Do you know what you’re doing?
In a remarkable archival study, Pelham and colleagues (2002: 474) found that “women were about 18% more likely to move to states with names resembling their first names than they should have been based on chance” — 36% more likely for the perfect matches Virginia and Georgia (Pelham et al. 2002: 474). They also found that men named Geoffrey or George were 42% more likely than expected to be geoscientists based on the frequency of names used as controls, such as Daniel and Bennie (Pelham et al. 2002: 480). Apparently, a city, or job, won’t smell the same with just any name. I’m not suggesting, nor does the study suggest, that names are the only thing that matter, but for big decisions like these, it’s disconcerting that they matter at all. I’d not expect George to justify his decision to spend his life among rocks by appealing to the first three letters of his name — and I doubt George would, either. The best guess is that such influences most often proceed unconsciously: we don’t know what we’re doing, or (a bit more precisely) why we’re doing it, and in many cases, I submit, we wouldn’t feel much like a “rational animal” if we did.
For example, in a diabolical demonstration by Dutton and Aron (1974), an attractive female approaches men in a park and asks them to fill out a questionnaire, afterwards giving respondents her phone number and offering to discuss the study further. Which brave souls will seize the opportunity, and ask her out? Well, some participants were approached on a scary footbridge swaying over a deep gorge, while others were approached after they had crossed the bridge and were relaxing on a park bench. The result: 65% of men in the “bridge condition” asked our heroine for a date, compared to 30% in the “bench condition.” Evidently, in the bridge condition the men misattributed arousal due to fear – they were often perspiring, short of breath, with a rapidly beating heart — to arousal due to sexual interest. Are you nervous because she’s attractive, or is she attractive because you’re nervous?
I realize you think you know what you’re doing. I think I know what I’m doing too. But I don’t know that this conviction can be trusted. In Johansson and colleagues’ (2005; cf. Johansson et al. 2006) studies of “choice blindness,” people were shown pairs of photographs depicting a female face, and asked to choose the one they found more attractive. For 12 trials nothing was amiss, but in 3 trials the experimenter contrived to treat the photo people did not choose as though they did choose it. In no more than 26% of all trials was the manipulation detected, regardless of whether the appearance of the paired faces was high or low in similarity. And when people were asked to explain their choices for 3 of the non-manipulated trials and 3 manipulated trials (e. g., “she looks very hot,” “I like earrings,”), the explanations were effectively indistinguishable. In other words, there was next to nothing in the explanations, such as evidence of deceit or hesitation, to differentiate the reasons participants gave for the choices they did make from the reasons they gave for the choices they didn’t make. Apparently, though they didn’t know what they did, they had no trouble coming up with reasons why they did it.
If I’m right, such experiments should have you doubting the extent to which you exert “rational control” over your behavior. Of course, a mere two or three studies, however exciting, shouldn’t convince you, but it turns out there are reams of experiments tending in the same unsettling direction (Wegner 2002; Wilson 2002; Stanovich 2004; Haidt 2006; Haybron 2008; Greene forthcoming; Bargh and Uleman 1989; Bornstein and Pittman 1992; Wyer 1997; Chaiken and Trope 1999; Hassin et al. 2005). I’m not exactly sure what should be made of all this, but I’m sure something needs to be made of it, and when this gets done, I’m pretty sure some familiar conceptions of the human will have to be made over. But that’s a lot for one post, and I’ll have to save it for my book to be, A Natural History of the Self.
Meanwhile, I’ll ask it again:
Do you know what you’re doing?
And why are you doing it?