Knocked unconscious

Last night’s Horizon on BBC2 was really fascinating – throwing some light onto the unconscious mind. Thanks John Habershon of Momentum for alerting me to this through the ICG email group.

Horizon: Out of Control?

Some great stuff to show how unaware people are of what their brain is making them do: an experiment where camera-ed up volunteers chased down an errant toy helicopter and then gave remarkably deluded explanations of how they had done it. The brain scientists could track what was really happening.

This is why in qual research we have been shifting our emphasis so much towards behavioural observation and triangulation of techniques in order to get to the truth underneath the self-explanations. We even use cameras a little like those in the experiment sometimes (I’ve done it extensively with Eyetracker in the shopping arena). Indeed qual has been on about this – and the death of ‘rational actor theory‘ which over-emphasises the rational and conscious elements in our decision-making – for decades. It’s great that it’s really going mainstream now, with programmes like this and the growing acceptance of the basic tenets behavioural economics.

It’s no one’s fault we are inaccurate reporters of our own selves, it’s just how we are. And it’s because conscious thinking is such a small element of what is fully going on up there.

It's not just the captain of the Titanic who missed the big bit underneath

The programme shows how, when we master a skill like knitting, the part of the brain that we need for hard conscious thinking effectively packages up “knitting skill” and passes control of it further back into the brain. There, a different part of the brain keeps the exercise of this established skill ticking over. This frees up the conscious part of the brain to direct its energy to other things we have to think hard about to do.

It’s a remarkably good system, because the part of our brain that consciously processes things has quite a limited capacity, according to the programme. We can only take in between two and three objects at a time, for example, in our field of vision and we miss the rest. We think we see the world around us, but we see tiny fragments at best.

The other thing I found fascinating was the finding that we are much better at taking on board optimisitic information than negative information. That is, if we are told our chances of getting Alzheimers is lower than we had expected, we bag that and retain it. But if it’s higher than expected, our brain tends to reject the bad news and carry on as it is. The speculation is that there must have been some evolutionary advantage in our under-estimating the risks around us. It sounds counter-intuitive – surely the more risk-averse would prosper? – but if true, it’s an interesting insight into our successful ancestors. We are the offspring of survivors, who in turn were the offspring of survivors further back, of challenging climates, natural disasters and human-made ones. It could be that these people who made it through were the most optimistic and willing to overcome the risks around them.

That we’re “hard-wired” to be optimists would be good news indeed (or maybe I’m just ignoring the bad news). It needs to be seen in context though: as Thaler and Sunstein pointed out in Nudge, loss aversion is nevertheless one of the more universal human traits. Experiments indicate that we see avoiding a loss as roughly twice as valuable as making a gain. So if it’s optimism is the optimism of the cautious.

It reminded me of Daniel Kahnemann‘s story about his poor performance in screening candidates for officer training school for the Israeli army. After he saw how bad he was doing, he actually didn’t change his method, though he “knew” it was wrong. It really is hard to take on negative information, because essentially it seems our conscious brains seek to offload complex tasks in one way or another. Negative information – “you must rethink what you are doing” –  is harder work for the brain than positive information – “steady as she goes”.

But anyone who has given “bad news” in a research debrief knew this anyway! This is why framing this information positively – here is what you CAN do and here are the opportunities – is not just weak, yes-manly Pollyanna behaviour, but really the best way to get your findings across. “OK, so all the concepts we showed got panned; but here’s what we learned about what concepts you should be developing …”


About Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.
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3 Responses to Knocked unconscious

  1. Matt Dobbn says:

    Hi Simon
    I loved this summary of the Horizon programme – I felt exactly the same. I’m a BE obsessive and if anything, it starts to fill in the gaps about why BE principles exist – great to see some accessible, practical neuroscience!


  2. Pingback: Steering the elephant in the room, not just nudging it | Strangers on the Shore

  3. Pingback: Longitudinal Qual: Triangulating With A Spiral Staircase | Strangers on the Shore

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