Unconscious Rules of Thumb

Unconscious Rules of Thumb

Some of the decisions that I make are based on thorough calculations, analysis, evaluation of available options, and deliberate considerations of costs and benefits. When I am planning my workout routine, I think hard about how my legs have been feeling and what distance, elevation, and pace is reasonable for my upcoming workouts. I think about how early I need to be out the door for a certain distance, and whether I can run someplace new to mix things up. I’ll map out routes, look at my training log for the last few weeks, and try putting together a plan that maximizes my enjoyment, physical health, and fitness given time constraints.

 

However, outside of running, most of my decisions are generally based on rules of thumb and don’t receive the same level of attention as my running plans. I budget every two weeks around payday, but even when budgeting, I mostly rely on rules of thumb. There is a certain amount I like to keep in my checking account just in case I forgot a bill or have something pop-up last minute. Its not a deliberate calculation, it is more of a gut feeling. The same goes for how much money I set aside for free spending or if I feel that it is finally time to get that thing I have had my eye on for a while. My budget is probably more important than my running routine, but I actually spend more time rationally developing a running plan than I spend budgeting. The same goes for house and vehicle maintenance, spending time with friends and family, and choosing what to eat on the days we plan to do take-out.

 

The budget example is interesting because I am consciously and deliberately using rules of thumb to determine how my wife and I will use our money. I set aside a certain amount for gas without going to each vehicle and checking whether we are going to need to fill up soon. I am aware of the rules of thumb, and they are literally built into my spreadsheet where I sometimes ask if I should deviate, but usually decide to stick to them.

 

I also recognize that I have many unconscious rules of thumb. In his book Risky Savvy, Gerd Gigerenzer writes the following about unconscious rules of thumb:

 

“Every rule of thumb I am aware of can be used consciously and unconsciously. If it is used unconsciously, the resulting judgment is called intuitive. An intuition, or gut feeling, is a judgment:
  1. that appears quickly in consciousness,
  2. whose underlying reasons we are not fully aware of, yet
  3. is strong enough to act upon.”
I have lots of intuitive judgements that I often don’t think about in the moment, but only realize when I reflect back on how I do something. When I am driving down the freeway, cooking, or writing a blog post, many of my decisions flow naturally and quickly. In the moment the decisions seem obvious, and I don’t have to think too deliberately about my action and why I am making a specific decision. But if I were asked to explain why I made a decision, I would have a hard time finding exact reasons for my choices. I don’t know exactly how I know to change lanes at a certain point on the freeway, but I know I can often anticipate points where traffic will slow down, and where I might be better off in another lane. I can’t tell you why I chose to add the marsala wine to the mushrooms at the precise moment that I did. I also couldn’t explain why I chose to present a certain quote right at the beginning of a post rather than in the middle. My answer for all of these situations would simply be that it felt right.

 

We use unconscious rules of thumb like these all the time, but we don’t often notice when we do. When we are budgeting we might recognize our rules of thumb and be able to explain them, but our unconscious rules of thumb are harder to identify and explain. Nevertheless, they still have major impacts in our lives. Simply because we don’t notice them and can’t explain them doesn’t mean they don’t shape a lot of our decisions and don’t matter. The intuitions we have can be powerful and helpful, but they could also be wrong (maybe all this time I’ve been overcooking the mushrooms and should add the wine sooner!). Because these intuitions are unconscious, we don’t deliberately question them, unless something calls them up to the conscious level. The feedback we get is probably indirect, meaning that we won’t consciously tie our outcomes the to the unconscious rules of thumb that got us to them.

 

I am fascinated by things like unconscious rules of thumb because they reveal how little we actually control in our lives. We are the ones who act on these unconscious rules of thumb, but in a sense, we are not really doing anything at all. We are making decisions based on factors we don’t understand and might not be aware of. We have agency by being the one with the intuition, but we also lack agency by not being fully conscious of the how and why behind our own decisions. This should make us question ourselves and choices more than we typically do.
Scared Before You Even Know It

Scared Before You Even Know It

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman demonstrates how quick our minds are and how fast they react to potential dangers and threats by showing us two very simple pictures of eyes. The pictures are black squares, with a little bit of white space that our brains immediately perceive as eyes, and beyond that immediate perception of eyes, our brains also immediately perceive an emotional response within the eyes. They are similar to the simple eyes I sketched out here:

In my sketch, the eyes on the left are aggressive and threatening, and our brains will pick up on the threat they pose and we will have physiological responses before we can consciously think through the fact that those eyes are just a few lines drawn on paper. The same thing happens with the eyes on the right, which our brains recognize as anxious or worried. Our body will have a quick fear reaction, and our brain will be on guard in case there is something we need to be anxious or worried about as well.

 

Regarding a study that was conducted where subjects in a brain scanner were shown a threatening picture for less than 2/100 of a second, Kahneman writes, “Images of the brain showed an intense response of the amygdala to a threatening picture that the viewer did not recognize. The information about the threat probably traveled via a superfast neural channel that feeds directly into a part of the brain that processes emotions, bypassing the visual cortex that supports the conscious experience of seeing.” The study was designed so that the subjects were not consciously aware of having seen an image of threatening eyes, but nevertheless their brain perceived it and their body reacted accordingly.

 

The takeaway from this kind of research is that our environments matter and that our brains respond to more than what we are consciously aware of. Subtle cues and factors around us can shape the way we behave and feel about where we are and what is happening. We might not know why we feel threatened, and we might not even realize that we feel threatened, but our heart rate may be elevated, we might tense up, and we might become short and defensive in certain situations. When we think back on why we behaved a certain way, why we felt the way we did, and why we had the reactions we did, our brains won’t be able to recognize these subtle cues that never rose to the level of consciousness. We won’t be able to explain the reason why we felt threatened, all we will be able to recall is the physiological response we had to the situation. We are influenced by far more than our conscious brain is aware, and we should remember that our conscious brain doesn’t provide us with a perfect picture of reality, but nevertheless our subconscious reacts to more of the world than we notice.
The Ideomotor Effect

Ideomotor Effect

I grew up playing basketball and one thing coaches always tell players is that they have to have confidence when they shoot the ball. If you shoot while thinking I hope I don’t miss, then you are going to miss. If you are worried about being yelled at for missing a shot and if you are afraid to miss, then your chances of actually making a shot are slim. At the same time, shooting with confidence, believing you are going to make the shot before you have even caught the ball, is going to make it more likely that you will score. Visualizing a perfect swish before you shoot, the wisdom of all my coaches said, and your swish will come true, but think about what might happen if you miss, and you are out of luck.

 

I don’t know how much I believed this during my playing days, but the idea was everywhere. There were certainly times I can still remember where I was afraid of missing a shot, only to miss the shot. I can remember a moment from my senior year, where I was wide open for a three on the left hand side. I knew I was going to shoot the ball before my teammate even passed it to me, and I knew I was going to make the shot. “Shoot it,” he said as he passed it to me – not that I needed any extra incentive – and of course, I swished the shot and nodded my head like I was LeBron James as I ran back down the court.

 

Research from Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow suggests that there really might be something to this shooting mindset. Kahneman writes about a study of college students who were asked to complete a word scramble and then walk down the hall to another room. When students were presented with words associated with the elderly, the average time it took them to get up from their chair and walk down the hallway to the next room was longer than it was for a control group who didn’t have word scrambles related to old people.

 

Kahneman writes, “The idea of old age had not come to their conscious awareness, but their actions had changed nevertheless. This remarkable priming phenomenon – the influencing of an action by the idea – is known as the ideomotor effect.”

 

Simply thinking about old people made people move slower. Thoughts, even thoughts and ideas that people were not directly focused on, changed the way people behaved in the physical world. It is like listening to some pump-up music while pumping iron, but without deliberately setting up the environment to get you in the zone for the physical task. The ideomotor effect represents the connection between our mental state and our physical performance, and it appears that it can be conscious and intentional as well as subconscious and unknown.

 

So while it might seem like a bunch of superstition to believe that visualizing a swish versus fearing a missed basket will influence whether or not you make a shot, the ideomotor effect might actually make it a reality. My coaches probably hadn’t heard of the ideomotor effect or of a study of slow walking college students thinking about old people. Nevertheless, their intuition seems to have been correct, and my thoughts while shooting basketballs in high school may have played a big role in whether I made a shot or missed.
Conscious and Unconscious Priming Effects

Conscious and Unconscious Priming Effects

“Another major advance in our understanding of memory was the discovery that priming is not restricted to concepts and words,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “You cannot know this from conscious experience, of course, but you must accept the alien idea that your actions and your emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware.”

 

Yesterday I wrote about linguistic priming. How words can trigger thoughts in our mind, and set us up to think certain thoughts. I wrote about how ideas spread, like in the movie Inception from one thought or idea to another based on similarities and categories of things. I wrote about how important implicit associations can be, and how we have used them to measure racial bias and the harm that these biases could have in society. Today’s post continues on that trend, exploring the areas in our lives where priming may be taking place without our knowledge.

 

In his book, before the quote I shared at the start of this post, Kahneman describes our thoughts as behaving like ripples on a pond. A train of thought can be primed in one direction, and ripples from that priming can spread out across our mind. So when I used Inception earlier, I may have primed our minds to think about trains, since they feature so prominently in the movie, and if that is the case, it is no surprise that I used train of thought just a few sentences later. From this point forward, there are likely other metaphors and examples that I might use that are potentially primed by the movie Inception or by associations with trains. It is clear that I’m following priming effects if I directly reference my thinking staying on track or going off the rails, but it might be less obvious and clear how my thinking might relate to trains in the sentences to come, but as Kahneman’s quote suggested, my mind might be unconsciously primed for certain directions all from the casual mention of Inception from earlier.

 

Across my writing I have always been fascinated by the idea that we are not in as much control over our minds as we believe. Thoughts think themselves, we don’t necessarily think our own thoughts. Our minds can be influenced by time, by caffeine levels, by whether someone smiled at us on our commute to work, or whether our sock is rubbing on our foot in a strange way. We don’t have to think of anything for it to directly register with our brain and influence where our mind goes. What thoughts pop into our head, and what ripples of ideas are primed across our mind are beyond our control and influenced by things we sometimes barely notice. Priming, according to Kahneman, can be direct, deliberate, and conscious, or it can be unconscious and oblique. The mind and how we think is more random and unpredictable than it feels, and sometimes more random than we would like to believe. This should change how we think of ourselves, how we think of others, and what information and knowledge we privilege and encourage. It should make us less certain that we are always behaving as we should, and less certain that we are as smart and savvy in all situations as we like to believe we are.
We Think of Ourselves as Rational

We Think of Ourselves as Rational

In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman lays out two ideas for thinking about our thought processing. Kahneman calles the two ways of thinking about our thought processing System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast, automatic, often subconscious, and usually pretty accurate in terms of making quick judgments, assumptions, and estimations of the world. System 2 is where our heavy duty thinking takes place. It is where we crunch through math problems, where our rational problem-solving part of the brain is in action, and its the system that uses a lot of energy to help us remember important information and understand the world.

 

Despite the fact that we normally operate on System 1, that is not the part of our brain that we think of as ourselves. Kahneman writes, “When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do.” We believe ourselves to be rational agents, responding reasonably to the world around us. We see ourselves a free from bias, as logically coherent, and as considerate and understanding. Naturally, it is System 2 that we see ourselves as spending most of our time with, however, this is not exactly the case.

 

A lot of our actions are influenced by factors that seem to play more at the System 1 level than the System 2 level. If you are extra tired, if you are hungry, or if you feel insulted by someone close to you, then you probably won’t be thinking as rationally and reasonably as you would expect. You are likely going to operate on System 1, making sometimes faulty assumptions on incomplete data about the world around you. If you are hungry or tired enough, you will effectively be operating on auto-pilot, letting System 1 take over as you move about the cabin.

 

Even though we often operate on System 1, we feel as though we operate on System 2 because the part of us that thinks back to how we behaved, the part of us required for serious reflection, is part of System 2. It is critical, thoughtful, and takes its time generating logically coherent answers. System 1 is quick and automatic, so we don’t even notice when it is in control. When we think about who we are, why we did something, and what kind of person we aspire to be, it is System 2 that is flying the plane, and it is System 2 that we become aware of, fooling ourselves into believing that System 2 is all we are, that System 2 is what is really in our head. We think of ourselves as rational, but that is only because our irrational System 1 can’t pause to reflect back on itself. We only see the rational part of ourselves, and it is comforting to believe that is really who we are.

Laughter

Have you ever tried to laugh at something that wasn’t funny because social conventions called for laughter? You probably found it a little awkward and your laugh probably didn’t sound the most generous or real. Humans are really good at laughter, but we are not very good at consciously understanding and being aware of our laughter. On the flip side of forced laughter, have you ever laughed uncontrollably at an inappropriate time? Somewhere, our brains know when it is appropriate or not to laugh, and sometimes we can control that a bit, but oftentimes, our laughter is instinctive or stems from someplace other than our conscious thought.

 

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “while we may not understand or control our laughter, out brains are experts at it. They know when to laugh, at which stimuli, and they get it right most of the time, with inappropriate laughter bursting forth only on occasion. Our brains also instinctively know how to interpret the laughter of others, whether by laughing in return or otherwise reacting appropriately. Its only to us – our conscious, introspective minds – that laughter remains a mystery.”

 

Recently I have been fascinated with how little we understand about our own brains. We move through the world believing that we understand anything about ourselves and the world we move through, but it is clear that there is a lot of machinery in the brain that almost none of us actually understand or recognize. Laughter is a fascinating point because it demonstrates something that is so natural to us, something we would assume we control and understand with ease, but that involves complex processes that are far beyond what any of us realize.

 

I cannot help but believe that we should not trust our brains and the first thoughts that come to mind. We should not expect our understanding of what is happening to be the most accurate. We should always assume there is more taking place than what we can grasp. Laughter is an example of a situation that conveys a lot of messages that are below the level of our conscious minds. We pick up a lot of information in the laughter of others, but we would probably have trouble explaining exactly what information we took away from the laugh of another person. In the same way, there is a lot about the world we know and don’t know, and we should recognize how much of it lays beyond our conscious awareness.

Non-Verbal Communication & Messages

Yesterday I wrote a bit about how non-verbal communication often happens below the level of our consciousness. However, just because it is something we don’t consciously recognize doesn’t mean that the messages conveyed are meaningless. I wrote yesterday about how non-verbal communication can allow us to communicate some messages slyly, implying things and making our intentions clear without us having to say what we really mean. Today, another quote on non-verbal communication from Simler and Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain expands on the role and meaning of non-verbal communication.

 

“Body language … is mostly not arbitrary. Instead, nonverbal behaviors are meaningfully, functionally related to the messages they’re conveying.” We have shared physical reactions to emotional states of being that seem to emphasize and align with the emotional state we are in. Across cultures, the authors explain, while words and manners of verbal communication change, a lot of non-verbal communication ques remain constant. Emotional excitement may be displayed through loud exclamations and lots of arm or body movements. Interest in something may result in us staring at the interesting thing, with our eyes widening, potentially changing our field of view.

 

We do these things and respond to non-verbal messages without necessarily realizing we are doing so. Once we start to look for it, however, we can start to notice similar patterns in body language that convey messages that go along with (or perhaps contradict) the verbal messages that we also convey. We can learn that certain non-verbal cues have specific meanings and we can learn to present ourselves a certain way to help reinforce the language that we are trying to get across.

 

Recently, my wife and I adopted a puppy and started training her. In one of our first lessons, the instructor taught us a little about reading the dog’s body language and non-verbal communication. My wife and I now know to look for hair on the back of her neck standing up when she growls, so we know if she is growing in a playful way, or if she feels threatened. This was invisible to me before it was pointed out, even though on some level I probably could still tell the difference between the dog’s attitude.

 

We humans do the same things in some situations. We may playfully wrestle with a loved one or children, and while we might be making physically dominant gestures, there are aspects of our body language and non-verbal communication that demonstrate that everything is just fun play. We can be taught to recognize these types of non-verbal cues, but most of us probably just pick up on them automatically. I suspect that some of us are better than others at noticing these cues, and that it would be very helpful for others to have some explicit explanation of these cues. Ultimately, the important thing to remember is that communication is not just about the words we use, and that unconscious (often) behavior can be directly related and included in the messages we convey, even if our brains don’t fully realize it. A lot happens beneath the surface, and we should acknowledge this and acknowledge just how much our brains don’t see when things are happening right in front of us.

Press Secretaries

I have written in the past about the idea and model that our brains act as press secretaries, taking the information that comes into the mind and presenting it in a way that makes everything happening in the mind look as good as it possibly can. This idea comes back in Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain where the authors expand on the idea. They write,

 

“Above all, it’s the job of our brain’s Press Secretary to avoid acknowledging our darker motives – to tiptoe around the elephant in the brain. Just as a president’s press secretary should never acknowledge that the president is pursuing a policy in order to get reelected or to appease his financial backers, our brain’s Press Secretary will be reluctant to admit that we’re doing things for purely personal gain, especially when that gain may come at the expense of others. To the extent that we have such motives, the Press Secretary would be wise to remain strategically ignorant of them.”

 

I really like the way that the authors describe the role of the conscious part of our brains as acting as a press secretary. By keeping us consciously unaware of our motivations for action, we can be strategically ignorant of why we do what we do. Strategic ignorance is common when we pretend that the things we do don’t have external consequences for others, when we don’t want to face the reality of science, or when we just want to avoid doing some unappealing task. In most cases we probably recognize that we are not fooling anyone when we claim we don’t know what’s really happening, but at least it gives us a slight cushion to be comfortable while hoping that the negative consequences don’t come back to bite us.

 

Hanson and Simler continue the metaphor, “What’s more – and this is where things might start to gt uncomfortable-there’s a very real sense in which we are the Press Secretaries within our minds. In other words, the parts of the mind that we identify with, the parts we think of as our conscious selves…” It is easy to ignore the parts of ourselves that don’t align with the story we want to tell and present to the world about what great people we are. It turns out it is so easy because we are not consciously aware of those parts of ourselves. We are just the press secretary who is handed the script about all the great things happening within us.  We purposefully avoid those parts of us that look bad, because we don’t want to acknowledge they are there and have to explain ourselves in spite of those negative aspects of who we are. By simply ignoring those parts of us and sticking to the happy script, we can look great and feel great about the wonderful things we do, even if those wonderful things don’t measure up to the sanitized version we present to the world. There is a lot taking place behind the scenes, but lucky for us, we are just the front facing conscious press secretary who doesn’t see any of it.

Sabotage Information

“Our minds are built to sabotage information in order to come out ahead in social games.” In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about the ways in which we act out of our own self-interest without acknowledging it. We are more selfish, more deceptive, and less altruistic than we would like to admit, even to ourselves. To keep us feeling good about what we do, and to make it easier to put on a benevolent face, our brains seem to deliberately distort information to make us look like we are honest, open, and acting with the best of intentions for everyone.

 

“When big parts of our minds are unaware of how we try to violate social norms, it’s more difficult for others to detect and prosecute those violations. This also makes it harder for us to calculate optimal behaviors, but overall, the trade-off is worth it.” As someone who thinks critically about Stoicism and believes that self-reflection and awareness are keys to success and happiness, this is hard to take in. It suggests that self-awareness is a bigger burden for social success than blissful unawareness. Being deluded about our actions and behaviors, Simler and Hanson suggest, helps us be better political animals and helps us climb the social hierarchy to attain a better mate, more status, and more allies. Self-awareness, their idea suggests, makes us more aware of the lies we tell ourselves about who we are, what we do, and why we do it, and makes it harder for us to lie and get ahead.

 

“Of all the things we might be self-deceived about, the most important are our own motives.” Ultimately, however, I think we will be better off if we can understand why we, and everyone else, believe the things we do and behave the way we do. Turning inward and recognizing how often we hide our motives and deceive ourselves and others about our actions can help us overcome bias. We can start to be more intentional about our decisions and think more critically about what we want to work toward. We don’t have to hate humanity because we lie and hide parts of ourselves from even ourselves, but we can better move through the world if we actually know what is going on. Before we become angry over a news story, before we shell out thousands of dollars for new toys, and before we make overt displays of charity, we can ask ourselves if we are doing something for legitimate reasons, or just to deceive others and appear to be someone who cares deeply about an issue or item. Slowly, we can counteract the negative externalities associated with the brain’s faulty perceptions, and we can at least make our corner of the world a little better.

The Undisguised Consciousness

“The unreal disguise of consciousness serves only to emphasize to me the existence of the undisguised unconsciousness.” Fernando Pessoa wrote this in The Book of Disquiet as he reflected on the way that people thought about and moved through the world around him. What Pessoa noted is that we act and behave as though we are consciously making decisions and guiding our lives while in reality we are often driven by unconscious forces that we are not aware of. For Pessoa, life was an every day struggle. He did not live in desolate poverty or have anything particular terrible happening in his life, but was cognizant of the stories people told about their lives and existence, and he could not bring himself to believe any particular story.

 

It seems like most people, most of the time, are not actually that considerate of the world around them. If we all were more considerate, capitalism would not be elevated in the United States to a quasi-religious stance. We would be able to take action on climate change. We probably would spend less time watching what celebrities were doing, and more time participating in a sport rather than watching and talking about other people playing a sport.

 

“Occasional hints that they might be deluding themselves–that and only that is what most men experience.”

 

I have been thinking about consciousness and our experiences quite a bit lately. In Considerations, Colin Wright encouraged us to think more deeply about world, and to see things beyond our initial reaction. Rob Reid has talked to guests in his podcast After On about the reality that our brains don’t sense the world as fully as they potentially could. There are senses we just don’t have that we observe in other living creatures. And in The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson discuss ways in which being deluded about reality can be an evolutionary advantage for us.

 

Most people that I meet don’t seem to be interested in thinking beyond their initial reaction to the world. Most people don’t really seem to consider the fact that they have a narrow band of senses through which they can experience the world. And most people don’t seem to be interested in the idea that we evolved to have an inaccurate picture of the universe because it helped us be socially deceptive. But I think it is powerful and important that we recognize how much is going on beyond the recognition of our conscious self. We should strive to have a full existence that helps encourage flourishing for others as well as for ourselves. We should strive to see reality for what it is, and cut through the stories we tell ourselves or that others tell for us. The more considerate we are, the more we can open others to the same reality, and hopefully start to counteract the unconscious immediacy of our reactions to the world which is encouraged by social media and indeed by our brains’ very nature.