Ben Newell on the Truth About Our Unconscious Minds
The world is an extremely biased and prejudiced place. The crucial thing, though, is that the role of the unconscious in explaining or accounting for those kinds of biases, is really overestimated and overstated. So, being able to attribute these biases to some other part of our brain, some unconscious part of our brain that we don't have access to, is a kind of abdication of responsibility for the control that we actually have over our own behaviour.
Hear from Professor of Psychology and author Ben Newell as he shared insight from his new book Open Minded: Searching for Truth about the Unconscious Mind. Fusing research into the relationship between intuitive and deliberating thinking, and sharing real-life examples, he challenges commonly held notions about the role of unconscious thought in the human mind and behaviour.
This event was presented by the Sydney Writers' Festival and supported by UNSW Sydney.
UNSW Centre for Ideas: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast – a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney's brightest minds. The talk you are about to hear, Ben Newell on the Truth about Our Unconscious Minds, features UNSW Sydney’s Psychology Professor, Ben Newell, and was recorded live at the 2023 Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Ben Newell: Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for coming to this session. My name is Ben Newell. I'm a Professor of Psychology at UNSW Sydney, and I'm going to be talking to you today about a new book that I've got coming out in August – that is not available just yet, but it is available for pre-order – written with my colleague, David Shanks, at University College, London. And the book is entitled Open Minded: Searching for Truth about the Unconscious Mind.
I want to start with a bold idea that has a very long history. That's the idea that our mind is like an iceberg. So, the vast majority of our thought, our behaviour, is determined below the waterline of consciousness. This is a view that's been around for a very long time and is often attributed to Freud. So, this quote is attributed to Freud, where he said, “The mind is like an iceberg. It floats with one seventh of its bulk above water”. The big idea I want you to take away from today is that this emphasis on the unconscious as responsible, or determining or explaining, our behaviour – or judgments or decisions or choices – is vastly overestimated. And that the view that we put forward in the Book is one of an inverted iceberg – where the vast majority of our behaviour is actually above the waterline. We are conscious of the things that we do, the decisions that we make, and what determines our behaviour.
It's also interesting, as a little aside, that although this view is strongly attributed or strongly credited to Freud, this quote about it being a ‘seventh above water’ is actually something that Freud never said. And this is a first indication of the importance of not just taking things at face value, but for looking at the actual evidence and seeing the evidence. So, because this is a Curiosity Lecture, I'm going to take a little moment just to explain how I became curious in this area, how I became curious about the unconscious mind. And I'm going to take a short moment just to explain how I got here, how I got to be standing on stage talking about this book.
I, at university, studied psychology, but before that I studied sciences at high school. So, I started off with a love of biology, physics, chemistry, and I wanted to apply that to thinking about the thing that still intrigues me at the moment – which is why we do the things we do, why we behave in the way that we do. And not long into my studies, I started to find out about and learn about unconscious (so-called) influences on our behaviour. The idea, perhaps most obviously, or familiar with, with lots of people, is the idea of subliminal advertising. The idea that I can flash things on the screen, and that's going to change your behaviour. So, if I flash the word ‘Coke’ or ‘popcorn’ in front of you, then suddenly you're going to go away, and you're going to start buying more popcorn and Coke.
Spoiler alert: it doesn't work.
So, I got really fascinated about the methods and the ideas and the challenges and trying to actually establish what counts as an unconscious influence on our behaviour –how do we go into the lab and measure these kinds of things? And what's the evidence that they're really driving changes in behaviour that we have?
Let me give you a slightly more modern example – and that is this so-called ‘subconscious menu' that was put out by Pizza Hut a few years ago. The idea with this menu, and the claim that they made, was that before you even knew what you wanted on your pizza, the menu could monitor where you were looking on the screen and order the pizza for you. And then it would arrive on your table before you’d even made the decision. And needless to say, this didn't really catch on – presumably partly because people were spending a lot of time staring at this and this, wondering what the hell it was, and then ending up with it on their pizza in front of them. But this broader idea that our brains have this capacity to process information offline, which can then change our behaviours and decisions, is highly seductive. It's highly appealing, and we see lots and lots about it in popular accounts of how we make decisions.
One of the most prominent, if you like, examples of this kind of change in our behaviour is the idea that we can be primed – that our decisions can be affected by information that is outside of our awareness. Subtle cues in our environment can change the decisions that we're going to make, can have huge downstream influences on our behaviour. This idea has gained lots and lots of popularity as – we argue in the book – the evidence for it has become less and less convincing. And what I want to do in the next few moments is to take you through some of that evidence and explain some of the eye-catching findings that don't actually stack up to scientific scrutiny. But before we do that, I want to give you an example of a priming effect that does work, something where your brain can be prepared to answer the question in a particular way.
So, if I present the word ‘bread’ on the screen, and then I quickly afterwards present the word ‘butter’, then your ability to recognise that word ‘butter’ – to say out loud, or to identify it as a word – is increased because of the fact that I presented ‘bread’ beforehand. So, you can think of that as a prime, as an increased activation in your brain, spreading of activation, that primes the second word because of its associations with ‘bread’. If, on the other hand, I present a word like ‘nurse’ and then I present another word after it, the same word, ‘butter’, you're no faster naming this word, because it's not semantically related. It's not associated with that word ‘bread’. So, that ripple of activation, that change in my propensity to answer a question or to respond, is very specific in this case – it doesn't spread out wide. So, ‘bread’ will prime ‘butter’, but ‘nurse’ won't prime ‘butter’.
Now, as I said before, the idea here is that there are ripples of activation going on in our brains when we think about things. We learn lots and lots of things, we learn the associations between those things, and sometimes those associations can connect with each other and make us ready to respond – they change our behaviour. And what's gone on in the literature on unconscious effects and unconscious priming, is that the idea of these activations has got bigger and bigger. Rather than it being this sort of small, specific type of effect on our behaviour. People have made big claims for how small influences outside our awareness can change our behaviour.
So, I think of it – and we write about it in the book – as a sort of debate between throwing a pebble in a pond and throwing a boulder in a pond. You throw a pebble in a pond, and it creates a small amount of ripple action, right? The ripples just go out a little way, and then they stop. You throw a boulder in a pond, and it creates a huge splash, and the ripples will translate all the way through the pond, out over into the surrounding areas. Our view of priming that we put forward in the book, is one of the pebble in the pond – the influences are very small, they don't last for very long. The view that's been put forward by people that’ve been proposing this huge influence of unconscious influences on our behaviour, is more like the boulder in a pond. And I'll give you an example of one of those types of experiments.
So, here's a string of words, you don't need to shout out, but look at these words and see if you can make a sentence out of them – you only need to use four out of the five words, everyone should be able to do that. So, the sentence that you might come up with is ‘they play bingo today’. The idea in these priming experiments, is that by making that sentence, by reordering those words and making that sentence, it leads you to think of – not necessarily consciously, but to come to mind – things that are related to that statement. So, in this case, the experiment is argued that thinking about people playing bingo, would perhaps activate stereotypes of older people. Not only does it claim to activate the stereotypes, but it's then claimed to influence your behaviour following the activation of the stereotype. And the way that it's supposed to influence it, is that following the experiment, you're supposed to walk more slowly down a corridor than someone that hadn't been shown that sentence. This is a big claim. This is a claim that your behaviour can be changed just by being shown a set of words and activating a concept.
There's lots of other similar kinds of claims that are made for changes in our behaviour. So, priming experiments have looked at whether thinking about soccer hooligans or professors makes you more intelligent. The claim again, is that if you think about professors, you're going to answer better on general knowledge quizzes than if you think about soccer hooligans. We just saw the example of being primed to think about old people and walking slowly. There's even more outlandish claims that if you hold a pen in your mouth, in a way that makes you smile, then it makes you find cartoons funnier when you look at them.
Now, I can see from the reaction on your faces that most of you are thinking, ‘but this, this seems a bit nonsensical. This seems a bit strange’. And you'd be right to be thinking that way. There's even more huge industry in another claim, which is this one that – I don't know how many of you can work out what this is – but the claim in this type of experiment, is that an image like this in the background when you're doing a task, will make you more selfish or make you work harder. Can anyone tell what it is?
So, an image, degraded image, of money, apparently, can change our behaviour and make us more selfish and work harder. But the look of amusement on your faces is characteristic of my own amusement when I have read about these reports in the literature, and yet, they’ve fuelled a whole industry, if you like, in making claims about how we are not the authors of our own actions – how our unconscious is driving many aspects of our behaviour, and how we can lead to a situation where we say, ‘Well, it's not my fault, my brain did it’.
The problem with all of these studies – and as we go through in great detail in the book and discuss how and why this has happened – the main issue is that these studies don't replicate, they do not… If a new team of researchers go out and try to run this experiment again, they don't find the same patterns of results. This is a problem for psychological science, this is a problem for all science. Replication is essential. It's the cornerstone of understanding how we come to understand ourselves. And if the methods that we're using are not up to the types of claims that we want to make, then this is a problem. And this is something that we go into in detail in the book and discuss how we got to this place as a field, how we got to this kind of accepting attitude towards thinking that our unconscious is having these influences on us.
The other thing that we talk about in the book, and we go into some detail on, is a test called the ‘implicit attitude’ test. This is a test which has been used over many, many years now. And it's supposed to reveal our hidden prejudices and our hidden biases. It's supposed to reveal whether or not we have particular attitudes towards outgroups. It's used a lot to try and train people to improve their behaviour, improve the so-called biases that they have. But again, the underlying science, or the science that underlies this test, is really not showing that people have these kinds of implicit prejudices. Now, we hear a lot about unconscious bias in the literature, we hear a lot about unconscious bias training. This test is often used as an example of unconscious bias training. What the research suggests, though, is that this ‘implicit attitude’ test, for a start, can be faked. If I want to respond in a particular way, I can. It also shows that it doesn't correlate well with people's actual observed behaviour in terms of their prejudice.
Now, what I am not saying – and what we're not saying in the book at all – is that biases and prejudices don't exist. The world is an extremely biased and prejudiced place. The crucial thing, though, is that the role of the unconscious in explaining or accounting for those kinds of biases, is really overestimated and overstated. So, being able to attribute these biases to some other part of our brain, some unconscious part of our brain that we don't have access to, is a kind of abdication of responsibility for the control that we actually have over our own behaviour. So, saying that it's unconscious, saying, “Well, I can't help it”, is not supported by the science. Yes, these tests measure something, but they don't suggest that we have these deep-rooted, unconscious biases. We may have the biases, they're not unconscious.
The other thing that we go into in quite some detail in the book and discuss, is this notion of the brain being controlled by two separate systems. There's been a huge amount of discussion over the last few years about the idea that we have a ‘system one’ and a ‘system two’. System one is this system which is supposed to be automatic, supposed to be reflexive and operating largely outside of our awareness.
System two, on the other hand, is supposed to be deliberative, rational, time constraint, capacity constraint, requiring our cognitive effort. And again, this story of two systems has been used to try and explain, or account for, the kinds of tensions that we see in the decisions that we make. Sometimes I try, I make decisions quickly, sometimes I make them slowly… Oh, it must be that there are two systems in control. And again, the duality of this notion gives rise to this idea that, well, ‘I can't help it if my system one is making this decision, rather than system two. So, I don't have to own up to the decision that I make’.
In the book, we go into a discussion of why we should be thinking of this more as a single system. We don't need this competition between the two aspects in order to account for our behaviour. We don't need to posit that some things are automatic and outside of our awareness – the evidence just doesn't stack up for that view. So, the central message in the book is that we should be thinking in terms of ripples of activation, we should be thinking about the pebble in the pond, rather than the boulder in the pond. We should be thinking about the iceberg as inverted, not as the iceberg with only one seventh of its bulk above water. Now, you might think that this is a kind of controversial view, because of all the work that's out there suggesting the role of the unconscious and the act of automatic processing. But in fact, I think it's a much more optimistic view, it's a much, it's a view which kind of gives us back ownership of our own decisions – it gives us back control over our own actions. And it suggests that because we are the authors of those actions, we can change our behaviour for the better. We are not somehow beholden to these influences all around us that are changing our behaviour outside of our awareness.
So, the book is coming out in August. It's available for pre-order through MIT Press. So, I'm happy to take questions, if people have any questions for me.
Audience Member: Thank you for the talk. I liked the fact that you say that this – I agree with you – it's an optimistic view that we can change. But can you give us one example, I know we have to wait for the book to be published, but what's a very well-known example of the reasoning behind the iceberg – that a lot is unconscious, that you are basically refuting – and what could be a good example of the evidence that you have that it's the other way around? I would love to hear that if you could, instead of waiting ‘til August when the book comes out.
Ben Newell: So, the main, the main evidence that we look at in the book, is by going through the kinds of experiments that I talked about that show that people's behaviour can be affected outside their, outside of their awareness, and detailing the problems with those methods. So, for example, experiments where people behave in a particular way – the walking slowly down the corridor – if you try to set that experiment up again, or you ask people: ‘were you aware of walking more slowly?’ or ‘were you aware of what was going on?’. People have that awareness, so that the behaviour is not being changed by things outside of their awareness. So, that either the evidence is not there, it doesn't stack up, it doesn't replicate. Or the, the experiments that protect people in the experiments are aware of the things that are going on around them. So, that's the kind of evidence that we that we look at in the book.
Audience Member: In terms of intuitions and our moral intuitions and those kinds of things, they, there’s a lot of evidence that they come from folk theories, and other like, things just below our conscious level. How does your research deal with that kind of level, more than our individual, walking slower, kind of actions?
Ben Newell: I think the evidence that intuition is something other than just experiences that we've had, an amassed experience. So often, people will talk about intuition as something which springs out of the unconscious and is implicit in some way. But in fact, I think that intuition really should just be thought of as a faster way to respond in situations where we have a lot of experience and a lot of ability to recognise the situation we're in. I don't think it is an example of a separate system operating, or information from some murky depths of the iceberg.
Audience Member: I've got a question about emotions, those really strong emotions like anger, fear, love, joy – how much is the subconscious involved in those?
Ben Newell: I think that when we have a very strong emotional reaction to something that can be coming from – again, in the book, what we're trying to focus on, is those more high-level, considered judgements and choices. So yes, they can be influenced by our emotions, but a lot of the time again, the information that we're using is at that more explicit level. So, the emotion may be colours or can change the way that we weighed those pieces of information. But the information and the decisions that we're making is often going on explicitly and consciously.
Audience Member: Yeah, my question is about dreams. So, it's more kind of the subconscious mind, I guess, as opposed to the unconscious. But um, you know, when we dream, we're creating these whole worlds in our mind that are seemingly, like, infinitely more powerful than anything that we can sort of conjure up consciously. What does your work say on that?
Ben Newell: So, I think, we don't discuss dreams at length in the book. But I think dreams are certainly a way of the brain sort of reorganising information that it's experienced during the day. Whether or not that information is something which should change the way that you behave, or the way that you think, is outside the realms of what we're discussing in the book.
Audience Member: Yeah, yes, I was just I just wanted to ask a question about the kinds of things that happen in the first three or four years of life, particularly trauma, which people later on in life, don't remember, they're not conscious of it. But it is still shaping their reactions, their relationships, the way that they behaved. So, that seems to me an area where the unconscious is strongly shaping the things that people do, and they don't know it. So, do you look at that at all?
Ben Newell: We don't look at the idea of being able to access, sort of, memories that have been repressed or memories that are from early stages of life. So yeah, I don't have too much to say on that, on that topic.
Audience Member: Given that some of the iceberg is below the water, in your thinking about it, is there still a role for psychoanalysis, in psychological therapy, do you think?
Ben Newell: I think we, again, we don't go into great depth of the iceberg in terms of psychoanalysis. I think what we're trying to ascertain is the evidence that people are affected by information that's outside of their awareness. Psychoanalysis has a very different focus to it. What we're trying to figure out here is, when I'm in an environment and I'm making decisions, I'm making choices, to what extent is that information outside of my, that's outside of my awareness, changing my behaviour in those settings? So, I think psychoanalysis is a different method of inquiry. It's not one that we consider in the Book.
Audience member 7: I think I might be next over here. Hi, actually, it follows on from what you were saying. And I was gonna pick up on the same point in a different way about I mean, whether it's a seventh, whatever proportion it is, other than things like the ‘bread and butter’ association, did your research find particular behaviours or decisions that people make that are affected by subconscious or unconscious factors?
Ben Newell: So, what we argue in the book, is that those kinds of behaviours that are affected by things that are below that level, that very fleeting type of – so the ‘bread, butter’ or the repetition priming, so you're more, you can identify something more quickly if you've just seen it a moment earlier. But the idea that those sorts of effects are having this broader, larger, boulder in the pond-type analogy view, is, is not – in the way that we're thinking about decision-making in the book, the way we're thinking about choice, there just isn't the good, the scientific support for those kinds of claims.
Audience Member: Hi, thanks, I'm just wondering, given that it sounds as though perhaps we have more control over sort of what we think or how we think than we originally thought, oh, sorry. I wondered if your research or your book sort of delved into a bit, sort of some practical examples of how can we counteract this thinking of, ‘oh, it's all unconscious so I don't have to do anything about it’. Is there a way that we can actually say, ‘oh, we do have biases, we do have more control over it’. What can I do to change that automatic thinking?
Ben Newell: Yeah, it's a good, it's a good question. And one of the things that we do discuss in the book, the kinds of theories and models that will explain behaviour without the need for that, that automatic or unconscious part to it. And one of the models that we look at is a thing called the ‘theory of planned behaviour’. And that's a very explicit ,very well-supported model that talks about the effect of, of what people around me are doing, the intentions that other people around me, or my interpretation of what they're doing, and how that affects my behaviour, or my sense of competence over being able to change my own behaviour – so, that perceived competence is changing. So, if you're looking for the kinds of information about how I can improve and how I can change, then I think an acknowledgement, initially, that ‘yes, I have to take ownership of these decisions’, and that ‘I have to think about what is the control that I have to change those situations?’. That's the first step that we need to be taking.
Audience Member 9: So, I'm just, I'm really interested in what drove like, what were you hoping that your research will achieve? And in what kind of areas? Whether you thought that far, or whether you were just looking to see in a kind of narrow band of heuristics and biases and stuff, whether you were looking to see where the research should be? Did you kind of have a vision for the use case?
Ben Newell: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think, I think our vision in writing the book, as I was saying at the start, initially grew out of a kind of frustration with seeing more and more emphasis on the idea that behaviour was being controlled by factors outside our awareness, that things were automatic, and looking at the evidence for that kind of view, and finding that it wasn't there. And so, as I've been saying throughout, I think our vision is to both kind of look at the quality of the evidence that’s supporting those kinds of findings, but also to move away from this dichotomisation, this ‘system one’ ‘system two’ idea, and to think of our decision-making as a unitary construct – something that we can have control over, something that we can actually advance in and not be side-tracked into, ‘well, this type of decision is being driven by system one, this type of decision is being driven by system two, this is outside of my control’. And so, I think it's that unification and recapturing that responsibility that we're really interested in.
Audience Member: Take the case of addictions – people really want to stop it, they promise, inside they promise to themselves and yet something is driving them. I'm in touch with such people. This is terrible for their self-esteem, they cannot – they are not in control of their own actions. How could you explain, I mean, people go for even therapy, or maybe they improve a bit something from within, goes against the explicit desires and decisions.
Ben Newell: Yeah, I think with cases like addiction, where you have a physiological change in your system, and that you, where your, your cognitions, if you like, are in conflict with physiological signals, then that's where there is an opportunity to start understanding why those, those disconnections are coming, why this addiction is persisting. And there's lots and lots of evidence for the kinds of programmes that can help in those situations. But often those programmes are ones that engage with trying to improve those thought processes, those explicit thought processes, and not to try and engage with some unconscious or subconscious motives in those cases. Yes, those feelings are very strong, and they're very forceful, but that doesn't mean that they're somehow separate from our ability to think and to act.
Yep, if there's, if there's more questions, then I'll keep going. Yeah, yeah.
Audience Member: My question’s probably parallel to the addiction question, but around neurodiversity, and the idea of executive function – this ‘two system’ impact. Is that related?
Ben Newell: Can you be a bit more… I’m not quite sure what… Are you saying that there's a separate executive function?
Audience Member: Well, I'm wondering if your ‘system one’, if the idea of ‘system one and system two’, one part of that is executive function, how does that impact, or this theory, impact neurodiverse traits?
Ben Newell: I'm not quite sure I follow exactly where you're going. I mean, our view is that dividing things into this ‘system one, system two’ is not a helpful distinction to make. So, how that plays out in neurodiverse populations, I'm not entirely sure.
Audience Member: I'd like to follow up on the lady over here’s question. In terms of criminology, in terms of sentencing, where courts take into account the, the disadvantaged childhood and their experiences that have, that have traumatised defendants, have you had any reaching out from people in that background to see the applicability of maybe recasting the way that sentencing guidelines are undertaken in the future?
Ben Newell: I have…
Audience Member: And if not, do you expect it?
Ben Newell: I have in the past spoken to people in the legal community about these ideas, about the notion of people being, using either simple heuristics or being biased in the way that they're making decisions, and the impact that that might have on sentencing. I haven't been approached recently as a function of this book, but I think there are certainly lessons to be learned from that. Yes.
Audience Member: Hi, thank you for your time, and also thank you for your research, I think it's important and you can see there's a lot of people interested in this topic. My question is, you see, your research seems to be trying to debunk other authors and other researchers in their ideas and their models. My question is, what is the model that you propose? If you think that that's not what it happens – in terms of thinking fast and slow, or model one and two, or right and left – what is your alternative? What, what are you proposing as a thesis of how our brain works?
Ben Newell: I think… It'd be too difficult to go into it in any great depth here. But our basic thesis is that you should think about this in terms of a continuum of thought, not in terms of some system that's fast and some system that's slow, but just in terms of a single unitary, continuous system of thinking. And that what that means is that we don't need to then think about dichotomies or separation of different things – we can have a common set of processes and principles, a common set of how we think about information processing, of how we acquire information, how we update our beliefs in things – that doesn't have to always factor in the idea that things outside our awareness are going to be affecting that behaviour. So, I see as a as a, as a simpler way of just having a unitary model for how we think, rather than this dichotomous one.
Okay. All right. Thank you very much indeed. Thanks for your time.
UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. This event was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and Sydney Writers’ Festival as a part of the Curiosity Lecture series. For more information, visit centreforideas.com and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Ben Newell speaking at Sydney Writers' Festival
Ben Newell is a Professor of Cognitive Psychology and Deputy Head of the School of Psychology at UNSW Sydney. His research focuses on the cognitive processes underlying judgment, choice and decision making, and their relationship to environmental, medical, financial and forensic contexts. He is the lead author of Straight Choices: The Psychology of Decision Making. He is currently an Associate Editor of the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, on the Editorial Boards of Thinking & Reasoning, Decision, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making and Judgment & Decision Making. Ben is a member of the inaugural Academic Advisory Panel of the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government.