Autonomous Actors

“We now know that the effects of priming can reach into every corner of our lives.” Daniel Kahneman writes this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow while demonstrating the power of priming factors. An example he uses in the book to demonstrate the power of priming has to do with voting and school support. A study from Arizona showed that people are more likely to support ballot propositions to increase school funding when their polling place is in a school. The difference between supporting the proposition or not was greater for people voting within a school building versus those who voted elsewhere than the difference was between parents of school aged children and non-parents. Simply where we happen to cast our ballot is not something most of us would consider to be a big influencing factor in our preference for school funding, but it is. We are not the autonomous actors that we like to believe we are.

 

Priming factors influence a lot of our behaviors, often without our awareness. In the past I wrote about priming and creativity and the power of our environment from research that Richard Wiseman presented in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. Small factors in our environment can change our emotional valance and can influence how creative we are, even if we don’t notice those factors directly. What our brains are doing is sometimes under our control, like when we focus on writing, doing math problems, or skiing downhill, but even then, our performance and ability can be influenced by things external to our brain that seemingly have no significance to our lives or the task at hand.

 

This raises the question about how autonomous we are, how much self-control and self-determination can we exercise, and whether there any potential for free will. The debates around free will are complex, and most people who study consciousness seem to be telling us that free will, at least as popularly conceptualized, cannot exist. Brain scans and studies show that an action potential builds up in the brain before we make a conscious decision to do something. Add to that the fact that priming studies show that the decisions we make are often influenced by factors beyond our immediate discretion, and we have to conclude that we do not have the kind of will, control, and autonomy that we typically perceive ourselves as having.

 

Kahneman writes, “Studies of priming effects have yielded discoveries that threaten our self-image as conscious and autonomous authors of our judgments and our choices.” Our environments and the priming factors around us shape who we are and how we behave. Social norms and cues dictate our responses to many events. We don’t behave rationally and autonomously, we respond to stimuli and the world, and don’t have the control that we associate with the autonomous actors we believe ourselves to be.

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