BAM! ANGRY BABY!
There it is.
“It” is the quick “Whoa, angry baby!” reaction you experienced when you saw the picture. Quick cognitive processes carried out by your brain immediately perceived the baby’s facial expression as the primary input. The output – the “whoa” response – is seemingly not subject to reflective thought. It just happens.
We can say our reaction is automatic; it doesn’t “wait” for us to reflect on it or change it. For many years, psychologists debated about what comes first: affective (good/bad) reactions, or deliberate and reflective thinking? Of course, these two processes are not mutually exclusive, since a lot of our cognition is probably an interaction between them. But many times, one type of process might have greater influence in driving a response to a stimulus, as we’ve seen here with this agitated little one.
So what makes up the stuff of thought? “Hot” affective reactions, or “cold” cognitive operations? For much of the last century, information processing models of cognition assumed that affective (evaluative) judgments happened at a post-cognitive stage. For example, if I wanted to determine whether or not I like a certain sweater, I would first make informed inferences based on multiple criteria of the sweater (such as softness of fabric, size, style, and so on). After individually calculating “weights” for each criterion, I would then sum the weights and, finally, make an evaluative decision about the sweater.
The game-changer came in 1980, when the late Robert Zajonc published a seminal paper that swept the theory-scape of psychology. According to Google Scholar, this paper – “Feeling and Thinking: Preferences Need No Inferences” – has been cited nearly 3,600 times since its publication. Zajonc’s main premise was that affect tends to overwhelmingly color our perceptions and judgments, leaving little room for more reasoned thought. Affect dominates so much, Zajonc argued, that affective processes temporally precede and therefore trump deliberate thinking.
Social psychology has taken this assumption and run with it – probably prematurely. For example, in 1999 John Bargh published “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being” in American Psychologist. This paper highlights some interesting findings from Bargh’s research, suggesting that a lot of our behaviors are activated and carried out by unconscious processes. These processes, sometimes called heuristics, are usually rapid and affective in quality, and while they might be more functionally efficient, they give rise to errors and biases in our reasoning and judgments (see Kahneman & Tversky, 1974).
But Bargh, at the end of what seems like a permissive concession to the intractability of our automatic minds, comes to the strange conclusion that automatic processes “are in our service and best interests…They are, if anything, ‘mental butlers’ who know our tendencies and preferences so well that they anticipate and take care of them for us, without having to be asked.”
That’s all well and good – if our preferences and tendencies are healthy and adaptive, contributing to our (and others’) well-being and flourishing. But what about in the case of psychopathology? What should I tell the depressed patient about her recurring negative thoughts that paralyze her and prevent her from connecting with those whom she loves? Should I just tell her that her “mental butler” is taking care of everything, and that she shouldn’t go to therapy to try to change her thought processes?
While I respect Bargh’s opinion, I do not like its implications. While we might, without proper training or knowledge, succumb to automatic thought processes that guide our judgments and behavior, we should not believe that we have no power over our thoughts. There is hope in the budding field of social and affective neuroscience, as many lines of research are revealing the possibility of adaptive cognitive change (such as mindfulness meditation and cognitive reappraisal).
William James once said, “Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake.” I would like to think that as we keep charting courses in psychology and neuroscience, we are waking up to the possibilities that our mysteriously beautiful minds can offer us.