Thursday, March 20, 2014

Unconscious links trigger behavior that we would never expect

Many of you know that I am fascinated by examples where people to exactly the opposite of what they think they will do (for example this recent post).  This fascinates me primarily for two reasons:

1.  It shows that what we think of as our conscious mind/executive control is really not what is in charge.  Most of our behavior is controlled by unconscious and even pre-conscious processes.  Then when our consciousness sees what we just did, it comes up with a logical explanation that might have very little in common with the real causation for it.

2.  Even better, when we ask our conscious false-executive to predict what we will do, it is often 100% wrong.  What we do turns out to be the opposite of what our conscious brain thought we would do.  It is not hypocrisy (although it does seem like it).  It is just that the two processes are not connected. 

There is an unconscious part of our brain that runs our daily lives – perceiving the world, making decisions, taking actions.  And then there is the conscious part that is blissfully ignorant of what is really going on, imaging the world the way we prefer it to be (or for depressed people, the opposite), imagining ourselves the way we want to think of ourselves (generally much better than we really are), having idealized impressions of things and people we like, corrupted impressions of things and people we don’t like, and other myths, illusions, and falsehoods.

I am currently reading Jonah Berger’s 2013 bookContagious.  He is a prof at Harvard Business School who does research on these inconsistencies, with the motivation to find out what causes ideas and behaviors to catch on.

One of his examples is a perfect demonstration.  He presented college students with one of two health-related slogans.  Both of them promoted eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day.  One mentioned dining hall trays in the slogan and the other did not.  When they asked the students which was better, the students responded that the one about the dining hall trays was too corny and would not work nearly as well as the other one.  But then they tracked what the students did when they were eating in dining halls that had trays.  The ones that saw the tray slogan ate more fruits and vegetables than the others.  Jonah used a solid research method that controlled for the other factors that could explain the difference.  So basically, the students thought the tray slogan was worse, but it actually was better.  And not only in general, but on the very students that rated it as worse.  All it took was placing an unconscious link between trays and fruits/vegetables that would be triggered in the dining hall.  He has tons of examples like this in his trigger chapter.  A very enjoyable read. 

No comments: