Saturday, July 3, 2010

Think you're acting on free will? Think again

Eben Harrell (TIME)
Research says unconscious will sways actions, desires (Laughing Stock/Corbis/TIME)

Studies have found that upon entering an office, people behave more competitively when they see a sharp leather briefcase on the desk, they talk more softly when there is a picture of a library on the wall, and they keep their desk tidier when there is a vague scent of cleaning agent in the air. But none of them are consciously aware of the influence of their environment. [This is at the root of the entire field of social psychology.]

There may be few things more fundamental to human identity than the belief that people are rational individuals whose behavior is determined by conscious choices.

But recently psychologists have compiled an impressive body of research that shows how deeply our decisions and behavior are influenced by unconscious thought, and how greatly those thoughts are swayed by stimuli beyond our immediate comprehension.

In an intriguing review in the July 2 edition of the journal Science, published online Thursday, Ruud Custers and Henk Aarts of Utrecht University in the Netherlands lay out the mounting evidence of the power of what they term the "unconscious will."

"People often act in order to realize desired outcomes, and they assume that consciousness drives that behavior. But the field now challenges the idea that there is only a conscious will. Our actions are very often initiated even though we are unaware of what we are seeking or why," Custers says.

It is not only that people's actions can be influenced by unconscious stimuli; our desires can be too. In one study cited by Custers and Aarts, students were presented with words on a screen related to puzzles -- crosswords, jigsaw piece, etc. For some students, the screen also flashed an additional set of words so briefly that they could only be detected subliminally.

The words were ones with positive associations, such as beach, friend, or home. When the students were given a puzzle to complete, the students exposed unconsciously to positive words worked harder, for longer, and reported greater motivation to do puzzles than the control group.

The same priming technique has also been used to prompt people to drink more fluids after being subliminally exposed to drinking-related words, and to offer constructive feedback to other people after sitting in front of a screen that subliminally flashes the names of their loved ones or occupations associated with caring like nurse. In other words, we are often not even consciously aware of why we want what we want.

John Bargh of Yale University, who 10 years ago predicted many of the findings discussed by Custers and Aarts in a paper entitled "The Unbearable Automaticity of Being," called the Science paper a "landmark -- nothing like this has been in Science before. It's a large step toward overcoming the skepticism surrounding this research." More>>

Follow Your Gut -- Is it Smart?
(TIME) If you have ever struggled with a difficult decision — new job vs. new boyfriend, sports car vs. minivan, read the book vs. see the movie — you have likely also been offered a heap of decision-making wisdom. Make a list of pros and cons. Go with your gut. Sleep on it.

What's Bella's problem, why can't she choose?

It was this last bit of advice — sleep on it — espoused in a paper by Dutch researchers and published in the journal Science in 2006, that really irked Ben Newell, a researcher himself at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

That paper suggested that people might be better off relying on unconscious deliberation to make complex decisions — despite an abundance of scientific evidence to the contrary — given that the human brain can reasonably only focus on a few things at a time. Once people have all the necessary information to make a decision, the paper found, too much conscious deliberation could lead to unnecessary attention given to extraneous factors.

Newell's answer to the Science paper is calleLinkd "Think, Blink or Sleep on It? The Impact of Modes of Thought on Complex Decision Making"... More>>

How to Choose Between Having a Boyfriend and a Friend with Benefits
The existence of love relationships and "friends with benefits" has divided us into advocates and opponents. While having friends with benefits has some favorable, well, benefits -- this type of relationship is not without setbacks. Deciding between a boyfriend and a friend with benefits should be made after taking into consideration a few things.

Friends with benefits is a concept fast developing roots across the world. Two individuals involved in such a way have the prime motive of a physical relationship, with no intention of falling in love.

More and more people, after tasting disappointment in their love relationship, are encouraged to construct such a comfortable arrangement. Still, there are other people who prefer to have only love relationship, the serial monogamists. Here are few factors that can help you set your preferences. More>>

EdinburghUniversity - "Is Science Showing That We Don't Have Free Will?" a lecture by Daniel C. Dennett, Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University

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