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Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious
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Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  1,751 ratings  ·  123 reviews
"Know thyself," a precept as old as Socrates, is still good advice. But is introspection the best path to self-knowledge? What are we trying to discover, anyway? In an eye-opening tour of the unconscious, as contemporary psychological science has redefined it, Timothy D. Wilson introduces us to a hidden mental world of judgments, feelings, and motives that introspection ma ...more
Paperback, 262 pages
Published May 15th 2004 by Belknap Press (first published 2002)
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Lissa Carlson
May 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Pursuing our goals is as satisfying as achieving them. Avoid rumination. Trust your gut. And perhaps my favorite line: "… if we want to change some aspect of our adaptive unconscious, a good place to start is deliberately to begin acting like the person we want to be." ...more
Feb 08, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Richard by: Cognitive Science reading group
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
Dec 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing
There is an Ramana maharishi meditation "who am i"?You have to keep on asking who am i? negate all the answers which your mind provides,you have to keep on asking until mind reach a state of blank where it cannot provide any answers.You should not be stupid to chose some petty answers.Timothy Wilson is honest enough to declare that even with the aid of all the psychology we can never understand ourselves.We can never know ourselves completely to provide the reason for all actions.He provides lot ...more
Morgan Blackledge
Feb 03, 2013 rated it liked it
NOTE: Review originally written in 2013.

I liked this book a lot (which makes the 3 star ratting seem odd, even to myself). The important points in brief are:

1. although we commonly identify with our explicit (conscious) mental processes, implicit mental processes (what the author terms the adaptive unconscious) play a much more central role in our daily functioning.

2. our explicit mental processes play much less of a causal role in our behavior than we commonly believe.

3. the adaptive unconsc
Jessica Malice
Jul 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fictitious
Wilson makes a good argument for his conceptualisation of the (adaptive) unconscious. I agree with much of it and enjoyed the book - it had just the right balance of literature review and witty anecdata - but I personally believe we have far more power to bring our awareness to many of the processes Wilson assumes are inherently unconscious. I don't think he gives us enough credit there.

Also I hated the example of Susan assuming she was in love with Stephen because he was her idea of a model boy
Stephanie Thoma
Jan 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: for-fun
"Strangers to Ourselves" is a relatively quick and easy read that will spur an internal dialogue about things you may already intuit, but could stand to delve into a bit deeper (hence, the talk about conscious and unconscious thought).

Assertions, quotes and thoughts that made me think:

- our adaptive unconscious can do a better job of interpreting people's behavior/understanding in general than our conscious mind (subliminal ads affect us less than overt ones)
- the 'feel good motive' as a form o
Graeme Newell
Jul 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audible
A delightfully approachable book on the intricacies of human motivation and decision making. This book really made me reconsider some of the primary drivers behind my own choices. Wilson’s conversational style makes his hard research findings understandable and practical.

I’ve always felt the adaptive unconscious mind was a big motivator of our choices, but this book left me awed at the hidden brain’s strength and pervasiveness. Here’s the primary model: the hidden brain feels something, then our
Ian Greener
Apr 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
Interesting stuff. The big idea is that we can change ourselves by both changing our behaviour and the stories we tell about it. Wilson does a good job of presenting an updated view of Freud, and links his ideas to more recent studies that present serious questions about the extent to which we make conscious decisions in many situations. I'm not entirely convinced, but this are still important ideas. ...more
Dec 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Prof. Wilson does a very capable job of describing the landscape of general psychological methods c. 2002 and has done so in a readable form. For this reason, he deserves praise. Just as the title states, he devotes much discussion to the adaptive unconscious and its relationship to the conscious. My takeaway: the adaptive unconscious is ultimately indecipherable. We may have some clues as to the content of our adaptive unconscious, however, we will never come to know it in the sense we all wish ...more
Sep 20, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I see why this book is so well-regarded by other psychologists, but the impact of it has dulled a little since it's been built on so well by other books. ...more
A rational enquiry into the irrational adaptive subconscious. If one is interested in the workings of the subconscious this is a must read. Highly recommend it!
Aug 23, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everyone
The book is great. It is based strictly on research, but the author does much more than review some experimental data and come up with a conclusion. Wilson paints a grand all-inclusive picture of our inner structure which clarifies lots of age-old questions.
In short, there are two personalities in every one of us: one based on our consciousness, another based on our "adaptive unconscious". And neither do we know ourselves, nor can we gain this knowledge by introspection.
The parts of the books co
Matthew Salesses
May 09, 2018 rated it liked it
This is really an exasperating book. There’s a lot of interesting information collected here but the conclusions drawn from that information are often wrongheaded and based on dichotomous assumptions that if it’s not one thing it’s another, both defined by the author. Also this seems to be a misunderstanding of psychoanalytic theory through a kind of statistical brain. Most troubling are the implications here that people don’t need to change or need only to change once, when the far smarter and ...more
Richard Palmer
Nov 05, 2011 rated it liked it
There were some interesting insights here. Wilson contrasts his ideas about the subconscious with those of Freud. He argues that most subconscious thoughts are the result not of repression, but of biology and evolution. We survive because with have a host of semi-automatic processes that handle a huge amount of our lives.
This is really a book that presents Wilson's theories in a readable way. It does not have a lot of practical advice; it does not purport to provide a good way to use much of th
Jan 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: psychology
About halfway through the book the author makes reference to his colleague Daniel Gilbert,whose own book , "Stumbling on Happiness" won the Royal Society prize and henceforth voluminous authoritative accolades.In my opinion they overlooked the better writer as I found Wilson's Style,although drier and less frivolous, much more suited to its subject and although it lacked the humorous cultural anecdotes of Gilbert's' book I found it more engaging and informative and less like an exercise in popul ...more
Eli Mandel
Nov 24, 2018 rated it liked it
Quite a good book. I suspect that he undersells Freud a little and I have to imagine that he simplifies Descartes (although, not having read either, I am vastly underqualified to judge) but he needs someone to argue against so hey.
I've read many of these ideas elsewhere so I was not entirely engaged in the first few chapters, but by chapter 4 he had me in a state of arousal (was it because of my excitement over the ideas or the pretty woman I saw outside my window? Read on to chapter 9 to figur
Jul 24, 2012 rated it it was ok
Beach reading. Most of this is general, common sense type "scientific findings." Though there is a notes section at the back and references throughout, the way they're presented are much more as anecdotes than scientific references with summary and conditions outwaying numbers/ stats. Most of this book can be skimmed, as all the potentially relevant information is really contained in a few sentences but quite thoroughly ensconced in filler. ...more
Jan 23, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
It is very illuminating to think of the things that our minds do unconsciously. The relationship between the unconscious and the conscious is fascinating, and this book explores this in several interesting ways. It was a bit slow reading at first, but picks up more in later chapters. I enjoyed it as informative non-fiction, and it made me think a lot about my brain and my ways of thinking and being, how humans interact in general.
Apr 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is one of a growing number of books on the brain that argues that it is more plastic than previous thinkers have believed. We can change our minds, our habits, our fears, and so on. We can learn throughout our adulthood. We can even become better people by behaving better. The book is clearly written and an excellent introduction to the idea of brain plasticity.
Dec 27, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: psychology
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Megan Wight
Aug 24, 2019 rated it liked it
You don’t know your self at all. You either have an exaggerated positive self image or an exaggerated negative self image. Finding out from other people who you trust or through anonymous letters from friends will help you understand yourself better than using introspection. Finding your own truths may help you or may delete your coping mechanisms for survival. The key though, is balance. Knowing enough about yourself so you aren’t hurting yourself in the long run is key, but the little lies can ...more
ياسمين خليفة
Apr 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Fascinating book. I now realized why there is big gap between my desires and goals and my actions, Between the person I think I am and between who I am really in the world. I need to act like the person I want to be not the person my unconscious makes me.
Adam Zerner
Jun 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
The main idea in this book, from what I gather, is that the unconscious mind is real, and it is powerful.

What does that even mean? Consider some examples. Say you are walking through a crowded city and bump in to someone. You don't have to consciously tighten and loosen certain muscles to remain on balance. Your unconscious handles that for you, via the vestibular system.

But the unconscious isn't limited to this sort of low level operation. It deals with "high level" things like emotions, judgem
Dec 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is the precursor book to many of the "Blink" type books out there. It's more academic and focuses on the modules working out of perception of the "thinking" mind. It is clear that we do not have introspective access to the workings of most of these modules. That limits the power of self-introspection and self-explanation. I liked "Strangers" because many of the things I am trying to get good at have a big intuitive component. I have seen many teachers/coaches fall into the narrative fallacy ...more
Lisa Frieden
Mar 08, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I heard the author interviewed on NPR and that he'd influenced Malcolm Gladwell, so I was interested in checking out this book. As other reviewers have noted, I found that his first couple of chapters held the interesting meat of the book.

Given the current zeitgeist of our country, what with the Me, too movement and our current President, I found his concept of the adaptive unconscious helpful in understanding some of the dynamics at play.

This quote in particular, struck me: “Even more ominousl
Jun 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
i should have read this book earlier. :/
May 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
The book was very interesting and reminded me very much of thinking fast and slow.

A lot of the book described experiments that demonstrated the degree to which people operate on autopilot without consciously thinking.

While fascanating it did provide much practical advice on how to become less of a stranger to ourselves and take more conscious control back over our mind.

That said there was a very interesting chapter citing evidence that writing about highly (negative) emotional events from the pa
Oct 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: how-to-human
A fascinating look at how our brains work (probably). The main idea of the book is that most of what our brain thinks, and does, and plans, and even feel is hidden from us. And, crazily, when you try to introspectively probe the murky depths of your own mind for why you do what you do, or feel the way you do, or want what you want and those reasons lie in the impenetrable non-conscious part, then your consciousness just kind of shrugs and makes something up, and you totally believe this bullshit ...more
Tey Shi
Mar 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
The reason why we sometimes do not seem to know ourselves is because most of how the brain processes take place unconsciously, from how we sense the world to the kind of things that we pay attention to. This process is similar to when we are using the computer, we know how to manipulate things on the monitor screen but do not have much of an idea how the processors are running behind the back for us to use the computer. Various psychological studies have shown that we could be unaware of the fac ...more
Jan 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This book discusses the research about what Wilson calls the adaptive unconscious, the mental system that runs in parallel to - and often unseen by - the conscious mind. The first half of the book seemed mildly interesting in an academic way, with a lot of research discussed without clear applications to everyday living. The second half (maybe last third) picked up more in terms of practical applicability. I particularly enjoyed reading about flow states, emotional regulation, introspection and ...more
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Timothy D. Wilson is the Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. He has written for Science and The New York Times, among other publications and journals, and is the author of Strangers to Ourselves, which was named by New York Times Magazine as one of the Best 100 Ideas of 2002. Wilson is also the coauthor of the best-selling social psychology textbook, now in its ...more

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