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Subliminal 9: Feelings

01/15/2013

The nature of emotions. . . why the prospect of falling hundreds of feet onto large boulders has the same effect as a flirtatious smile and a black silk nightgown

This chapter probably has some of the best examples of research that seriously undermines our confidence in what we think are the reasons we act in certain ways. Seems human beings can rationalize results that are the exact opposite of what they actually felt. Human beings seem to judge the reasons they acted based on the same sort of outside contextual information that outsiders judge the reasons for their actions. This leaves introspection in a pretty shaky place as far as reliability goes.

Kindle Notes:

Moreover, when asked to explain why we feel a certain way, most of us, after giving it some thought, have no trouble supplying reasons. Where do we find those reasons, for feelings that may not even be what we think they are? We make them up (3292).

In one interesting demonstration of that phenomenon, a researcher held out snapshots of two women’s faces, each about the size of a playing card, one in each hand. He asked his subject to choose the more attractive one.20 He then flipped both photos facedown, and slid the selected picture over to the participant. He asked the participant to pick up the card and explain the choice he or she had made. Then the researcher went on to another pair of photos, for about a dozen pairs in all. The catch is that in a few cases the experimenter made a switch: through a sleight of hand, he actually slid to his subjects the photograph of the woman they had found less attractive. Only about one-quarter of the time did the subjects see through the ruse. But what is really interesting is what happened the 75 percent of the time they did not see through it: when asked why they preferred the face they really hadn’t preferred, they said things like “She’s radiant. I would rather have approached her in a bar than the other one” or “I like her earrings” or “She looks like an aunt of mine” or “I think she seems nicer than the other one.” Time after time, they confidently described their reasons for preferring the face that, in reality, they had not preferred (3294).

we also confabulate to fill in gaps in our knowledge about our feelings. We all have those tendencies. We ask ourselves or our friends questions like “Why do you drive that car?” or “Why do you like that guy?” or “Why did you laugh at that joke?” Research suggests that we think we know the answers to such questions, but really we often don’t. When asked to explain ourselves, we engage in a search for truth that may feel like a kind of introspection. But though we think we know what we are feeling, we often know neither the content nor the unconscious origins of that content. And so we come up with plausible explanations that are untrue or only partly accurate, and we believe them.25 Scientists who study such errors have noticed that they are not haphazard.26 They are regular and systematic. And they have their basis in a repository of social, emotional, and cultural information we all share (3341).

When you come up with an explanation for your feelings and behavior, your brain performs an action that would probably surprise you: it searches your mental database of cultural norms and picks something plausible (3353).

When the researchers examined the subjects’ and the outsiders’ answers, they found that they showed impressive agreement, and that both were way off the mark. Both groups appeared to draw their conclusions about which factors were influential from the social-norms explanations, while ignoring the actual reasons. For example, both the subjects and the outsiders said the coffee-spilling incident would not affect their liking of the applicant, yet it had the greatest effect of all the factors. Both groups expected that the academic factor would have a significant effect on their liking the applicant, but its effect was nil. And both groups reported that the expectation of meeting the applicant would have no effect, but it did. In case after case, both groups were wrong about which factors would not affect them and which factors would. As psychological theory had predicted, the subjects had shown no greater insight into themselves than the outsiders had (3403).

Evolution designed the human brain not to accurately understand itself but to help us survive. We observe ourselves and the world and make enough sense of things to get along. Some of us, interested in knowing ourselves more deeply—perhaps to make better life decisions, perhaps to live a richer life, perhaps out of curiosity—seek to get past our intuitive ideas of us. We can. We can use our conscious minds to study, to identify, and to pierce our cognitive illusions (3409).

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