Why your unconscious isn't the bad guy cover image

Why your unconscious isn't the bad guy

Dorian Minors • January 24, 2018

This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and make it intelligible. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. This article was fun enough to keep.

The idea that humans are on autopilot a lot of the time is not new in psychological research, and it's probably not new to you. So many of the self-improvement soundbites that are written and rewritten in our feeds and on our Pinterest boards revolve around the idea that freedom comes from unchaining ourselves from the routines of the everyday. But, something very valuable gets lost in these pithy reminders.

I mean, c'mon. Is this really a good idea?

The standard narrative; we must conquer our subconscious

Plato described emotion and reason as the horses that pull us in two directions. Isaiah, the biblical prophet, encouraged us to come together and reason, rather than act without thinking. The idea is truly as old as writing. And since writing is not that old, evolutionarily speaking, the idea is probably significantly older again. Daniel Kahneman's exemplary (if a tad inaccessible) book, Thinking, Fast and Slow neatly breaks down our mental processes into two 'systems'. System 1 is fast and subconscious, acting based on biases, emotions, and stereotypes. System 2 is slower (or perhaps, lazier), but conscious and calculating. Kahneman tells us that we make many of our decisions with System 1, but we assume that we're making most of our decisions using System 2. While there is debate as to how neatly our mental processes can be sorted, this idea is fundamental across cognitive science of any kind. Essentially, we place too much emphasis on our own rational judgments, when in reality, we're more commonly the victim of our unconscious biases.

Logically, what falls out of this kind of thinking, is something akin to mindfulness. The notion that we should spend time working to identify our unconscious biases, and strengthen our critical thinking. By learning how System 1 works, we can help System 2 to be more effective (or, just participate more). In short, we should endeavour to be slow, deliberate, and considered as we make our decisions. We must control our automatic thinking. And of course, as this message gets diluted over time, we start to believe that the speedy and subconscious System 1 is our hidden enemy.

This one is so diluted that it barely makes sense. What even is the box?

Who's the real bad guy here?

Let's me ask you something. If you were put in charge of your breathing, instead of the unconscious mechanism that usually does the job, would you be better at it? What about your heartbeat? There's a scary thought. Do you know what peristalsis is? Do you want to be in conscious control of moving your food from your stomach to your toilet bowl? I would suggest not. Why do we treat our thinking so differently from these other automatic processes? For whatever reason, a large number (if not the majority) of our decisions are handled by our automatic mental systems. It seems a touch foolish to focus on taking back control, without considering why we aren't in control in the first place. Consider the poor stereotype. Nowhere has an automatic process been demonised to such an extent as our tendency to stereotype. It's true enough to say that stereotypes can be harmful. But no one ever mentions the fact that stereotypes can be exceptionally useful in an unfamiliar social situation. It lets a brain short on resources make quick and usually accurate social judgments. Which in turn, is probably at least partially responsible for the fact that you have friends.

What about emotion? The predominant perspective holds that emotions are primarily designed to motivate us to rectify some speedbump on the path to our goals. Once our goals have been internalised (set in stone in our minds), then our brains stimulate emotions to elicit automatic responses if it feels like we're going off track. Recently, the boom in mindfulness as a tool for wellbeing has placed the emphasis on letting emotions go, and not acting on them. This has led to a kind of hostility toward emotion that neglects their purpose. Imagine needing to hold in your mind all of your goals, and making sure every worldly action is in alignment. Doesn't leave a lot of room for anything else, does it? I'll admit, true mindfulness doesn't espouse this kind of anti-emotion. But when the message is distilled over and over again, the automatic process is made out to be the bad guy.

The unconscious has a job to do, and you're ruining it.

If you don't know how to do the job, then I'd suggest that you don't make the rules about how it's done...

Your brain is an enormously complex organism. It's got a lot on its plate. It makes sense that it would delegate tasks. We can assume that the tasks it has automated have been selected by generations of evolutionary pressure. Basically, it happens this way because it works. As such, I suggest one should challenge the idea that we should place such an emphasis on controlling these underlying processes. Such an emphasis discourages us from working with our automatic thoughts. From embracing them and letting them do their job. Rather, we should work on understanding them, and using them as teachers to gain insight about ourselves. For instance, our emotions will likely reveal our goals to some extent. Our stereotypes (if they aren't broken) will grease the way for smoother social interactions. Don't make your emotions, your desires, and your unconscious into the enemy. Unless you're Sun Tzu:

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting... know your enemy... and fight a hundred battles without disaster - Sun Tzu

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.