Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy Wilson

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Strangers to Ourselves by Tim Wilson

The Book in Three Sentences

We do not realize how much the nonconscious mind impacts our behavior and personality. In many cases, the nonconscious mind influences our behavior more than our conscious thoughts do and the two minds will often conflict with one another, which can make it difficult to keep our desires and our actions in alignment. The first step to bringing our nonconscious inclinations into alignment with our conscious desires is to act more like the person we want to be.

Strangers to Ourselves summary

This is my book summary of Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy D. Wilson. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary also includes key lessons and important passages from the book.
  • This book answers two main questions: why it is that people often do not know themselves very well. And how they can increase their self-knowledge.
  • Much of what we want to know about ourselves resides outside of conscious awareness.
  • The idea that a large portion of the human mind is nonconscious was Freud's greatest insight.
  • Not only can we study what people are thinking, we can study what goes on inside people's heads that even they can't see.
  • Many of the discoveries by psychological researchers appeared to occur outside of the conscious thoughts of the people they studied.
  • The mind operates most efficiently by relegating a good deal of high-level mental processing to the nonconscious.
  • The adaptive nonconscious mind does an excellent job of sizing up the world, setting goals, initiating action, and warning people of danger.
  • We often refer to the human mind as a single entity. In reality, it is a collection of many processes that work in concert with one another. It is a system of thinking with various mental feedback loops.
  • The mind is a well-designed system that is able to accomplish a great deal in parallel. You can perform a conscious behavior and a nonconscious one at the same time.
  • William Hamilton noted that the human mind can attend to one thing nonconsciously while performing another behavior consciously. Such as drifting to another train of thought while reading aloud.
  • William Hamilton theorized that habits acquired early in life had a distinct effect on nonconscious mental processes.
  • Fascinating: Freud didn't believe experiments and the scientific method could reveal insights about the nonconscious mind. He thought only careful clinical observation could do that. Which might explain how he ended up with so many unscientific theories.
  • It is not possible to access our nonconscious minds, thus one of the best strategies we have is to work backwards by running experiments, examining our behavior, and coming up with a theory that, while unlikely to be perfectly accurate, is useful enough to shed insight on our nonconscious behavior and help adjust our future actions.
  • We could not have a conscious mind without a nonconscious one. We need all of the nonconscious processes (like proprioception) to function properly. Just like a computer screen needs the hardware and software for any image to appear.
  • We often mistakenly equate nonconsciousness with inattention. The nonconscious is composed of mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgments, feelings, or behavior.
  • Your brain processes 11 million bits of information per second via the five senses. This was calculated by counting the number of receptors on each sense organ and nerve signals being sent to the brain. Your eyes alone process 10 million pieces of information per second. Yet, you can only consciously process 40 of them (and that's a high-end estimate). The vast majority of life lives in the nonconscious mind.
  • The typical explanation for why our nonconscious mind developed is an evolutionary one. Those mental processes were selected for by evolutionary pressures. It's just a theory, but a good theory.
  • The world is “one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” -William James
  • Cocktail Party Effect: tons of people are talking, but you tune them out and focus on your conversation. Then, someone nearby mentions your name in conversation and you suddenly pick up what they are talking about. Were you listening the whole time? You must have been because you heard your name, but you felt fully engaged in the first conversation. Your brain is pulling in tons of information, but only consciously thinking about some of it. This is selective attention.
  • The adaptive nonconscious helps our brains deal with situations where there is a lot to analyze but only a small slice of information that matters. It allows your brain to act like a spotlight and highlight what is happening on center stage while keeping the rest of the theater in the dark.
  • Accessibility of information actually has a neurological component. Information can be “energized” and has higher action potentials when it is easier to recall.
  • When it comes to maintaining a sense of well-being, we are ultimate spin doctors of information. We will twist, confuse, contort, and ignore whatever information we need to maintain our sense of self. Daniel Gilbert refers to this as the psychological immune system, which fires up whenever we are trying to protect our psychological well-being.
  • What makes us feel good depends on our cultures, our personalities, and our level of self-esteem. But our desire to feel good is probably universal.
  • Psychological defenses operate frequently in the nonconscious because that way we don't even realize distortion is occurring (if you realized, you could correct for it).
  • The conflict between the desire to be accurate and the need to feel good about ourselves is one of the major battlegrounds of the self.
  • Nonconscious processes, though generally beneficial, are not perfect.
  • Evolutionary pressures influence our mind as well as our bodies.
  • It is reasonable to assume the adaptive nonconscious is an older system from an evolutionary perspective. Conscious thought evolved later in human history.
  • Idea: I’m not so sure we need to make a hard division between the conscious and nonconscious mind. It might help us understand and discuss the two systems, but in reality, they are both part of the same body. Humans are constantly taking in information. Some of it is known to us and some of it is unknown.
  • Idea: the body is just a collection of many systems or feedback loops and the vast majority of the systems are nonconscious (digestive system, for example). There is at least one conscious system, which is our conscious mind.
  • The adaptive nonconscious cannot think about the past or make plans for the future. It lives in the here and now.
  • The ability to think about and plan for the future endows human with a tremendous survival advantage, but can be a two-edged sword if our conscious decisions conflict with our nonconscious desires.
  • Automatic thinking has five defining features: nonconscious, fast, unintentional, uncontrollable, and effortless.
  • Study by Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett found that children (around the age of 3) who were rewarded for drawing were less likely to draw during free time. Presumably, they applied the discounting principle without knowing it. (“I drew with the pens and was rewarded, thus I must have been drawing because I was rewarded and not because I actually like drawing.”) This discounting principle holds up in adulthood as well where we often find that people actually are less likely to follow through on behaviors they previously enjoyed if they start receiving external rewards for them.
  • Very young children may have a nonconscious mind that drives their behaviors earlier in life than their conscious mind.
  • The adaptive nonconscious learns patterns easily. It is designed to scan our environment and detect patterns.
  • Evolution works with what it has.
  • “Personality is the psychological processes that determine a person's characteristic behavior and thought.” -Gordon Allport
  • Research has revealed five key traits that are fundamental to all people: extroversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. These traits are viewed as the fundamental building blocks of personality that everyone possesses to some degree.
  • Typically, genetic factors have been found to account for 20-50 percent of the variance in these personality traits.
  • In the late 1960s, Walter Mischel noticed that the many ways of analyzing personality only predicted behavior to a modest degree at best. Meanwhile, the social situation provides much stronger clues.
  • The central thesis of this book is that human personality resides in two places: the adaptive nonconscious mind and in conscious construals of ourselves.
  • “Human beings owe a surprisingly large proportion of their cognitive and behavioral capacities to the existence of an automatic self, of which they have no conscious knowledge and over which they have little voluntary control.” -Jonathan Miller
  • Many personality studies predict behavior only slightly better than chance.
  • Three desires seem to be part of the nonconscious personality: the need for affiliation, power, or achievement.
  • When people are describing their own personalities, they are often reporting their theories and constructions, which may or may not correspond to their nonconscious dispositions and motives.
  • It is clear that genetics, culture, and experience all play a role in the formation of the conscious and nonconscious mind.
  • Behavior automaticity (forming habits) is one example of how a behavior can go from conscious to nonconscious and we can't say precisely how.
  • One way something can become automatic (nonconscious) is through lots of repetition and practice.
  • McClellan's research: the kinds of early childhood experiences that affect the nonconscious seem to have a cultural basis.
  • It makes little sense to talk about humans having one “self” when the conscious self and the nonconscious self have stable ways of responding to situations (which often differ significantly).
  • People are motivated to see themselves through rose-colored glasses. Most of us believe we are a little more kind and smart and generous than we actually are.
  • Research by Joachim Brunstein and Oliver Schultheiss has shown the importance of having conscious and nonconscious motives in sync. People who had more alignment between their conscious and nonconscious goals had greater well-being and satisfaction than those who did not.
  • The distinction between personality and the social environment is artificial because people’s personality often determines how they construe their environment.
  • Many social situations tend to be so powerful that virtually everyone construes them in the same way and they overpower personality differences.
  • There may not be any situations in life where the nonconscious mind does not impact our behavior. If that is true, however, it is very hard to know it because our nonconscious mind is inaccessible to us directly.
  • The idea that conscious thoughts cause behavior is vastly overrated. Instead, it is often the case that nonconscious stimuli cause both you actions and the conscious thoughts you use to justify them.
  • Our reasons for why we do the things we do are really just conjectures. That's a hard idea to accept. We want to believe we understand ourselves and our motives better than a stranger would, but that doesn't always appear to be the case.
  • The idea that we can have nonconscious feelings and emotions is controversial. Many philosophers and scientists reject the idea of nonconscious feelings as an oxymoron.
  • William James believed that emotions are created by experiences and bodily reactions. It is the experience that triggers the emotion.
  • There are different levels of processing within the brain. Wilson refers to them as the low road and high road. Kahneman calls them System 1 and System 2. The point is the same: we have a collection of processes that respond quickly and automatically. And we have a collection of processes that respond slowly, thoughtfully, and often adjust the reactions of the fast processing level.
  • When people are unsure of how they feel, they often understand their emotions based on their bodily responses in that moment (think: love on the bridge study).
  • When it comes to happiness and sadness, only recent events matter. This is especially true for adolescents who can return to their baseline mood within 45 minutes after a spike of extreme happiness or extreme sadness.
  • People are more resilient than they realize.
  • There is some evidence that happiness is a heritable trait. Monozygotic twins have similar levels of happiness even when raised in separate families.
  • It is very important to have something to work toward. The pursuit of a goal is often better than the accomplishment of it.
  • Daily absorption in your work is more important than your paycheck.
  • A change in standards often occurs for people as they experience more of life, but happiness rarely does. What was once special is now the norm.
  • How we judge an experience depends on three factors. First, how we group experiences for comparison (all restaurants vs. Greek restaurants). Second, how recently we experienced something (eating an incredible restaurant last week vs. last year). Third, how much we have experienced something (100 Greek restaurants vs. two).
  • Allostasis vs. homeostasis. In homeostasis, there is a single set point the body tries to maintain. In allostasis, there are upper and lower boundaries at the extremes, but the set point adjusts based on the needs of the situation.
  • It can be useful to think of happiness by using blood pressure as a metaphor. Sometimes blood pressure is maintained at a lower level (like when you sleep) and other times it is maintained at a higher level (like when you are walking around). There is no on perfect blood pressure because the best level depends on what is required for the situation. However, it is advantageous for blood pressure to never get too low or too high. Happiness is similar. We can experience waves and troughs of happiness and sadness, but it’s best to not stay at this level for days or weeks. There are mechanisms in place that prevent you from experiencing prolonged periods of extreme happiness and extreme sadness, and the psychological costs that would accompany prolonged emotional reactions. It is probably not good for us (from the perspective of evolutionary survival) to stay in a state of prolonged happiness or sadness.
  • Opponent Process Theory helps explains what happens at a physiological level when processes oppose one another. Perhaps psychological processes follow similar patterns?
  • Interesting: we seek to make sense of and explain extreme negative and positive events in our lives, but in the process of doing so we reduce the novelty, surprise, and emotional power of the event. Gradually the extraordinary becomes ordinary and loses its emotional impact.
  • Some researchers have theorized there is a psychological immune system responsible for emotional health the same way there is a biological immune system responsible for physical health.
  • Durability bias: we don't realize just how resilient we are. People have a far greater ability to bounce back than they assume.
  • “There is no tragedy so heartbreaking as introspection.”
  • Pennebaker's approach for dealing with traumatic events: write by yourself for 15 minutes per day for three days. Develop a meaningful narrative that helps explain the event.
  • Ruminating over negative events in a repetitive way is not healthy and beneficial. However, thinking through your issues and constructing a meaningful and coherent narrative about these events is an effective way to deal with issues. Even if the narrative is not 100 percent accurate it can have a beneficial effect.
  • Subliminal messages have little to no effect on consumer behavior when used in advertising.
  • There is little harm in believing we are better, more popular, and more talented than we actually are. This likely leads to more happiness and satisfaction. The problems occur when our self estimates deviate too wildly from reality.
  • If we want to change our adaptive nonconscious one method is to start deliberately acting like the person we wish to be.
  • Observations of our own behavior can be a major window into ourselves and why we act the way we do. The problem is we often infer the wrong reasons for our behavior. Namely, we drastically underestimate the power of the situation.
  • Our tendency to underestimate the influence of the situation is known as fundamental attribution error.
  • In many cases, we actually want our nonconscious tendencies to change and align with our conscious motives and desires.
  • “We acquire virtues by first having put them into action. We become just by the practice of just actions, self-control by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage.” -Aristotle
  • The first step to changing our nonconscious inclinations is to change our behavior. Act your way into a new way of being.
  • There are two ways our actions lead to change at the automatic, nonconscious level. The first is by providing the opportunity for our brains to infer from our behavior (nonconsciously) that we are new people. It gives your mind new data and more bits of insight about your attitudes and feelings. (Note: this is similar to your identity votes concept.) Second, the more frequently we perform a behavior, the more automatic it becomes.
  • One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behavior change often precedes changes in attitudes and feelings. Changing our behavior to match our desired conscious perceptions of ourselves is a good way to bring about changes in the adaptive nonconscious.
  • A simple approach to becoming better: do good, be good. By acting in ways that are helpful and caring toward others, we will view ourselves as more helpful and caring.
  • There is a practice effect associated with acting like the person you want to be. The more you practice it, the better you become.
  • Small changes in behavior can lead to small changes in your self-concept. And small changes in self-concept can make the next change easier.
  • Do the behavior first and let the feelings follow.
  • To establish a desirable pattern of nonconscious motives, the best advice is to practice, practice, practice. Train yourself into the nonconscious mind you want.
  • There is no direct pipeline to the adaptive nonconscious. It must be inferred by taking a careful look at cues from your own behavior and others reactions.
  • What matters most when it comes to making sense of our lives and is that people commit to a believable narrative that corresponds reasonably well to their adaptive nonconscious. You can’t keep revising your story and the reasons for why things happened without ruminating senselessly. A good self narrative does not need to be constantly retold.
  • All of us have the ability to act more like the person we want to be.

Reading Suggestions

This is a list of authors, books, and concepts mentioned in Strangers to Ourselves, which might be useful for future reading.
  • William Carpenter, William Hamilton, and Laycock's writings on the nonconscious mind.
  • Amnesia and implicit learning study by Edouard Claparede where he placed a pin in his hand during a handshake.
  • Lewicky study on four squares and implicit learning by the nonconscious mind.

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