In episode seven, I opened a conversation based on the book, Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy Wilson. I talked about his thoughts, and my reactions, to the ways in which our adaptive unconscious is both vital to our survival, and a source of negative errors. It is where sight sound, smell, and touch help us build a picture of the world we are immersed in. It's made up of many different aspects that interact quickly and almost entirely out of our awareness. It creates beliefs and mental models based on past experiences, family history growing up, social and cultural constructs of the society we were raised in, and other factors of which we are mostly not aware.
At the same time, we also have a conscious side to our minds and we love our conscious minds. We're aware of the ways we plan, make choices and tell the stories of our own lives and of the world we live in. We often feel the power of thinking consciously about right and wrong, and making choices that we believe make us good people. At all of this is true. We do have conscious minds that engage in these activities and more. And we constantly navigate among these different parts of ourselves. And I believe we are helped when we do so in a more thoughtful way. To bring this point home. Let's look at a few examples.
On page 19 of strangers to ourselves, Wilson says "humans have a sixth sense called proprioception, which is the sensory feedback we constantly receive from our muscles, joint and skin signaling the position of our bodies and limbs. Without knowing it, we constantly monitor this feedback and make adjustments to our bodies.
For example, when we lift our left arm, we subtly shift some weight to the right side of our bodies to maintain our balance. If we didn't we would list dangerously to one side. Now in rare cases, people lose this sixth sense, and Wilson mentions one case. A person who suffered nerve damage, lost all proprioception and was, as Wilson says, like the straw man in the wizard of Oz, newly released from his pole". This man had to learn to keep conscious awareness of his body parts in order to relearn how to do simple things like walk or eat breakfast. On the same page, Wilson writes about depth perception. Outside of our awareness, we take in visual information that our unconscious minds translate into a picture of the world around us. The result is a picture of shape, color and which things are nearer to us or farther away. As Wilson says on page 20, "if these non-conscious computations were to cease, the world would look like a confusing jumble of pixels and colors instead of cohering into meaningful three-dimensional images. Everything from riding a bicycle, to building the house we live in, to me finding the keys to type on my computer as I compose this episode, would be impossible. Now while our adaptive unconscious is vital to our survival, it is also something that can be harmful. We do hold stereotypical beliefs about other people and about the way they speak and act. If we allow ourselves to treat them negatively, based on those stereotypes, we will do harm.
It might show up as overlooking an otherwise qualified person for a job or steering someone away from rentals or homes for sale they might otherwise appreciate and flourish in. There is the famous example of some orchestras putting curtains on the stage so reviewers could not see the gender of the person before they played their instruments.
A change that led to an increase in the percentage of women hired by the orchestras.
On pages, 1 64 to 165 of the adaptive unconscious Wilson recounts a story about friends of his, who are both research psychologists, who wanted to buy a new home. They made a list of attributes and as they viewed homes for sale with their agent, gave a number to rate each house on those attributes in hopes this would help them find the best place to purchase. They later purchased a home that was very different than what they came up with in their rational analysis of their likes and dislikes. And at the time of writing this book had happily lived there for 15 years. Wilson then describes the process his own real estate agent uses. They listen patiently as a client describes the home they want to purchase and ignores what they say. She then takes them to view a wide variety of homes for sale, including ones as he quotes her saying, "Quite different from what they had described." The agent notices, how they respond in the moment to each home, and from their emotional reactions, learns what it is they really want. He quotes many real estate agents as saying, quote, buyers lie.
Now Wilson replies to this on page 165 saying buyers, of course, do not deliberately misrepresent what they want. Rather, they may not be fully aware of their preferences or have difficulty articulating them. "One reason by real estate agent is so successful", he says, "is that she is quite skilled at inferring what her clients want and often knows their preferences better than the clients themselves do."
He then goes on to recount stories of studies where people make inaccurate analytical decisions about how they feel and why with negative results. . Like giving up on a relationship. After doing a factual analysis of what they did and did not like about the other person and later realizing it was a mistake that they in fact loved the person and miss them. Wilson also cites other studies that show other people sometimes are more aware of who we are of our likes and dislikes than we are. I have frequently described myself as highly introverted, for example, but this surprises people who've interacted with me. This is because I can be quite loquacious at times, or because they have seen me read my poetry where I have very animated. In fact, I have changed over the years. My anger at oppressions I witnessed and experienced in the 1940s and fifties, got loudly expressed in the 1960s. And over the last dozen years, I've grown to love reading my poetry out loud.
These I experience as being expressions of what I perceive as my life journey, or my calling. I still prefer to be at home reading, thinking, watching movies or TV series that move me rather than going out and socializing. For me, I think that I am right about being introverted and that others are also accurately describing me as not being introverted.