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Home » How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow (Transcript)

How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow (Transcript)

Leonard Mlodinow

Physicist Leonard Mlodinow discusses on How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior at TEDxReset 2013 conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behaviour by Leonard Mlodinow at TEDxReset 2013


Hi there. Let’s start. You may have heard of speed dating or speed interviews, we’ll do a speed experiment, so, I’m just going to get on with it. It’s voluntary and it’s anonymous, so you don’t have to do it, but if you do it, don’t worry about how you do. There is no right or wrong. If you see yourself on this side of me, of my line here, you call yourself you are in group number one. And if you are on this side, you are in group number two.

And the important thing is I’ll show you some slides and you answer on the slips that you have in front of you, and just do everything silently. So, first, group two, turn away from the screen, so you don’t see it, if you wish to participate. So turn away, so you don’t see what is going to be projected.

And, group number one, here we go! Please, read this question silently and answer it.

Okay. Now, please, read this question silently and answer this question. Sorry to rush you, but if you can get your answers down, we’ll move on.

Now, group one, please put your group number at the top of the slip and circle it and turn away from the screen now. And group two, you can turn toward the screen. And are we ready?

Please, read this question silently and answer it. Now, please, read this question silently and answer this one.

If you finished up, please, write your group number at the top of your slip and circle it. And everyone can turn forward again. And if you are in group one, pass your slips toward this aisle. And if you are in group two, pass your slips toward this aisle. They’ll be collected, and we will get to them later in the talk.

So, let’s talk about your unconscious mind, and let’s begin by talking about what I mean by the ‘unconscious.’ So in modern science, what we mean by the ‘unconscious’ are processes that go on in your brain that are automatic. They don’t take any effort, they’re beyond your awareness, so you don’t know they are happening, and they are mostly beyond your control. And because of this, we don’t really understand what is influencing our thoughts, our perceptions, our feelings, our judgments, so that has a huge effect on our behavior.

But I want to contrast the modern unconscious with the Freudian or the Jungian unconscious. And what we mean by the unconscious in modern science today is our mental processes that are outside of our control and our awareness because of the structure of our brain. It’s not the Freudian unconsciousness which was hidden for emotional reasons and that could be revealed through introspection or through therapy. This unconsciousness is totally different from that traditional idea of the unconscious.

And the field that I’m going to talk about is called social neuroscience. It is a new field that has just begun in about the last ten years, and it’s a combination of three fields: one is Social Psychology, which is the psychology of how people interact with each other. The second is Cognitive Psychology which is the psychology of how people think. And the third is something completely different; it’s neuroscience, especially neuroscience using modern technology, such as fMRI technology which images your brain and can show what parts of your brain are functioning, as you have thoughts, feelings, perceptions, as you make decisions. And this kind of technology has revolutionized psychology because prior to this, of course, we couldn’t look into the brain to see what was actually going on, and psychology was kind of a soft science. But this has made psychology much more of a hard science because we can connect brain mechanisms and structures to the behavior we see.

So, I’m going to talk today about the unconscious in two realms. The first is the realm of physical perception, hearing and seeing. And the reason I’m going to talk about that is, partly, because, of course, it’s very important to how we survive and interact in our environment, and partly, because all the processes, some of which are very complex, that have to do with your social perception, are similar or analogous to the same processes that happen in your hearing and your vision, which we can illustrate very clearly.

And I want you to come away with this lesson, that our perceptions, both our visual and our physical perceptions, and also our social perceptions of other people, and situations, in life and business are very much affected by our unconscious. That what we perceive, isn’t really the data that is literally out there, but it’s a construction that our minds make using our imagination. It’s not really what is there.

This is an example from sight. This is just a typical scene of a road side view that you might see if you are driving down the road. And it’s what we normally perceive. It’s very clear. But now I’m going to show you a slide that is made from the data that actually hits your retina. So, this slide I am about to show you is what you would perceive, if there was no unconscious processing if you saw, literally, the optical data that hit your retina. And, as you can see, it’s very fuzzy. It’s a little bit clearer towards the center and outside it’s very fuzzy. And the reason that you don’t have this horrible vision and bump into things, and fall off cliffs, etc., is that your unconscious mind, automatically, with no effort, immediately processes that data and gives you the clear image.

And when it processes the data, it uses not only, of course, the data that is there, but it uses other things, it makes its best guess, and it uses things like your expectations, your desires, and your beliefs. So, let’s see, how that works.

One of the things that it also uses is the context. And I’m going to illustrate that here. If you look at the squares A and B, A looks like a dark square, and B looks like a light square. That’s not really what’s going on. A and B are identical. The optical data that’s coming to your eye from square A and B are exactly the same. They only look different because your unconscious processing is taking the fact that there is a shadow there, and there is a checkerboard; and it’s presenting you with what looks like a real image.

As I remove the context, you can see what happens. Now you can see that they are both the same. So this is an illustration of how your unconscious mind helps you to see things in an environment that will make sense. Now, notice the automaticity! That you can’t overcome this. If you look at the square, if you look at the checkerboard, you cannot see A and B being the same, even though if you look at A and B on the white background, you see that they are.

Here is another example. Humans are very social creatures. So, facial processing is very important to identify people, and also to tell what people are thinking and what they intend to do. And because we are social creatures, and we have to get along as we evolved, a lot of our mental processes in our brain evolved to help us to get along with other people and to understand them.

These two pictures are of Barack Obama. And they probably both look more or less like Barack Obama, but let me show you what happens when I turn them over? Because the part of your brain that focuses on faces, and helps you to understand and identify faces, doesn’t really work for upside down faces because we are not used to seeing people upside down. So, it evolved for right side up faces. Look, what happens when I turn it over.

So, now you can see that the picture on your right is very deformed, the picture on the other side is not. Now, watch, as I turn it back over, they look again kind of normal. So, this is your unconscious mind at work, and then not at work.

Let me give you now another example from hearing to show you that hearing works in a similar way or analogous way to vision in how you use, for instance, context. Here is an old song that you may recognize by Led Zeppelin. It should be playing right now. Audio? Well, these are the words to the old song, so you don’t really have to hear the forward part, but I need to get the audio going before the next slide. Anybody? Is the audio going to work now? [Song plays] There we go! All right. You can trust me that that was the song playing and these are the words. But the question is, when I play this song backwards, are you going to understand words? Was the group Led Zeppelin smart enough to design a song that makes sense both forward and backward? So, I want you to listen to this audio. Let your ears process it and see if you can understand the words. I apologize, if you don’t speak English, this may be a little difficult. [Song plays] So, is this making sense? I bet it’s not, whether you speak English or Turkish. When you hear the song backward, it sounds like gibberish.

But now I’m going to play the song again for you and I’m going to give you context. Just like you saw the squares differently when I put the checkerboard there and when I took them away, I’ll put a checkerboard here, and now I am going to put some words here. You follow along with the words and listen to the same audio again, and see if you don’t hear these words. [Audio plays] So, now you heard the same thing that you heard before, but you heard a different reality.

Now you heard words and before you heard gibberish. So, which is it? Well, they really didn’t make these words backwards, but we take the music, and we match words that sound like the backward song. And when you have that context, your brain makes you think that it’s really there. So, this is an example of your unconscious processing at work again! I’m going to play again a little bit of the song for you, but just to show how automatic this is, I’m going to play the song, with the words again, the backward song. I want you to listen to it and read the words, but don’t hear the words! Try and hear as you did the first time, as gibberish. [Audio plays]

So, now, when you hear it and you watch the words, just like you couldn’t see the checkerboard and see those squares differently when you are looking at the checkerboard, you can’t avoid hearing the words, when you have the context there. So, these are examples of your unconscious mind and how it works, and how you have no control or awareness over its functioning.

But let’s talk about social perception, because that’s really where it is most interesting. And I want to convince you that our social perception is also not a direct construction from the data that you get about people, but uses a lot of other factors, such as your beliefs, your desires, your expectations, and the context to make a picture of other people and social situations.

This slide illustrates an experiment that was done in California. Researchers made flyers for the candidates in two fictitious political races. And on the flyers, they listed for the liberal candidate the qualifications and the views, and also for the conservative candidate data like that. But they also put a picture in for the liberal and for the conservative.

And then they had people come in to read these flyers and say, “Who would you vote for?”, if you are voting. And the difference is that half of the people saw flyers where the liberal was made to look more competent, and the conservative made to look less competent, and the other half saw flyers where it was the other way around. And so the question is, does the look of competence that was in these flyers affect the way people vote, or do they vote just on the data that they think they are voting on, which is the other data that was listed? And the result was very dramatic.

When the conservative candidate looked more competent, she got 58% of the votes. But when she looked less competent she got only 44%. So there was a 14% vote swing. So people thought that they were voting based on certain data, which was the hard data, but they were really also voting on looks. Of course, this was in a laboratory, so you might say, “Does it really happen in real elections?” And, fortunately, a Professor at Princeton decided to find out. In 2006, he collected pairs of head shots of the competing candidates in dozens of races around the United States. And then he got people from districts where these races were not being run in, people who didn’t know the candidates, just to look at the pairs of photos and rate who looks more competent.

So he had these people look at the pairs of photos and tell them who looks more competent, he took the statistics on that, and he predicted the outcome of all these races, based purely on looks. Not beauty or handsomeness, but the look of who is more competent. And how often was he correct? He was right 70% of the time. So, in 70% of the races around the United States, the candidate who looked more competent won the race. So, obviously, we are not just basing our vote on what we think we are basing it on, but our unconscious mind is pushing us to vote for people based on looks.

Another thing that influences a great deal is touch. All primates rely on touch to form bonds and trust with each other. Most primates spend hours a day grooming each other. Humans do it a little bit less and it’s much more subtle, but it really has an effect. So I am going to talk to you a little bit now about how you take in data from people, based on whether or not they touch you. And when I say “touch you,” I don’t mean a grope or a big hug. I’m talking about something as subtle as a quarter to half a second light touch on the elbow or the shoulder.

And my favorite experiment in this realm was done in France, where French researchers hired two actors to stand on street corners, in a town in Northern France, on sunny days in the summer, and proposition all the single, young women who walked by. And to all the young women they said the same thing. Here’s the script translated into English. The difference between how they treated the women was: to half the women they provided this light quarter to half second touch on the forearm or the shoulder, and to the other half, they didn’t. And the question was, would they increase their success rate with the touch? And the answer is yes, they did. By a great deal. They were successful in getting the phone number of the women 10% of the time without a touch and 20% of the time with the touch. So it doubled their success rate.

Now, of course, picking up a woman is a sexual related activity, so you might think that touch is expected to have a greater influence there, but this same experiment has been done in many other contexts. For instance, waiters and waitresses in restaurants increase their tips by 30% if they give their customers a light touch. So this is something again that happens subconsciously. When they interviewed people after the experiment, most of them did not remember even being touched, and they all denied that the touch is what influenced their decision.

In my last minute, I want to convince you that these unconscious processes also affect you because a lot of people hear these things and go: “Yeah, other people are silly, aren’t they? But it doesn’t work with me.” So, before this talk, at the beginning, I did a little experiment. I asked you how much you would expect to pay for this hotel room. And I divided you into two groups. And, typically, when I do this experiment, group one tends to average around a $1,000 or $1,200 in their answer. And group two tends to go to like $200 or $300. Let’s see, what you guys did. Sean? Thank you.

Wow! OK. Group one $1,857 and group two $131. So, how did I, the magician, influence you subliminally to make these guesses because I didn’t twist your arm, and I didn’t give you any different data on the two rooms? Both groups took in exactly the same data, and, somehow, you made different conclusions.

And the difference was this. Group one was asked first this question, “Does this room cost $5,500 a night?” I think, the answer is pretty clearly no. But group two was asked, “Is this $55 a night?” The answer is also no. So, when you answered the second question, you probably didn’t think you are basing your answer on the first question, but you were. This is the context, just like the checkerboard was. And just like the words were to the backward song.

So, let me end with the quote from Carl Jung, who I don’t agree with his specifics of what he believed, but I think he was right when he said: “These subliminal aspects of everything that happens to us may seem to play a very little part in our daily lives, but they are the almost invisible roots of our conscious thoughts.”

Thank you.

Unidentified Speaker: Leonard, Thank you, thank you so much. So, you know that how do we choose, you just proved that we don’t really choose.

Leonard Mlodinow: You choose, but you don’t exactly know how you’re doing the choosing.

Unidentified Speaker: Thank you very much.

Leonard Mlodinow: Thank you very much.


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