Friday, June 28, 2013

"Subliminal" by Leonard Mlodinow

It seems like a wave of "psychology of the mind" books have come out recently--or at least I've read a number of them, including Thinking, Fast and Slow in particular. This means that each new book on the subject I read treads at least some of the same material as books before, dampening the pleasure I might otherwise get from that material. For that reason, I didn't enjoy Subliminal as much as I might have if I hadn't read Thinking, Fast and Slow, as the two cover significantly similar material.

Both books concern the division of our minds into conscious and unconscious thought (termed "System 1" and "System 2" by Kahneman). Not surprisingly, though the human mind has extraordinary abilities, it's also subject to a lot of errors, even though we're not aware of this. A lot of the early material in Subliminal echoes Kahneman, but where Mlodinow differs is in his discussion of the social ramifications of our unconscious responses. For example, all people are unconsciously biased to favor traits similar to their own. This helps explain why discrimination is so pervasive, but it also shows that rarely is such behavior malicious.

Mlodinow brings up a number of interesting points, but at times he fails to make connections that seem important to me. For example, he talks about the importance of facial recognition in our evolution--to the point where a blind person (a person whose eyes function but whose brain has been damaged in such a way that the person cannot see) can often recognize expressions. Yet, a little later, Mlodinow explains the massive errors present in eye witness line-ups. I don't doubt that these two facts are reconcilable, but I would have liked to read an explanation in the book.

Similarly, Mlodinow recounts an anecdote where his "gut feeling" saved his life, saying "that [unconscious] advice can often save us, if we are willing to open ourselves to the input" (45). But, again, he goes on to argue (as Kahneman does) that we are often enormously influenced by irrelevant unconscious input. How do we tease apart when to trust the "gut" and when to doubt our judgments?

Though it's not a self-help book, there are certainly areas where I'd love some advice. Mlodinow argues that "Teachers' expectations greatly affect their students' academic performance, even when the teachers try to treat them impartially" (113). As a teacher, I know this has to be the case, whether I'm planning for a college prep class versus an AP or writing essays with a failing student and a straight-A student. Yet if their performance is effected even if I try to be impartial, what am I supposed to do?

There was also some fascinating material about personal beliefs that I'd hope could be put to use in our current political climate. Writes Mlodinow:
When someone with a political bias or vested interest sees a situation differently than we do, we tend to think that person is deliberately misinterpreting the obvious to justify their politics or to bring about some personal gain. But through motivated reason each side finds ways to justify its favored conclusion and discredit the other, while maintaining a belief in its own objectivity. (209)
I know how challenging it is for me to recognize this, or, even harder, to acknowledge that I am not always objective myself. Mlodinow sums it up well by saying:
Our culture likes to portray situations in black and white. Antagonists are dishonest, insincere, greedy, evil. They are opposed by heroes who are the opposite in terms of those qualities. But the truth is, from criminals to greedy executives to the "nasty" guy down the street, people who act in ways we abhor are usually convinced that they are right. (212)
We are very biased in how we view ourselves, which is most obvious in studies asking people to rate themselves as "below average," "average," or "above average" in things like driving or interpersonal skills. Nearly everyone rates him or herself as average or above--a statistical impossibility.

Subliminal is an interesting book (though I could do without the cheesy jokes), especially if you haven't read much in the field yet.

No comments:

Post a Comment