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Flaws of Subconscious Mind

There have often been points in our life where we stopped ourselves from doing something or did something that we were not going to do because we had a gut feeling to do so. These gut feelings/instincts are not something that we explicitly think about, they just subconsciously come to us. The reflexes are also a sort of instinct. These gut feelings/instincts/ subconscious actions have served us quite well and they continue to be a very important aspect for our survival as a species. For example, how we immediately pull our hand when we touch a hot surface without even thinking about it for a second, and our inclination towards running away from immediate/unexpected loud noises (horns) have saved us quite a few times.

But, since we do not think about these subconscious actions, it could be easy for someone who has a basic knowledge of working of these instincts to exploit us. For example, crows treat all the eggs in their nest as their own, cuckoos exploit these parental instincts of crows by laying their eggs in crow’s nest. Crows in turn raise the cuckoo’s kids as their own. One more example of the exploitation of these parental instincts could be seen in the case of turkeys. Turkey mothers will look after any animal which makes the right “Cheep-Cheep” turkey sound. Experimenters were shocked to see that the turkey mothers raised a stuffed polecat (with a speaker emitting “Cheep-Cheep” sound) and attacked it as soon as it stopped emitting the “Cheep-Cheep” sound.

Enough of the bird talks, let us talk about the humans now. Before we talk about anything, I would like to give you two words.

                    Wolf                     Hunt

What did you do? You subconsciously associated the two words together. Though you were not asked to do it, you subconsciously saw the scenarios where those words can be associated. You might have imagined a scene from a movie or a documentary where a wolf is hunting prey or is being hunted a predator. This involuntary association of two different ideas is such an interesting research topic that a lot of experiments and case studies have been done to study the effect of ideas on our subconscious thinking. Let us study a few case studies/experiments:


Eating is to SO_P and washing is to SO_P:

You probably would have filled in the blanks.  You might have seen that the word eating triggered the word “SOUP”, while washing triggered the word “SOAP”. This could be explained by thinking of our brain as a graph of ideas and thoughts. Psychologists think of an idea as a node in a vast network, called the Associative memory, in which ideas are linked to many other ideas. There are different types of links: causes are linked to their effects (virus -> cold), things to their properties (Bulb -> luminescence); things to their categories (soup -> food). Most of these associations in the memory take place away from our conscious memory without us knowing that it is happening. You must have realized now how eating triggered the word “SOUP”, while the washing triggered “SOAP”.


The Florida Effect:


People need to know that this concept of association is not restricted to concepts and words. Even your actions and your emotions could be influenced by the events that you are not even aware of. The Florida effect is one such example that demonstrates the subconscious effects of our psychological state on our actions. In a classic experiment conducted by the psychologist John Bargh at New York University, participants of the experiment were asked to assemble four-word sentences from a set of 5 words. The participants aged 18 to 22 were divided into 2 groups. For one group of students, half the scrambled words contained the elderly words like forgetful, Florida, grey hair, wrinkles, etc. After the experiment was finished, the young participants were asked to go to another room across the hall. It was observed that the students who had elderly words in their sentences took more time to reach the other room (i.e they walked slowly) than the other group. When these results were mentioned to the students, they admitted to not doing it consciously. It was concluded that reminding people of old age, made them walk slowly. This subconscious effect on actions by certain events and ideas is also called “Priming” in psychological language.


Money and Individualism:

Since the introduction of the idea of priming, a lot of experiments have been conducted to check its relevance. In one more similar experiment (conducted by Kathleen Vohs), where people were divided into two groups, one of the groups(Group 1) was shown money indirectly that is through posters kept in the experiment rooms or setting the wallpapers(of money floating on water) of the computers of the experiment room or keeping a stack of monopoly money on the experiment table. It was found that the people who were exposed to these images showed less social behavior than others (Group 2). Money triggered individualism, for example, if the experimenter pretended to clumsily drop a bunch of pencils, people from group 1 picked a smaller number of pencils than Group 2. Also, people from group 1 asked for less help and helped lesser people than their counterpart group 2 (a feeling of self-sufficiency and independence). When asked to set two chairs for one to one discussion with a stranger, people from group 1 on average kept chairs farther than the people of group 2 (118 cm vs 80 cm).


Confirming to ideas:

In another simple demonstration, people were asked to check the audio quality and distortion in headphones. To check the distortion, they were asked to gently shake their head while a speech was being played in the headphones. Half of the people were asked to shake their head in vertical up and down directions (a sort of nod saying “Yes”) and the other half of the people were asked to shake their head in horizontal left and right directions (a nod saying “No”). It was observed that the people who nodded “Yes” agreed more to the content of the speech than the people who nodded horizontally (left to right). A surprising discovery, isn’t it?


My opinion:

We saw how a trivial manipulation of context could have such large effects on behavior. We should be careful as these flaws could be exploited by someone if they plan to do so. Also, the belief “First impression is the Last Impression”  though widely popular is actually flawed as we have already seen how a slight gesture of nod could make a huge difference in opinion about something. So, the first impression of a person could also be subconsciously influenced by a lot of factors like the environment, people, and our mood. Hence, while making an opinion about something we should also consciously and explicitly considered the subconscious side of our thinking.


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