Unconscious Thought Theory

Unconscious Thought Theory

I like to think of myself as a pretty rational and empirical thinker. I try to understand points where my thoughts will be influenced by bias and my immediate reactions to situations. At these points, I try (not always successfully) to pause to be more reflective and considerate. I generally believe that striving for rationality and more evidence backed opinions is a good thing, but there is research which suggests that this strategy can lead to overthinking things and might involve parts of the brain which are not well suited for some decisions.

 

In Deep Work, author Cal Newport writes about Unconscious Thought Theory and research by Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis (I have no pronunciation help here). Research from Dijksterhuis shows that our unconscious brains are good at handling situations with complex, ambiguous information and no clear path forward. Newport describes it by writing, “if you need to do a math calculation, only your conscious mind is able to follow the precise arithmetic rules needed for correctness. On the other hand, for decisions that involve large amounts of information and multiple vague, perhaps even conflicting constraints, your unconscious mind is well suited to tackle the issue.”

 

The reason Newport brings this into his book Deep Work is because in addition to strict focus work, he also advocates for time away from work. “your capacity for deep work in a given day is limited,” Newport explains, “If you’re careful about your schedule … you should hit your daily deep work capacity during your workday.”

 

The implication is that we should step away from our work to give our conscious minds a break when we max out on our deep work capacity. Some tasks are not well suited for the hyper-analytic conscious mind, and some of these tasks can be worked through by the unconscious mind at a time when the brain doesn’t have to marshal all resources for deep analytical thinking. By stepping away from work, closing out of our work email, and engaging with other life hobbies and our families, we can allow our unconscious brain to sort through the challenging ambiguities of the problems that had previously stymied our work. Unconscious Thought Theory suggests that our unconscious brain can work on these problems if given space, but continuing to check work emails after hours or logging back in here and there to check on our work prevents the unconscious brain from having the space it needs to do the background sorting that makes it a valuable tool.

 

In the end, it is turning off our rational brain for a little while, allowing ourselves to engage with something or focus on something that doesn’t require such heightened focus, and knowing when to stop our deep work that helps us perform at our best. The answer is not to continuously chug through all the analytic work we can force onto our brain in a day, but to maximize the time we can spend in deep work, and turn ourselves off when we have hit our cognitive limit.

Different Angles

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie quotes Henry Ford on seeing things from another person’s perspective: “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” 

 

I am fascinated by the mind, our perception of the universe, and how we interpret the information we take in to make decisions. There is so much data and information about the world, and we will all experience that information and data in different ways, and our brains will literally construct different realities with the different timing and information that we take in. There may be an objective reality underlying our experiences, but it is nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly what that reality is given all of our different perspectives.

 

What we can realize from the vast amount of data that is out there and by our limited ability to take it all in and comprehend it is that our understanding of the universe is woefully inadequate. We need to get the perspectives of others to really understand what is happening and to make sense of the universe. Everyone will see things slightly differently and understand the world in their own unique way.

 

Carnegie’s book addresses this point in the context of business. When we are trying to make a buck, we often become purely focused on ourselves, on what we want, on how we think it is best to accomplish our goals, and on the narrow set of things that we have identified as necessary steps to get from A to B.

 

However, we are always going to be working with others, and will need the help of other people and other companies to achieve our goals. We will have to coordinate, negotiate, and come to agreement on what actions we will all take, and we will all bring our own experiences and motivations to the table. If you approach business thinking purely about what you want and what your goals are, you won’t be able to do this successfully. You have to consider the perspectives of the other people that you work with or rely on to complete any given project.

 

Your employees motivation will be different than the motivation of the companies who partner with you. Your goal might be to become or remain the leader in a certain industry, but no one cares if you are the leader in your space. Everyone wants to achieve their own ends, and the power of adopting multiple perspectives helps you see how each unique goal can align to compound efforts and returns. Remember, your mind is limited and your individual perspectives are not going to give you the insight you need to succeed in a complex world. Only by seeing the different angles with which other people approach a given problem or situation can you successfully coordinate with and motivate the team you will be working with.

Creatures of Logic

One of the things I am most fascinated by is the way in which our lives, our thoughts, and our decisions feel to us to be purely rational, but are clearly not as rational we think. Our minds are bounded by a limited amount of knowledge that we can ever have, a limited amount of information that we can hold in our head, and a host of biases, prejudices, and thinking vices that get in the way of rationality. We feel like we are in control of our minds, and our actions and decisions fit into a logically coherent, rational story that we tell ourselves, but much is missing from the picture of the world that we develop.

 

Usually I turn these considerations inward, but it can be helpful to turn this reality outward as well. Dale Carnegie does so in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. In the context of criticizing other people, Carnegie writes, “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.”

 

The other day I wrote about criticism, and how it can often backfire when we want to criticize another person and change their behaviors. Carnegie notes the terrible consequences of criticizing people, ranging from quitting work that they might actually excel at all the way to committing suicide, and his quote above is a reminder that people are not logical automatons. Our motivations and sense of self matter to how we perform, what we do, and how we think. Adding mean-spirited criticism, even if well deserved, can be harmful. What is more, our criticism often serves to mostly prop ourselves up, and is more about how special we think we are, than about how poorly another person is performing or behaving.

 

Carnegie believes that we need to be more considerate of other people when dealing with them in any circumstance. His quote extends beyond moments of criticism to areas of motivation, quality relationships, social responsibilities, and individual health and well-being. We cannot simply look at others and heap and hold them purely responsible for the outcomes of their lives. People are not rational, and will not be able to perfectly sort out everything to identify the best possible decisions for their present and future lives. We must help them by remembering their bounded rationality and we must help develop structures that allows them to make the best decisions and perform at their best. People are going to make logical errors, but we can design society and the world they operate within so that they minimize the errors that they make and so that the negative externalities of their biases are also minimized.

Placing Blame Rather Than Working Toward a Solution

I like to think deeply about public policy. I think there are very interesting structures and ideas that we could put in place which would help us to achieve better outcomes in our societies. The challenge, however, is that the outcomes we want to see are based on value judgement. As in, I think the world should be more this way or that way. When we use the word should we are expressing a judgement that represents some type of value that we hold, which other people might not hold. That means that our political structure is ultimately based on opinion and preference rather than rational cold hard facts.

 

But we don’t really see our world of politics in this way. We see the world of politics differently, believing instead that there is a clearly preferential best answer that can be empirically determined, and arguing as if we know what that perfect answer is. The result from this in the United States, where we have a two party system, seems to be polarization and contempt for the people on the other team. Across the globe, this tends to result in blaming others for bad things that we see around us, and voting for politicians who make us feel warm and fuzzy and rationalizing our support for them even if their ideas might not actually make sense when fully implemented.

 

In his book The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen writes about this phenomenon, “Elections these days often seem more about who is to blame than who is to govern.” We don’t think deeply during an election about the governable skills that someone has. We discuss policy, but the reality is that almost none of us understand policy in a deep way, and if we do, we only understand one narrow policy space. We are not all economic experts across the board, we are not all education experts, and we are not all medical experts. But we have vague senses about what would be in our interest and what types of views we should hold to fit in with other people like us. As a result we fall into a blame game where we criticize the other side for bad things and put blinders on to ignore the governance shortcomings of our own team.

 

Cowen continues, “Voters are less inclined to see their selection as a long-term contract with a candidate or party and more likely to see it as resembling a transaction with a used car salesman.” This is not surprising if you consider that no one is actually a policy expert. We want to see people like us do well in society, so we align with whoever seems to be best positioned to do that. We don’t really know what will lead to good outcomes, but as long as the politician or party says that people like us are good, then we know to align with and vote for.

Elevating Reason

This blog is a place for me to return to specific quotes and thoughts that stood out to me in books that interested me. The blog, on its face, is mostly about me trying to remember key insights from books, to formulate my thoughts, and share them with others. Another goal of the blog, if I am honest, is to attempt to elevate reason in our lives. I believe that we must live in a way that attempts to look at the world as clearly and objectively as possible, all while understanding that our brains didn’t evolve to see the world in this way.

 

By highlighting the benefits of rational thought, I hope to raise the status of those who try to be rational and encourage more people to think deeply about their world. It is no surprise then, that a sentence I highlighted in The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson reads, “People who are able to acknowledge uncomfortable truths and discuss them dispassionately can show a combination of honesty, intellectual ability, and perhaps even courage (or at least a thick skin).”

 

That quote is from a short section that focuses on why someone might want to acknowledge the elephant in the brain. Which is to say, why anyone would want to acknowledge that much of their behavior is likely driven by selfish self-interested motives and not by the high-minded reasons we like to project? Our brains seem to be very good at deceiving even ourselves about our behaviors and choices (so that we can better lie to others), and our high minded reasons for doing things make us feel good about who we are. Why would we want to look past that into less pretty parts of our inner workings?

 

I believe that acknowledging our true motives will help us better understand humanity, develop better institutions, and in the long run function better together. One way to make that happen is to prop up the social status of people who think rationally about the universe and their existence within the universe. By acknowledging truths that tear down the stories we tell about how amazing and special we are, and by being able to look at issues dispassionately and as objectively as we can get ourselves to look at an issue, we can hopefully start to pursue better policy and better general debates and discussions. Making rational thinking interesting and helpful in our daily lives will encourage more people to be honest about the world and will hopefully lead to more rewarding lives for those who cultivate these important yet undervalued intellectual abilities.

How Helpful Are We?

“People are willing to help, but the amount they’re willing to help doesn’t scale in proportion to how much impact their contributions will make.” Author’s Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write this in their book The Elephant in the Brain when discussing our behaviors around donations and charity. “This effect,” they continue, “known as scope neglect or scope insensitivity, has been demonstrated for many other problems, including cleaning polluted lakes, protecting wilderness areas, decreasing road injuries, and even preventing deaths.”

 

In the United States, we have a high regard for charitable donations and activities. We encourage people to donate their time and money and our tax system has a way for people to get something back from the government by reducing how much they own in taxes if they gave enough in charitable donations. What Hanson and Simler highlight in their book, however, is that our human brains are not well suited to ensure that all of our charitable donating is having the greatest impact possible.

 

I am a public policy student and practitioner, and a key thing to understand about public policy is that at the core, it is not rational. The deepest level of policy is entirely based on values and sometimes pure emotions. You cannot rationally come to a reasonable conclusion for whether the nation (city, county, state) should invest its final $1 million dollars in policy to reduce tobacco use, or increase educational support for children with autism, or clean and remodel a popular park. The final decision is going to come down to the values of the voters and of the government’s leadership.

 

The same is true for our individual donations. Is it really best for us to make donations to the Against Malaria Foundation to save lives in countries far away from us? Should we use our donations to help improve the lives of children living right here in our own community? Are we obligated to use our donations to help other people like us who have also gone through medical crisis, trauma, or natural disaster challenges that we have experienced and survived? The heart of these decisions will always be an emotional values decision.

 

We can, however, try to develop institutions that help people ensure that once they have made these value judgement they use their charity in the most meaningful way possible. We can develop social systems and attitudes that encourage people to pool their charitable resources toward one meaningful purpose that aligns with their values, rather than donating a few bucks here and there to a charity that pulls at their emotions (a single large donation to an effective charity can do much more good in the world than multiple smaller donations to charities that range in terms of effectiveness). We can develop organizations that do more to analyze the effectiveness of given charities and develop new systems for looking at how we can make sure our donation does the most good based on where we want to do our good (whether it is saving lives, helping local development, improving education, or something different). We can use our tax system to encourage smart charity rather than stupid charity where celebrities just buy overly priced pictures of themselves from random foundations that claim to have philanthropic purposes but really just pay off porn stars to protect the political prospects of their benefactors (cough-Trump-cough).

 

Ultimately, our brains our wired to be charitable to show people that we are nice caring people. As a result, we don’t really care about the effectiveness of our donation, we just want people to see that we made a donation and that we are the kind of person who is caring and generous enough to help others. This leads us to make stupid donations rather than smart an effective donations, but by changing the institutions surrounding our charitable activity, we can start to actually do good in a rational manner with our charity.

Cognitive Dissonance

I recent changed my mind about vaping. I have asthma and cigarette smoke really gives me terrible breathing problems so I have never smoked either traditional cigarettes or any type of vaping product. I have hated traditional cigarettes my whole life and as vaping has become a new hit, I have hated it as well. Since vaping really popped onto the scene, I considered it to be basically as evil as traditional cigarettes and didn’t make much of a distinction in my head between the two.

 

A recent podcast interview with Dr. David Abrahms on the Healthcare Policy Podcast changed my mind. Vaping products may be far less deadly than traditional burnt cigarettes. The addictive potential of nicotine is still there and there are certainly plenty of things in vaping products that we should not be putting into our lungs, but vaping products may have far fewer carcinogens than traditional cigarettes and appear as though they are far less deadly than traditional cigarettes. For the first time in history, we have a product which could completely displace traditional cigarettes and tobacco, and most importantly, save millions of lives. I still don’t like vaping and won’t ever do it myself, but I the new information has forced me to change the way I think about and respond to vaping.

 

As humans, we really are not very good at changing our mind. We are not very good at being receptive to information that conflicts with what we already think we believe or with what we want to believe. We become really good at rationalizing the beliefs we already hold or that we want to hold, and we discount any information that doesn’t fit the world view we would like to hold. Any argument or debate is basically meaningless because our beliefs often become part of who we are and become unchangeable as part of our identity.

 

Colin Wright addresses this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, “First, we seldom experience cognitive dissonance, which is the feeling of discomfort associated with being exposed to information that contradicts our existing beliefs. This dissonance is a vital component of changing our mind and adjusting our views, and without it, without feeling that we might be wrong about something and therefore it’s probably important to check our math and learn more about the subject we’ve been armchair-philosophizing about on Facebook, we stand little chance of ever tempering our extreme, unjustifiable views.”

 

My example of changing my views on vaping is a short version of experiencing cognitive dissonance and being able to adjust opinions in the face of data, even when it is data that doesn’t align with what I want to see in the world (which is no one ever smoking anything). My example is less profound than changing beliefs about economic systems, about political parties, or about favorite super heroes. At some point I’m not sure we ever really will change those beliefs, but I think it is important to be aware of the small times when we change our beliefs so that we can better monitor the beliefs we do hold and be more aware of the times when we may experience cognitive dissonance. Rather than hiding behind a rationalization of our beliefs and pretending that everything within our belief structure is perfectly coherent, we can accept that there are some parts we don’t have figured out or don’t have perfect scientific evidence to support. For some questions, like what religious belief do you hold or what would be the perfect super power if you could only pick one, you will never have the perfect answer that solves all of life’s mysteries. It is ok to accept that people have been debating these questions forever and to not expect that you will suddenly find the perfect answer that no one else could. Cognitive dissonance may be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary part of our lives today and we should embrace it rather than try to hide from or ignore it.

Rational Relationships

In his book Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright starts by examining what it means to be rational in a relationship. Often times we assume that relationships are built on emotional connections like love, fondness, and collegiality and we balk at the idea that we can bring a rational approach to a relationship or to anything that is driven by emotional feelings. Wright acknowledges the importance of emotions, but believes that bringing a rational approach to a relationship is key to having a successful relationship.

 

He describes rationality within relationships with the following, “Being rational in relationships means that you acknowledge cause and effect, the possibility of iterative improvement, and the potential to pull apart and assess problems to find solutions.”

 

Contrasting rationality is irrationality within relationships, which Wright describes as, “Being irrational means that you rely on a story line to make things right: that if you just believe hard enough, want it bad enough, or go through enough struggle, life will work itself out. No assessment possible, no change necessary.”

 

A rational relationship is one that requires awareness and requires that you get beyond your own perspective. You must interrogate your feelings and opinions and try to understand the thoughts, decisions, feelings, reactions, and behaviors of another person. Once you have worked through yourself and made an effort to view the world from the eyes of the other person, you must ask what factors contributed to the outcome you observed, and in a realistic and honest way ask how things could have been different in a different situation or if other factors had worked out a different way. Rational relationships are built on thought and observation which is challenging and requires concentrated effort to understand everyone’s needs, desires, feelings, and perspectives.

 

If we abandon these rational characteristics, we are left with the story we tell ourselves about the world. What we feel and what we believe is simply the way the world works. The problem is that our story and how we view everything the perspective from which we create our story is incomplete. A sense of injustice, insult, or injury is as serious as a direct threat on who we are. Our feelings constitute truth and the meaning we attach to certain things becomes iron clad.

 

The rational relationship steps back and pulls away the meaning we attach to events. It asks what happened, why did that happen, and how did everyone involved react? Was the outcome of the situation positive for all, damaging for me, threatening for others, or in some way less than desirable for all involved? If the view for any of these is that things could have been better, than a rational relationship rethinks how we interact and behave and seeks a way to improve the relationship for everyone, not just for ourselves.

 

If we choose to live our relationships without this rationality, we instead have nothing but what we tell ourselves and believe. We cannot change because we are simply stuck with another person who is the way they are and not capable of being anything different. The outcomes we face are unavoidable and people cannot be expected to improve their behavior unless you can fully change who they are.

 

Living irrationally is perfectly fine for an individual, but if we all approach the world in this way we will tear it apart. By bringing rationality to our relationships we can work better with other human beings to support their needs and to identify and build relationships that align with our needs and desires. We can better connect and recognize ways of interacting that further our connections and improve our interactions. Irrationality however, will create a world in which we are all building dishonest stories of the world to make us feel better about who we are or to create false narratives to make other people seem worse than they are. Each of us acting from our own limited perspective will have a net negative impact on the world as the micro-gravity of our own story pulls in and distorts the world around us.

Progressiveness, Populism, and Stalled Politics

Jonathan Rauch is critical of moves that have been made by populists and progressives with the intent of making government more transparent and handing decision-making power back to citizens. Rauch is not critical of broad participation in government and transparency directly, but he challenges the idea that it is always better to have more transparency and more participation in the decision-making process. The argument that Rauch puts forward is that some of the things we constantly fight against are not as bad as they seem from the outside. Backroom deal-making seems shady and corrupt, but it is also necessary for legislators to have a safe space to discuss bills, goals, possible outcomes, and political considerations. Encouraging more political amateurs to run for office and replace career politicians also feels like a smart move, bringing good people to power and replacing politicians who just want to stay in power, but political outsiders often have trouble building coalitions and forming groups to move legislation and they tend to be more extreme in their policies.

 

Regarding recent trends, in his book Political Realism, Rauch writes, “Together, by fusing their ideologies, the progressive and populist reform movements have performed an impressive public relations feat: they have combined the intellectual prestige of meritocracy with the moral claims of democracy. Because participation improves decision-making, democracy and meritocracy are one and the same—and insider politics is the enemy of both.” In an ideal system, human beings could be completely rational actors. We would not allow ourselves to be biased by prior assumptions and we would work toward the most efficient and equitable decision possible for each issue and question. Within this system we truly could have greater participation in government from political outsiders and we could have more transparency and open discussion, because we are all focused on rational facts.

 

The reality, however, is that we are not purely rational machines moving through our lives and organizing society in the most perfect economic and efficient manner. As humans, we are not truly capable of being fully rational, and creating a system that was too rational would be objectionable in many ways. We simply cannot hold all alternatives and variables in our head at one time. We also can only bring rationality to the means of our politics, the ends are always going to be politically selected. Choosing to use our nation’s last 10 million dollars in the budget on improving roads rather than on defense spending or early childhood education will never have a solidly rational base, but will be a political decision and value based judgement.

 

In a similar way, deciding that we need more political amateurs in our system is a politically selected end, not a rational conclusion of policy analysts. Deciding that our system needs ever more transparency and openness into the minds of decision-makers is a feel-good political outcome that we want, but it is not a rational process to improve government. Rauch’s views are technical and rational, and to most people are probably ridiculous and unwanted, but his steps to make government more functional by rolling back some of the steps we have made in service of positive outcomes is rational, focusing on the means of good governance.

Progressivism, Populism, and Stalled Politics

Jonathan Rauch is critical of moves that have been made by populists and progressives with the intent of making government more transparent and handing decision-making power back to citizens. Rauch is not critical of broad participation in government and transparency directly, but he challenges the idea that it is always better to have more transparency and more participation in the decision-making process. The argument that Rauch puts forward is that some of the things we constantly fight against are not as bad as they seem from the outside. Backroom deal-making seems shady and corrupt, but it is also necessary for legislators to have a safe space to discuss bills, goals, possible outcomes, and political considerations. Encouraging more political amateurs to run for office to replace career politicians also feels like a smart move, bringing good people to power and replacing politicians who just want to stay in power, but political outsiders often have trouble building coalitions and forming groups to move legislation and they tend to be more extreme in the policies they support.

 

Regarding recent trends, in his book Political Realism, Rauch writes, “Together, by fusing their ideologies, the progressive and populist reform movements have performed an impressive public relations feat: they have combined the intellectual prestige of meritocracy with the moral claims of democracy. Because participation improves decision-making, democracy and meritocracy are one and the same—and insider politics is the enemy of both.” In an ideal system, human beings could be completely rational actors. We would not allow ourselves to be biased by prior assumptions and we would work toward the most efficient and equitable decision for each issue. Within this system we truly could have greater participation in government from political outsiders and we could have more transparency and open discussion, because we would all be focused on rational facts.

 

The reality, however, is that we are not purely rational machines moving through our lives and organizing society in the most perfect economic and efficient manner. As humans, we are not truly capable of being fully rational, and creating a system that was too rational would be objectionable for many people. We simply cannot hold all alternatives and variables in our head at one time. We also can only bring rationality to the means of our politics, the ends are always going to be politically selected. Choosing to budget our nation’s last 10 million dollars on improving roads rather than on defense spending or early childhood education will never have a solidly rational base, but will always be a political decision and a value based judgement.

 

In a similar way, deciding that we need more political amateurs in our system is a politically selected end, not a rational conclusion of policy analysis. Deciding that our system needs ever more transparency and openness into the minds of decision-makers is a feel good political outcome that we want, but it is not a rational process to improve government. Rauch’s views are technical and rational, and to most people are probably ridiculous and unwanted, but his recommendations to make government more functional by rolling back some of the steps we have made in service of positive outcomes is rational, focusing on the means of good governance.