Richard's Reviews > Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious

Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy D. Wilson
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Jan 11, 15

bookshelves: bookclub, cognition, nonfiction
Recommended to Richard by: Cognitive Science reading group
Read from February 26 to March 24, 2010

In On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not , the author castigates Malcolm Gladwell for getting it wrong in Blink. Gladwell claims this book, Strangers to Ourselves as "probably the most influential book I've ever read", and cites it as instrumental in his decision to write Blink. And yet it appears that Gladwell fundamentally misunderstood the nature of how unconscious decision making takes place and whether it can be trusted.

(Selected for the Cognitive Science Reading & Discussion Group in March 2010.)

That group is meeting tomorrow, and I'm roughly one-third the way into the book, so I want to get some thoughts clarified. (We typically read the same book two months in a row, so I'm okay with not having finished it).


Accessible cognates are an expansion (to me, at least) on the idea of the availability heuristic. I was first exposed to the latter as type of cognitive bias, but what Wilson explores is the idea that *all* mental constructs have a "energy level" that makes them more or less accessible. When we think — consciously or unconsciously — the more recently and more in-depth our cognates are the more easily they are accessed, and the mere act of accessing them bumps their energy state up. This is due simply to efficiency: memories or concepts that are used more often and intensively are kept closer at hand.

But when this idea is applied to *all* concepts, a crucial insight is made. As a child, the complex of ideas that makes up "mother" (or, at least, primary caregiver) will always be close to the top of this accessibility hierarchy. When a new person comes along — perhaps a preschool teacher — who shares many similar attributes, the brain will re-use the mother concept if that seems like a good fit (explaining the childhood faux pas of calling a teacher "mom").

The Freudian idea that we frame new relationships in terms of our infantile relationships to our parents is close to this idea, but not quite the same. One peculiar outcome of this: consider the stereotypical talk therapy situation of a man trying to stop acting out his relationship with his mother within the context of his other female intimates. The mere act of talking about his relationship with his mother — over and over, and over — would tend to solidify her premier position as the most accessible female pattern. A better approach would probably be to deeply explore other variations of female relationships in order to break that dominance. Perhaps modern talk therapy does deal with this paradox, I don't know.


Normal schizophrenia: perhaps the central theme of the book, so far, is that we all have two personalities. First, the conscious self, which may or may or may not be in control. Second, the agglomeration of many unconscious mechanisms also forms a consistent pattern of behavior and thought, and is thus also a personality. Not all of those varied mechanisms work together, some are more deeply buried than others (the fear response to what looks like a snake is different and not really related to one's reaction to embarrassment in front of peers, for example). But crucially, those two personalities are independent enough that they might work at cross purposes. The conscious mind might find a prospective friend intelligent, charming and interesting all while completely oblivious to the signs that friendly discussions with this person will quickly devolve into acrimony because they they trigger memories of an overbearing older brother.

A crucial problem is that the unconscious is unavailable for inspection. Navel gazing, per se, won't reveal these buried tendencies.

Furthermore, those tendencies will be heavily context dependent. A person might react to embarrassment in front of peers with clownish bravado, while a similar reaction in front of an attractive person of the appropriate sex results in sheepishness, and an authority figure might witness clumsy and panicked denial. A question like "do you embarrass easily?" becomes meaningless.

Take this question from the Myers-Briggs personality test:
True or False:
You prefer meeting in small groups to interaction with lots of people.
Context is missing: is this with co-workers in front of the group's authority figure? Or a peer-only team meeting? Or Thanksgiving dinner with relatives you haven't seen in a year? Or a reunion with high school friends?

And even if the question is made very explicit, the inherent divide between the conscious and unconscious might mean that we might remain fundamentally confused about what we "prefer". Perhaps we think that a small group of peer co-workers would be preferred, but unconsciously we react very poorly to the chaos implied by a lack of direction and thus the typical outcome of such a meeting is less preferred; meanwhile the presence of authority at a larger meeting might be consciously resented as paternalistic, but unconsciously we might end up more satisfied with our performance and behavior when such a control is present.

I recall taking that test many years ago and feeling frustrated at these ambiguities. Does "preference" mean who I want to be? Or who I think I actually am? Or, worse, who I'm worried I might have to admit to being if I were more honest with myself?


What Wilson promises later in the book is a kind of indirect self-help technique. This isn't nominally a self-help book; with human consciousness under discussion, I'm pretty confident that any book that actually tries to sell itself as such would be uselessly simplistic anyway. At the same time, the possibility for advice is inherent, and many books that examine the many aspects of cognition will offer pointers that the author suspects might help. They'll sometimes call them heuristics, of course, in order not to be tarred with the self-help brush.

I haven't gotten to the details yet, but the gist of it seems to be that whereas introspection per se isn't useful, it is possible to use our interactions with others in our past as a dark mirror. By examining situations in which our behavior bewildered or frustrated us, we can try to compose a description of who that "other person" inside our skin is, and learn which situations trigger their antics and how to avoid those situations, and perhaps even to understand where "their" past intersects with our conscious past.

Back to the book for a bit more reading before tomorrow's meeting.
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message 1: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Mills thanks for an interesting review. I'll have to read this one. I actually really liked Blink.


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