Who’s Minding the Mind?

Who’s Minding the Mind?

July 31, 2007

In a recent experiment, psychologists at Yale altered people’s judgments of a stranger by handing them a cup of coffee.

The study participants, college students, had no idea that their
social instincts were being deliberately manipulated. On the way to the
laboratory, they had bumped into a laboratory assistant, who was
holding textbooks, a clipboard, papers and a cup of hot or iced coffee
— and asked for a hand with the cup.

That was all it took: The students who held a cup of iced coffee
rated a hypothetical person they later read about as being much colder,
less social and more selfish than did their fellow students, who had
momentarily held a cup of hot java.

Findings like this one, as improbable as they seem, have poured
forth in psychological research over the last few years. New studies
have found that people tidy up more thoroughly when there’s a faint
tang of cleaning liquid in the air; they become more competitive if
there’s a briefcase in sight, or more cooperative if they glimpse words
like “dependable” and “support” — all without being aware of the
change, or what prompted it.

Psychologists say that “priming” people in this way is not some form
of hypnotism, or even subliminal seduction; rather, it’s a
demonstration of how everyday sights, smells and sounds can selectively
activate goals or motives that people already have.

More fundamentally, the new studies reveal a subconscious brain that
is far more active, purposeful and independent than previously known.
Goals, whether to eat, mate or devour an iced latte, are like neural
software programs that can only be run one at a time, and the
unconscious is perfectly capable of running the program it chooses.

The give and take between these unconscious choices and our
rational, conscious aims can help explain some of the more mystifying
realities of behavior, like how we can be generous one moment and petty
the next, or act rudely at a dinner party when convinced we are
emanating charm.

“When it comes to our behavior from moment to moment, the big
question is, ‘What to do next?’ ” said John A. Bargh, a professor of
psychology at Yale and a co-author, with Lawrence Williams, of the
coffee study, which was presented at a recent psychology conference.
“Well, we’re finding that we have these unconscious behavioral guidance
systems that are continually furnishing suggestions through the day
about what to do next, and the brain is considering and often acting on
those, all before conscious awareness.”

Dr. Bargh added: “Sometimes those goals are in line with our conscious intentions and purposes, and sometimes they’re not.”

Priming the Unconscious

The idea of subliminal influence has a mixed reputation among
scientists because of a history of advertising hype and apparent fraud.
In 1957, an ad man named James Vicary claimed to have increased sales
of Coca-Cola and popcorn at a movie theater in Fort Lee, N.J., by
secretly flashing the words “Eat popcorn” and “Drink Coke” during the
film, too quickly to be consciously noticed. But advertisers and
regulators doubted his story from the beginning, and in a 1962
interview, Mr. Vicary acknowledged that he had trumped up the findings
to gain attention for his business.

Later studies of products promising subliminal improvement, for things like memory and self-esteem, found no effect.

Some scientists also caution against overstating the implications of
the latest research on priming unconscious goals. The new research
“doesn’t prove that consciousness never does anything,” wrote Roy
Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University,
in an e-mail message. “It’s rather like showing you can hot-wire a car
to start the ignition without keys. That’s important and potentially
useful information, but it doesn’t prove that keys don’t exist or that
keys are useless.”

Yet he and most in the field now agree that the evidence for
psychological hot-wiring has become overwhelming. In one 2004
experiment, psychologists led by Aaron Kay, then at Stanford University and now at the University of Waterloo, had students take part in a one-on-one investment game with another, unseen player.

Half the students played while sitting at a large table, at the
other end of which was a briefcase and a black leather portfolio. These
students were far stingier with their money than the others, who played
in an identical room, but with a backpack on the table instead.

The mere presence of the briefcase, noticed but not consciously
registered, generated business-related associations and expectations,
the authors argue, leading the brain to run the most appropriate goal
program: compete. The students had no sense of whether they had acted
selfishly or generously.

In another experiment, published in 2005, Dutch psychologists had
undergraduates sit in a cubicle and fill out a questionnaire. Hidden in
the room was a bucket of water with a splash of citrus-scented cleaning
fluid, giving off a faint odor. After completing the questionnaire, the
young men and women had a snack, a crumbly biscuit provided by
laboratory staff members.

The researchers covertly filmed the snack time and found that these
students cleared away crumbs three times more often than a comparison
group, who had taken the same questionnaire in a room with no cleaning
scent. “That is a very big effect, and they really had no idea they
were doing it,” said Henk Aarts, a psychologist at Utrecht University
and the senior author of the study.

The Same Brain Circuits

The real-world evidence for these unconscious effects is clear to
anyone who has ever run out to the car to avoid the rain and ended up
driving too fast, or rushed off to pick up dry cleaning and returned
with wine and cigarettes — but no pressed slacks.

The brain appears to use the very same neural circuits to execute an
unconscious act as it does a conscious one. In a study that appeared in
the journal Science in May, a team of English and French
neuroscientists performed brain imaging on 18 men and women who were
playing a computer game for money. The players held a handgrip and were
told that the tighter they squeezed when an image of money flashed on
the screen, the more of the loot they could keep.

As expected, the players squeezed harder when the image of a British
pound flashed by than when the image of a penny did — regardless of
whether they consciously perceived the pictures, many of which flew by
subliminally. But the circuits activated in their brains were similar
as well: an area called the ventral pallidum was particularly active
whenever the participants responded.

“This area is located in what used to be called the reptilian brain,
well below the conscious areas of the brain,” said the study’s senior
author, Chris Frith, a professor in neuropsychology at University
College London who wrote the book “Making Up The Mind: How the Brain
Creates our Mental World.”

The results suggest a “bottom-up” decision-making process, in which
the ventral pallidum is part of a circuit that first weighs the reward
and decides, then interacts with the higher-level, conscious regions
later, if at all, Dr. Frith said.

Scientists have spent years trying to pinpoint the exact neural
regions that support conscious awareness, so far in vain. But there’s
little doubt it involves the prefrontal cortex, the thin outer layer of
brain tissue behind the forehead, and experiments like this one show
that it can be one of the last neural areas to know when a decision is

This bottom-up order makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.
The subcortical areas of the brain evolved first and would have had to
help individuals fight, flee and scavenge well before conscious,
distinctly human layers were added later in evolutionary history. In
this sense, Dr. Bargh argues, unconscious goals can be seen as
open-ended, adaptive agents acting on behalf of the broad, genetically
encoded aims — automatic survival systems.

In several studies, researchers have also shown that, once covertly
activated, an unconscious goal persists with the same determination
that is evident in our conscious pursuits. Study participants primed to
be cooperative are assiduous in their teamwork, for instance, helping
others and sharing resources in games that last 20 minutes or longer.
Ditto for those set up to be aggressive.

This may help explain how someone can show up at a party in good
spirits and then for some unknown reason — the host’s loafers? the
family portrait on the wall? some political comment? — turn a little
sour, without realizing the change until later, when a friend remarks
on it. “I was rude? Really? When?”

Mark Schaller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia,
in Vancouver, has done research showing that when self-protective
instincts are primed — simply by turning down the lights in a room, for
instance — white people who are normally tolerant become unconsciously
more likely to detect hostility in the faces of black men with neutral

“Sometimes nonconscious effects can be bigger in sheer magnitude
than conscious ones,” Dr. Schaller said, “because we can’t moderate
stuff we don’t have conscious access to, and the goal stays active.”

Until it is satisfied, that is, when the program is subsequently
suppressed, research suggests. In one 2006 study, for instance,
researchers had Northwestern University
undergraduates recall an unethical deed from their past, like betraying
a friend, or a virtuous one, like returning lost property. Afterward,
the students had their choice of a gift, an antiseptic wipe or a
pencil; and those who had recalled bad behavior were twice as likely as
the others to take the wipe. They had been primed to psychologically
“cleanse” their consciences.

Once their hands were wiped, the students became less likely to
agree to volunteer their time to help with a graduate school project.
Their hands were clean: the unconscious goal had been satisfied and now
was being suppressed, the findings suggest.

What You Don’t Know

Using subtle cues for self-improvement is something like trying to
tickle yourself, Dr. Bargh said: priming doesn’t work if you’re aware
of it. Manipulating others, while possible, is dicey. “We know that as
soon as people feel they’re being manipulated, they do the opposite; it
backfires,” he said.

And researchers do not yet know how or when, exactly, unconscious
drives may suddenly become conscious; or under which circumstances
people are able to override hidden urges by force of will. Millions
have quit smoking, for instance, and uncounted numbers have resisted darker urges to misbehave that they don’t even fully understand.

Yet the new research on priming makes it clear that we are not alone
in our own consciousness. We have company, an invisible partner who has
strong reactions about the world that don’t always agree with our own,
but whose instincts, these studies clearly show, are at least as likely
to be helpful, and attentive to others, as they are to be disruptive.


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