $2,500 Persian rug; all I know is that $2,500 is what I paid for it. I wasn’t in the market for a rug, I wasn’t planning to spend $2,500 on a San Francisco souvenir, and I wasn’t intending to lug home anything bigger than a bread box. I don’t know why I did it, and none of the introspection I performed in the ensuing days turned up anything. But then again, there are no social norms regarding the purchase of Persian rugs on vacation whims. What I do know is that I like the way the rug looks in my dining room. I like it because it makes the room feel cozy, and its colors go well with the table and the walls. Or does it actually make the room look like a breakfast nook in a cheap hotel? Maybe the true reason I like it is that I’m not comfortable thinking that I spent $2,500 on an ugly rug to lay over my beautiful hardwood floor. That realization doesn’t bother me; it gives me a greater appreciation of my unseen partner, my unconscious, always providing the support I need as I walk and stumble my way through life.