Before You Know It is an arresting introduction to the workaday mysteries of the unconsciousby Antonio Melechi / January 25, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
In the autumn of 2006, John Bargh, a social and cognitive psychologist at Yale, dreamed that he was being followed though a swamp by an alligator. Bargh was already an expert on unconscious thinking and automatic behaviour and had conducted many experiments, but his eureka moment came when the beast in his dream flipped over to reveal its underside.
“The white belly of the alligator,” Bargh writes, “was the unconscious, and it was telling me that… our basic human psychological and behavioural systems were originally unconscious, and they existed before the rather late appearance of language.”
Before You Know It, Bargh’s highly engaging survey of recent laboratory and field studies, offers a variegated picture of the ways in which unconscious cues impact on our everyday behaviour and beliefs. “The unconscious workings of our mind send us signals,” says Bargh, about “our passionate likes and dislikes, but also about our most lukewarm, indifferent opinions.”
These hidden prompts, Bargh stresses, are liable to have unexpected and far from helpful consequences. In one of his own Yale studies on impression-formation, he found that the simple act of holding something warm or cold can activate “analogous feelings of social warmth or coldness.” Parallel experiments indicate that the residue of thoughts and feelings aroused in any one situation tend to colour the next; that unconscious mimicry can promote bonding and anti-social behaviour; and, most interestingly, that social context has a far greater influence on our behaviour than personal morality.
Though not averse to transforming such findings into the kind of “effective habits” that remain a mainstay of popular psychology, Before You Know It is an arresting introduction to the workaday…