Sunday, January 19, 2014

Book review: “Strangers to ourselves” by Timothy Wilson

“We take in 11,000,000 pieces of information a second, but can process only 40 of them consciously” – so what happens to the remaining 11 million minus 40 pieces? Well, they are processed by the unconscious mind. And we are not even aware of the filtering, selection and judgements happening within our mind all the time. This invisible entity – Adaptive unconscious – is the hero of the book “Strangers to ourselves: Discovering the adaptive unconscious” by Timothy Wilson. If you have read Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, fast and slow” then you are familiar with the hero already (Kahneman calls it system-1). However, I still enjoyed reading “Strangers to ourselves” because of its lucid style and fresh narratives.

The two core questions the book explores are: (1) Why is it that people often don’t know themselves very well? and; (2) How can they increase their self-knowledge? I feel that the book does a good job of answering these questions, particularly question-1.

When we returned to India in 1998 after a seven year stay in the US, it was customary to be asked, “Why did you come back?” I soon realized that my answers are not consistent and varied depending upon the situation, mood etc. When I asked myself this question, I realized that I didn’t know the real answer. Thanks to this book, I now know that it is not that uncommon to not know the reason behind your behaviour/action. The unconscious (intuition) takes the decision, the conscious (rational) mind creates stories that justifies the decision – which are sometimes not consistent. Jonathan Haidt calls this “The emotional dog and its rational tail” (see Haidt’s interview).

The main reason why we don’t know ourselves very well is that much of what we want to know about ourselves resides outside of conscious awareness.  So who is really in control of our life anyway – conscious mind or the unconscious mind? Consciousness as the CEO metaphor says that consciousness is in charge of major decisions and the unconscious mind reports to it. On the other extreme, consciousness is treated more like a child who “plays” a video game at an arcade without putting any money into it. He moves the controls unaware that he is seeing the demo program that is independent of his actions. The truth lies somewhere in between. The unconscious mind scans the environment quickly and detects patterns especially those that might pose a danger. The conscious mind provides a check-and-balance to speed and efficiency of the unconscious and plans about the future.

What is the implication? Let’s take the example of sexual aggression – a topic of attention in India due to several reports of rapes in the last few years. Wilson says that men likely to engage in sexual aggression are unaware that they have a nonconscious association between sex and power and unaware that this association is triggered automatically. This lack of awareness makes it more difficult to prevent sexual aggression.

Wilson gives an interesting example of how a real estate agent finds out the kind of house her clients want. When she meets with her clients for the first time, she listens patiently as they describe their preferences, nodding her sympathetically. Many people have a long list of things they would have prepared before they visit the agent. Then the agent ignores everything the clients just said. And she takes them to a wide variety of houses including type of houses which her clients told them they would never consider. On these initial visits she observes the clients’ emotional reaction. Based on that she infers what her clients really like.

What is the best use of consciousness? According to Wilson, perhaps the best use of consciousness is to put ourselves in situations in which our adaptive unconscious can work smoothly. Could this be the task carried out by my conscious mind when we returned to India? I don’t know.

Related article:
Thinking, fast and slow: A landmark book in intuitive thinking and decision making, my book review, Feb 22, 2012.

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