More About Our Amazing Minds

Stephen DeAngelis

October 14, 2009

I’m fascinated by the workings of the human mind. Most people recognize that men and women use different thought processes, which is why Dr. John Gray was able to write a bestselling book entitled Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Thought processes are different for individuals as well as for genders. Mathematicians think differently than social scientists. Musicians think differently mechanics. Those of us who have never suffered from a mental illness can’t really understand how some people can hear voices and see hallucinations.

Scientists continue to make discoveries about how the mind works. Yet even with all of the new discoveries, the mind remains pretty much a mystery. Learning more about our minds is important. After all, the thought is father to the act. In a world fighting crime, corruption, sexual perversion, and terrorism, the key to changing unacceptable acts may be understanding the thoughts that inspire them. In this post, I’m going to review a few recent articles I’ve collected about how we think and act. Let’s begin with those impish little thoughts that can lead to bad behavior [“Why the Imp in Your Brain Gets Out,” by Benedict Carey, New York Times, 7 July 2009].

“The visions seem to swirl up from the brain’s sewage system at the worst possible times — during a job interview, a meeting with the boss, an apprehensive first date, an important dinner party. What if I started a food fight with these hors d’oeuvres? Mocked the host’s stammer? Cut loose with a racial slur? ‘That single thought is enough, wrote Edgar Allan Poe in ‘The Imp of the Perverse,’ an essay on unwanted impulses. ‘The impulse increases to a wish, the wish to a desire, the desire to an uncontrollable longing.’ He added, ‘There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him who, shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a plunge.’ Or meditates on the question: Am I sick? In a few cases, the answer may be yes. But a vast majority of people rarely, if ever, act on such urges, and their susceptibility to rude fantasies in fact reflects the workings of a normally sensitive, social brain, argues a paper published last week in the journal Science.”

Carey reports that impish thoughts may well be the yin and yang needed by our brains to help us behave properly. The process, Carey says, is nevertheless fraught with danger.

“Perverse impulses seem to arise when people focus intensely on avoiding specific errors or taboos. The theory is straightforward: to avoid blurting out that a colleague is a raging hypocrite, the brain must first imagine just that; the very presence of that catastrophic insult, in turn, increases the odds that the brain will spit it out.”

Have you ever been out on the golf course when, as you’re standing over a putt, one of your buddies says, “Don’t forget to breath.” His advice wasn’t meant to help you make the shot, but aimed at distracting you so that you would think more about your breathing than your putting. When someone tells us not to think about a rhinoceros, he or she knows darn well we are going to start thinking about rhinoceroses.

“In the lab, psychologists have people try to banish a thought from their minds — of a white bear, for example — and find that the thought keeps returning, about once a minute. Likewise, people trying not to think of a specific word continually blurt it out during rapid-fire word-association tests. The same ‘ironic errors, as Dr. [Daniel M. Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard] calls them, are just easy to evoke in the real world. Golfers instructed to avoid a specific mistake, like overshooting, do it more often when under pressure, studies find. Soccer players told to shoot a penalty kick anywhere but at a certain spot of the net, like the lower right corner, look at that spot more often than any other.”

Carey goes on to report that the more we ask people not to do something the more likely it may be that they will actually do it.

“The study … provided ‘a strong demonstration that stereotype suppression leads stereotypes to become hyperaccessible’ the authors concluded. Smokers, heavy drinkers and other habitual substance users know this confusion too well: the effort to squelch a longing for a smoke or a drink can bring to mind all the reasons to break the habit; at the same time, the desire seemingly gets stronger. The risk that people will slip or ‘lose it’ depends in part on the level of stress they are undergoing, Dr. Wegner argues. Concentrating intensely on not staring at a prominent mole on a new acquaintance’s face, while also texting and trying to follow a conversation, heightens the risk of saying: ‘We went to the mole — I mean, mall. Mall!’ ‘A certain relief can come from just getting it over with, having that worst thing happen, so you don’t have to worry about monitoring in anymore,’ Dr. Wegner said. All of which might be hard to explain, of course, if you’ve just mooned the dinner party.”

That’s a great segue to the next subject — prejudice. The Economist reports “it’s what you do that counts—not what you say you’d do” [“The price of prejudice,” 17 January 2009 print issue]. We’re all prejudice in some way. We make quick judgments based on appearances or associations. The article begins:

“Nobody likes to admit an uncomfortable truth about himself, especially when charged issues such as race, sex, age and even supersized waistlines come into play. That makes the task of the behavioural scientist a difficult one. Not only may participants in a study be lying to those running a test, but they may also, fundamentally, be lying to themselves. Prising the lid off human assumptions and hidden biases thus requires clever tools. One of the most widely deployed, known as the implicit-association test, measures how quickly people associate words describing facial characteristics with different types of faces that display those characteristics. When such characteristics are favourable—’laughter’ or ‘joy’, for example—it often takes someone longer to match them with faces that they may, unconsciously, view unfavourably (old, if the participant is young, or non-white if he is white). This procedure thus picks up biases that the participants say they are not aware of having. Whether these small differences in what are essentially artificial tasks really reflect day-to-day actions and choices was, until recently, untested. But that has changed. In a paper to be published next month in Social Cognition, a group of researchers led by Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago report their use of a technique called conjoint analysis, which they have adopted from the field of market research and adapted to study implicit biases in more realistic situations.”

The article explains what conjoint analysis is and how it is used in the field of marketing.

“Conjoint analysis asks participants to evaluate a series of products that vary in several important attributes, such as televisions of various screen sizes, brands and prices. By varying these attributes in a systematic way market researchers can measure with reasonable precision how much each trait is worth. They can then calculate how big a premium people are willing to pay in one attribute (price) to get what they want in another (a larger screen).”

Using this new technique, researchers believe they can quantify a “‘stereotype tax’—the price that the person doing the stereotyping pays for his preconceived notions.” That price, as you might expect, is often paid in opportunities lost. They began their research in the areas of weight and gender. The first study dealt with weight.

“Dr Caruso and his team recruited 101 students and asked them to imagine they were taking part in a team trivia game with a cash prize. Each student was presented with profiles of potential team-mates and asked to rate them on their desirability. The putative team-mates varied in several ways. Three of these were meant to correlate with success at trivia: educational level, IQ and previous experience with the game. In addition, each profile had a photo which showed whether the team-mate was slim or fat. After rating the profiles, the participants were asked to say how important they thought each attribute was in their decisions. Not surprisingly, they reported that weight was the least important factor in their choice. However, their actual decisions revealed that no other attribute counted more heavily. In fact, they were willing to sacrifice quite a bit to have a thin team-mate. They would trade 11 IQ points—about 50% of the range of IQs available—for a colleague who was suitably slender.”

This really isn’t surprising. Researchers have known for years that taller men have a better chance of rising in the corporate ranks than shorter men. Appearance does make a difference — especially on first impressions. The second study dealt with gender biases.

“In a second study the team asked another group, this time of students who were about to graduate, to consider hypothetical job opportunities at consulting firms. The positions varied in starting salary, location, holiday time and the sex of the potential boss. When it came to salary, location and holiday, the students’ decisions matched their stated preferences. However, the boss’s sex turned out to be far more important than they said it was (this was true whether a student was male or female). In effect, they were willing to pay a 22% tax on their starting salary to have a male boss.”

The studies identified biases, but apparently didn’t explore why the biases existed. In the gender study, for example, I suspect that graduates are well aware of the so-called “glass ceiling” that many women face. Since careers are often tied to the coattails of mentors, graduates could very well perceive that their greatest opportunities could be found by working for someone who didn’t have to shatter artificial ceilings. The Economist goes on to report that other studies are also appearing that verify the cost of implicit biases. The one they report on dealt with race. During the study, researchers staged a scenario in which a black “student” and white “student” were in a room with other participants. The black student made an excuse to leave the room and, in doing so, slightly bumped into the white student. At that point, the white student did one of three things: 1) said nothing; 2) made a snide remark; or 3) made a racial slur. Researchers used two different groups to test for prejudice — live participants and groups who either watched the incident on video tape or read about it.

“Both those who read what had happened and those who witnessed it on television thought they would be much more upset in the cases involving racist comments than the one involving no comment at all. However, those who had actually been in the waiting room showed little distress in any of the three cases. In addition, a majority of those imagining the encounter predicted that they would not pick the racist student as their partner. However, those who were actually present in the room showed no tendency to shun the white student, even when he had been rude about the black one. People, it seems, are rather more prejudiced than they think they are.”

The article concludes that we really need to do a lot more study about prejudice despite all that we think we know. The fact that we can lie to ourselves about such things as our biases indicates that there is a constant battle going on in our heads. That battle is the subject of the next article [“The crowd within,” The Economist, 28 June 2008 print issue].

“That problem solving becomes easier when more minds are put to the task is no more than common sense. But the phenomenon goes further than that. Ask two people to answer a question like ‘how many windows are there on a London double-decker bus’ and average their answers. Their combined guesses will usually be more accurate than if just one person had been asked. Ask a crowd, rather than a pair, and the average is often very close to the truth. The phenomenon was called ‘the wisdom of crowds’ by James Surowiecki, a columnist for the New Yorker who wrote a book about it. Now a pair of psychologists have found an intriguing corollary. They have discovered that two guesses made by the same person at different times are also better than one. That is strange. Until now, psychologists have assumed that when people make a guess, they make the most accurate guess that they can. Ask them to make a second and it should, by definition, be less accurate. If that were true, averaging the first and second guesses should decrease the accuracy. Yet Edward Vul at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harold Pashler at the University of California, San Diego, have revealed in a study just published in Psychological Science that the average of first and second guesses is indeed better than either guess on its own.”

We’ve all heard that we should go with our first impressions and not second-guess ourselves. Apparently that’s not very good advice. Even better than second-guessing, however, is getting help from someone else. Researchers reporting that second-guessing and averaging the answers was “still only one-third as good as the wisdom of several different people.” The question is why is second-guessing or using the wisdom of crowds better than first impressions?

“One answer could be that they are evidence for the ‘generate and test’ model of creative thinking. This suggests that the brain is constantly creating hypotheses about the world and checking them against reality. Those that pass muster are adopted. Guessing the answers to questions you do not know the correct answer to, but have some idea of what the right answer ought to look like, could tap into such a system. A hive mind buzzing with ideas, as it were, but inside a single skull.”

You could call it “restless brain syndrome” — and it’s a good thing to have. Restless brains are always searching for answers. One reason, apparently, is that not “knowing” something can make us ill [“What You Don’t Know Makes You Nervous,” by Daniel Gilbert, New York Times, 20 May 2009]. Gilbert examines the effects of the current recession is having on peoples’ moods and behaviors — especially when the effect of not having enough money makes the future an unknown.

“Money matters and today most of us have less of it, so no one will be surprised by new survey results from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index showing that Americans are smiling less and worrying more than they were a year ago, that happiness is down and sadness is up, that we are getting less sleep and smoking more cigarettes, that depression is on the rise. But light wallets are not the cause of our heavy hearts. After all, most of us still have more inflation-adjusted dollars than our grandparents had, and they didn’t live in an unremitting funk. Middle-class Americans still enjoy more luxury than upper-class Americans enjoyed a century earlier, and the fin de siècle was not an especially gloomy time. Clearly, people can be perfectly happy with less than we had last year and less than we have now. So if a dearth of dollars isn’t making us miserable, then what is? No one knows. I don’t mean that no one knows the answer to this question. I mean that the answer to this question is that no one knows — and not knowing is making us sick.”

Gilbert goes on to describe experiments in which participants were given shocks. It turned out that the severity of the shock was not the most traumatic part of the experiment; not knowing when a severe shock was coming was.

“Consider an experiment by researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands who gave subjects a series of 20 electric shocks. Some subjects knew they would receive an intense shock on every trial. Others knew they would receive 17 mild shocks and 3 intense shocks, but they didn’t know on which of the 20 trials the intense shocks would come. The results showed that subjects who thought there was a small chance of receiving an intense shock were more afraid — they sweated more profusely, their hearts beat faster — than subjects who knew for sure that they’d receive an intense shock. That’s because people feel worse when something bad might occur than when something bad will occur.”

When your spouse or friends tell you to stop worrying or you will make yourself sick, they apparently are telling you the truth. Maybe Bobby McFerrin was right in telling us, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” but only when referring to things that we can’t possibly know. Gilbert concludes:

“Why would we prefer to know the worst than to suspect it? Because when we get bad news we weep for a while, and then get busy making the best of it. We change our behavior, we change our attitudes. We raise our consciousness and lower our standards. We find our bootstraps and tug. But we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know. An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait. Our national gloom is real enough, but it isn’t a matter of insufficient funds. It’s a matter of insufficient certainty. Americans have been perfectly happy with far less wealth than most of us have now, and we could quickly become those Americans again — if only we knew we had to.”

That leads me to the final story I’d like to discuss [“How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect,” by Benedict Carey, New York Times, 6 October 2009]. In the first article discussed above, Carey tells us how and why the impish thoughts we have get out. In this article, he argues that nonsensical experiences are necessary to help us identity patterns in life.

“In addition to assorted bad breaks and pleasant surprises, opportunities and insults, life [occasionally] up … an experience … that violates all logic and expectation. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that such anomalies produced a profound ‘sensation of the absurd,’ and he wasn’t the only one who took them seriously. Freud, in an essay called ‘The Uncanny,’ traced the sensation to a fear of death, of castration or of ‘something that ought to have remained hidden but has come to light.’ At best, the feeling is disorienting. At worst, it’s creepy. Now a study suggests that, paradoxically, this same sensation may prime the brain to sense patterns it would otherwise miss — in mathematical equations, in language, in the world at large. ‘We’re so motivated to get rid of that feeling that we look for meaning and coherence elsewhere,’ said Travis Proulx, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and lead author of the paper appearing in the journal Psychological Science. ‘We channel the feeling into some other project, and it appears to improve some kinds of learning.’ Researchers have long known that people cling to their personal biases more tightly when feeling threatened. After thinking about their own inevitable death, they become more patriotic, more religious and less tolerant of outsiders, studies find. When insulted, they profess more loyalty to friends — and when told they’ve done poorly on a trivia test, they even identify more strongly with their school’s winning teams.”

Carey reports that other researchers argue that the brain evolved into a predictive tool that could help humans cope with the future. In order to do so, however, it must maintain meaning and coherence about the world and it does so by identifying patterns.

“When those patterns break down — as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky — the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense. It may retreat to a familiar ritual, like checking equipment. But it may also turn its attention outward, the researchers argue, and notice, say, a pattern in animal tracks that was previously hidden. The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one. … The new research supports what many experimental artists, habitual travelers and other novel seekers have always insisted: at least some of the time, disorientation begets creative thinking.”

The next time you wake up after having one of those wild, nonsensical dreams where you jump from place to place and engage in unrelated activities that nevertheless seemed to have made sense while you were dreaming, you might just want to write the next few ideas that pop into your mind. Who knows, they may turn out to be money makers.