14 min read ⌚
Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious
Think you know yourself?
Timothy D. Wilson’s research into the adaptive unconscious uncovers a startling truth:
We are all Strangers to Ourselves.
Who Should Read “Strangers to Ourselves”? And Why?
Timothy D. Wilson is a professor at the University of Virginia and one of the foremost and most distinguished researchers on self-knowledge and the unconscious mind in the world today.
Consequently, if you are interested in psychology and you really know your Freuds and Jungs, then Strangers to Ourselves should be at the top of your next month’s reading list.
Eye-opening and groundbreaking, Wilson’s book should invite the interest of both specialized and casual readers: it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s favorite book (see the “Critical Review” section), and we won’t be surprised if you start listing it among yours as well – as soon as you finish it.
About Timothy D. Wilson
Timothy D. Wilson is an American social psychologist, the Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, and the author of two very popular books on psychology, Strangers to Ourselves and Redirect.
Known for his research in areas such as the limits of introspection and unconscious processing, together with his long-time collaborator Daniel Gilbert, Timothy D. Wilson is widely considered one of the leading social psychologists of today.
In fact, his 1977 article “Telling more than we can know – verbal reports on mental processes” (co-authored with Richard Nisbett) is one of the most cited psychology articles in history, and his introductory primer Social Psychology (co-authored with Elliot Aronson and Robin Akert) is used as a textbook at many universities around the world.
In addition, Wilson is the winner of several awards, such as the All-University Outstanding Teaching Award (2001) and the University of Virginia Distinguished Scientist Award (2010); since 2009, he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Find out more at http://www.people.virginia.edu/~tdw/
“Strangers to Ourselves PDF Summary”
Chapter 1: Freud’s Genius, Freud’s Myopia
Two thousand years ago, in the pronaos of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi – at least according to ancient writers – still stood inscribed one of the most famous maxims in the history of philosophy: “Know thyself!”
And up until the end of the 19th century, many people believed that, buried beneath those two words, there lay an eternal truth, an almost divine imperative: not knowing yourself was a sin; knowing yourself was the only right way to go about in life.
And then came Sigmund Freud and uncovered a frightening secret, one which nobody was prepared to hear out loud: it is difficult to know yourself, and that’s because most of your mind operates unconsciously.
Plato and Descartes were severely wrong: not only is not all thinking conscious thinking, but most of it eludes us.
Interestingly enough, as Wilson shows, this is not something uncovered by Freud; philosophers and thinkers such as Leibnitz and Pascal, Shelling and William Hamilton had devised theories of the unconscious long before the Austrian.
They all shared the belief that some of our thinking is automatic and that some of our prejudices are beyond our rationality; even more, that we may be wrong about many of our own feelings and that some things, well, we just do (despite what we think about them).
What these authors intuited and Freud failed to see is that the unconscious is, almost by definition, ungraspable through introspection.
And that’s one of the scariest sentences you’ll ever read.
Chapter 2: The Adaptive Unconscious
“Consider that at any given moment,” writes Timothy Wilson in the second chapter of Strangers to Ourselves, “our five senses are taking in more than 11,000,000 pieces of information.”
That’s a lot!
So much, in fact, that scientists have long wondered about the capability of our conscious mind to process that many signals at any given moment.
The short answer: no, it cannot.
The long answer: not only it cannot, but it is also incredibly bad at it. In fact, “the most liberal estimate is that people can process consciously about 40 pieces of information per second.”
Where does the rest of it go?
You’ve guessed it alright!
Down the drain, hidden from sight, in the adaptive unconscious, from where it constantly lurks and influences us.
Which is why Wilson neatly defines the adaptive unconscious thus:
The unconscious is mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgments, feelings, or behavior.
But how does the unconscious influence your feelings, judgments, and behavior?
Well, we have some vague sense about it.
You’ll make no mistake to think of it as a sort of a guardian angel, filtering out information it deems unnecessary or harmful so that it can protect your psychological wellbeing – in much the same manner that your physical wellbeing is protected by your potent physical immune system.
“When it comes to maintaining a sense of well-being,” writes Wilson, “each of us is the ultimate spin doctor.”
OK, that’s a strange kind of a guardian angel – one that spits in the face of everything you know about yourself.
Or at least you think you do.
Chapter 3: Who’s in Charge?
To answer the question from the title of this chapter, you have to first understand that your unconscious mind is much older than your conscious mind; and that the role of the latter is, in many cases, to create an illusion of control.
In other words, both your unconscious and conscious mind work simultaneously inside your head; however, most of the time, you feel as if your conscious mind has everything under control.
“A more accurate view of the role of consciousness,” writes Wilson, “may be consciousness-as–Ronald Reagan.”
Put simply: your consciousness is (both to you and itself) your presidential self, the Great Communicator, the executive power; but, in fact, it is no more than “a spokesperson for a cadre of smart and hardworking powers (actually layers of powers), some known to outsiders, and some unknown.”
So, the truth is – it’s difficult to say who’s in charge and when; but it’s somewhat easier to note the differences between the two thinking authorities working inside you.
|THE ADAPTIVE UNCONSCIOUS||THE CONSCIOUS MIND|
|Multiple systems||Single system|
|On-line pattern detector||After-the-fact checker and balancer|
|Concerned with the here-and-now||Taking the long view|
(fast, unintentional, uncontrollable, effortless)
(slow, intentional, controllable, effortful)
|Precocious||Slower to develop|
|Sensitive to negative information||Sensitive to positive information|
You want to hear the most interesting and frightening part of Wilson’s analysis?
We have absolutely no system inside us to decide which task would be better processed by which system; the only system at work seems to be natural selection.
Hence all of your prejudices, wrong first impressions, beliefs not supported by stats, etc. etc.
Chapter 4: Knowing Who We Are
The reason why it is difficult to discover who you are is very simple: you are not one person.
There are at least two personalities inside you, one accessible and constructed by your conscious self, and another all but unreachable and created by your adaptive unconscious.
Up until the 1970s, almost all research was focused on the first type of personality; after all, it was the only one of whose existence we could be sure of.
And then, in 1968, a guy named Walter Mischel discovered that none of the approaches popular at the time “met the gold standard of personality research very well, namely [Gordon] Allport’s criterion of predicting with any certainty what people actually do”:
An extravert should make friends more easily than an introvert, whereas a conscientious person should meet more deadlines than a person who is not conscientious. Mischel found, however, that the typical correlation between personality traits and behavior was quite modest. This news shook up the field, because it essentially said that the traits personality psychologists were measuring were just slightly better than astrological signs at predicting behavior.
What Mischel actually discovered was that our “characteristic behavior and thought” (Allport’s definition of a theory of personality) actually a mixed genre.
Namely, in addition to being non-fictional (what our conscious mind objectively thinks is our characteristic behavior) it is also at least as much a fiction, created by our conscious mind to describe the actions of our adaptive unconscious.
Mischel described at least 5 (if-then) rules which guide behavior:
• encodings (people’s constructs of themselves and others);
• expectancies about themselves and the world;
• affectations and emotions;
• goals and values;
• competencies and self-regulatory plans.
Chapter 5: Knowing Why
Whether you like it or not, as we already told you while summarizing David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart, “you are often ignorant of your motivations and create fictional narratives to explain your decisions, emotions, and history without realizing it.”
It’s called confabulation and is what you may be doing all the time to stay alive and healthy.
To test out the implications of this, Timothy Wilson and his collaborator Richard Nisbett showed four identical pairs of pantyhose to numerous people.
Their job was to choose their favorite one.
The strange thing is that all of them somehow chose one; the even stranger one is that almost all of them had an explanation for their choice.
Unfortunately, these explanations may be nothing more but a way of your conscious mind to explain the decisions of the unconscious mind, and, thus provide your sometimes-inexplicable actions with a “why.”
Our explanations of our own behavior are often no more accurate than the explanations a total stranger may have and are based on four general types of information:
• Shared causal theories (such as “people are in bad moods on Mondays” or “opposites attract each other”);
• Observations of covariation between one’s responses and prior conditions (first we observe our own responses and then infer what is causing them: I like these two movies, and DeNiro is starring in each of them – I like DeNiro);
• Idiosyncratic theories (“People have idiosyncratic theories about the causes of their responses that are not shared by the culture at large, such as the theory that going to large parties often makes them depressed.”
• Private knowledge (thoughts, feelings, and memories).
Chapter 6: Knowing How We Feel
According to many philosophers – Descartes and Wittgenstein among them – “reports about sensations and feelings are incorrigible.”
In other words, if you feel that your head hurts and you claim that it does, then it most certainly does, regardless of whether doctors can find something wrong with it.
And there are at least two reasons why almost everybody believes to be so: the measurement and the theory problem.
According to the measurement problem, “even if people can be wrong about their feelings in principle, we have no way of knowing if and when this is the case because we do not have a pipeline to people’s feelings that is independent of their self-reports.”
The theory problem, on the other hand, is “the question of how and why the mind would be organized in such a way that people can be wrong about their feelings. Why on earth would humans be built this way?”
However, Wilson shows why both the measurement and the theory problem are not enough to dismiss the idea that reports about sensations are incorrigible.
In the case of the measurement problem, there is often evidence that self-reports are false and can be discounted: husbands often say that they are tired when they are, in fact, jealous; and their wives can guess this.
In the case of the theory problem, it’s even simpler: the functional approach can’t explain many other things (such as dreams, contagious yawning, lefties), so why should it be able to explain all reports of feelings?
In addition, there are people who suffer from alexithymia, a condition in which they are unable to explain the things they authentically feel.
Chapter 7: Knowing How We Will Feel
Think winning the lottery will make you happy?
Studies show that most lottery winners are actually miserable after winning the lottery.
Their only goal was to win it, and, unfortunately, they overestimated the duration of happiness this will bring them.
In truth, we all this: we think that finding the perfect partner will make us happy forever or that the death of a closed one will cripple us for eternity.
The truth is, we’ll overcome the latter, and the former will make us happy only for a certain amount of time.
We are resilient because we have a sort of an allostasis mechanism which prevents us from experiencing extremes, regardless of whether they are positive or negative.
Simply put, we tend to ordinize everything, so that we can survive: unless we rob some events of their emotional power, we may be unable to function properly in their absence (if positive) or constant presence (if negative).
Think of what happens to your ears when you go to a crowded place in which there’s loud music; at first, you can’t really understand what’s happening, but then you can even discern voices. Your ears equalize the noise; well, so does your mind when it comes to feelings.
You can encourage it to do this by setting yourself a goal toward which you need to work; as Viktor Frankl taught us, as long as you have a goal, you can recover from everything.
Chapter 8: Introspection and Self-Narratives
“Introspection,” writes Wilson, “is a very broad term, covering many different ways of examining the contents of one’s own mind.”
Either way, whether it’s “brief, off-the-cuff attempts to figure out how we feel about something” or “decades-long self-analyses recorded in lengthy journals,” introspection is incapable of helping us find out how our unconscious is working.
Because it is hidden by a self-narrative, the biography of ourselves written by us, whose goal is not to make us known to us better, but to help us find our way around.
The most important thing to note here is that more accurate self-narrative doesn’t necessarily mean a more functional person.
In fact, it is often the other way around.
For example, according to a well-known study, students who analyze why they have chosen a poster for their room feel much less happy about it two weeks later than students who don’t.
Even stranger, relationships tend to last longer with people who scrutinize them less often and less profound; and the ones who do may be wrong; it doesn’t matter.
Does this mean that we shouldn’t be collecting information?
It only means that we should collect just enough data so that we can inform our unconscious to make a gut decision, and then let our conscious mind to stabilize it in a narrative we’ll firmly believe in.
Too many questions – and you’ll threaten the stability of the narrative.
And that’s rarely a good idea.
Chapter 9: Looking Outward to Know Ourselves
Consider this: instinctually, you have nothing more than a vague idea of how your pulmonary system works and, yet, you breathe.
The only way to find out what happens inside you when you do is if you consult outside information.
Why should it be any different with your psychological system?
Interestingly enough – and contrary to just about every self-help book ever written – this means that you should listen to what others are saying about you much more than you do; because they actually know more about you than yourself.
Simply put, they see you how you act and do not have access to the narratives you use to explain your actions; so, they devise their own.
Studies show that these are necessarily more objective than your survival-driven self-narratives.
Of course, people tend to lie, and we sometimes project our theories and analyze their words through them.
Either way, when it comes to your behavior and your personality, the lesson is this: believe others at least as much as you believe yourself, if not more.
Chapter 10: Observing and Changing our Behavior
There’s also another thing you can do in addition to observing others observing you; namely – analyzing your actions.
In other words, try to dissever your actions from the things you think are your motivations and then try to find patterns among them.
You’ll be surprised to find out that, at least some of the time, your motivations are actually hidden from you.
And that you’ve hidden them from yourself.
Can you hack the system?
Apparently, you can.
And it’s as simple as that AA motto: fake it until you make it.
Namely, act like the person you want to become, and that may trick your unconscious into believing that this is the person you are.
Or, in the words of Wilson:
As suggested by William James, the more frequently people perform a behavior, the more habitual and automatic it becomes, requiring little effort or conscious attention. One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behavior change often precedes changes in attitudes and feelings. Changing our behavior to match our conscious conceptions of ourselves is thus a good way to bring about changes in the adaptive unconscious.
Key Lessons from “Strangers to Ourselves”
1. You Don’t Know Much About Yourself: You Is Someone Else
2. Want to Know Yourself Better? Ask Your Friends What They Think of You!
3. Fool Your Unconscious: Act as the Person You Want to Be
You Don’t Know Much About Yourself: You Is Someone Else
“I is someone else,” wrote French poet Arthur Rimbaud a century and a half ago.
Science thinks that he was pretty right: contrary to what philosophers try to inspire us, we are incapable of knowing ourselves.
Not due to lack of effort, but because there are at least two personalities inside us, one of which (the adaptive unconscious) is beyond our reach.
In other words, much of what you do, you do for reasons you don’t know and may never find out.
Want to Know Yourself Better? Ask Your Friends What They Think of You!
The reason why you see yourself differently than how others see you is simple: you invent self-narratives which help you function better which often don’t correlate with the objective truth (if that’s at all attainable).
In other words, other people know you better than you know yourself because they don’t have mechanisms inside them to justify your behavior.
That’s why peer reports tend to predict better the behavior of people than self-reports: as much as the latter are related to the conscious part of our own beings, the former delve into the adaptive unconscious, virtually unknown to us.
Fool Your Unconscious: Act as the Person You Want to Be
Many therapies for both alcoholics and chronically depressive people include a well-known and sometimes unjustly ridiculed credo: fake it until you make it.
There’s a reason for this.
Deliberately changing your behavior (your conscious mind telling your body to do something your body is refusing to do), in time, will certainly affect your self-conception and may even alter your unconscious being.
“Little steps can lead to big changes… and all of us have the ability to act more like the person we want to be.”
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“Strangers to Ourselves Quotes”When it comes to maintaining a sense of well-being, each of us is the ultimate spin doctor. Click To Tweet The most liberal estimate is that people can process consciously about 40 pieces of information per second. Click To Tweet Our greatest illusion is to believe that we are what we think ourselves to be. (Via H. F. Amiel) Click To Tweet A better working definition of the unconscious is mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgments, feelings, or behavior. Click To Tweet Walter Mischel found that… the traits personality psychologists were measuring were just slightly better than astrological signs at predicting behavior. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
“In Blink,” wrote Malcolm Gladwell about a decade ago, “I probably owe a bigger intellectual debt to Tim Wilson (and his longtime collaborator, Jonathan Schooler) than anyone else, and Strangers to Ourselves is probably the most influential book I’ve ever read.”
Describing his own work as “a kind of popularized version of Wilson’s own work,” Gladwell goes on to note that in the “beautifully written” Strangers to Ourselves Wilson is such a crucial book because it “asks the question: what, at the end of the day, can we really know about ourselves?”
The answer: “not much. Or, at least, not nearly as much as we think we can know. But it’s a tribute to Wilson, that in giving that answer he is never disheartening or depressing.”
“A rare combination of lucid prose, penetrating insight, and cutting-edge research” (Gilbert), Strangers to Ourselves “covers many diverse areas of psychology in a very accessible style… to make a radical argument: that for the most part, we have very little real understanding of how we work, or why we do even the most ordinary things” (John Bargh).
A truly fascinating read: precisely what books ought to be all about.