The Divided Self: Jonathan Haidt
For although the controlled system does not conform to behaviorist principles, it also has relatively little power to cause behavior. The automatic system was shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes parts of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain (such as the orbitofrontal cortex) and that trigger survival-related motivations (such as the hypothalamus). The automatic system has its finger on the dopamine release button. The controlled system, in contrast, is better seen as an advisor. It’s a rider placed on the elephant’s back to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, and the rider can learn valuable information by talking to other riders or by reading maps, but the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will. I believe the Scottish philosopher David Hume was closer to the truth than was Plato when he said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
The point of these studies is that moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment. When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate. You don’t really know why you think something is beautiful, but your interpreter module (the rider) is skilled at making up reasons, as Gazzaniga found in his split-brain studies. You search for a plausible reason for liking the painting, and you latch on to the first reason that makes sense (maybe something vague about color, or light, or the reflection of the painter in the clown’s shiny nose). Moral arguments are much the same: Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other. When you refute a person’s argument, does she generally change her mind and agree with you? Of course not, because the argument you defeated was not the cause of her position; it was made up after the judgment was already made.
If you listen closely to moral arguments, you can sometimes hear something surprising: that it is really the elephant holding the reins, guiding the rider. It is the elephant who decides what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Gut feelings, intuitions, and snap judgments happen constantly and automatically (as Malcolm Gladwell described in “Blink”), but only the rider can string sentences together and create arguments to give to other people. In moral arguments, the rider goes beyond being just an advisor to the elephant; he becomes a lawyer, fighting in the court of public opinion to persuade others of the elephant’s point of view.
There is a tendency for an introspector to overestimate the power of consciousness, and its scope for self-knowledge and control of thought and behaviour.
This chapter addresses the state of the understanding of limits of conscious thought.
People are often unaware of the reasons and causes of their own behavior. In fact, recent experimental evidence points to a deep and fundamental dissociation between conscious awareness and the mental processes responsible for one’s behavior; many of the wellsprings of behavior appear to be opaque to conscious access.
Wegner and Wheatley (1999) reported studies in which participants used a computer mouse to move a cursor around a computer screen filled with pictures of objects. doing so along with another participant (actually a confederate of the experimenters) so that the two of them jointly determined the cursor’s location. While they were doing this. the names of the different objects were spoken to them one at a time over headphones. Unknown to the actual participant, the confederate was given instructions over his or her headphones from time to time to cause the screen cursor to point to a given object. By manipulating whether the name of the moved-to object had or had not been presented to the participant just (l.e., a second or two) before the cursor landed on it (as opposed to earlier, or after the cursor had landed on it), so that the “thought” about that object had been in the participant’s consciousness just prior to the cursor’s movement to it, the experimenters were able to manipulate the participant’s attributions of personal responsibility and control over the cursor’s movement. In these experiments, therefore, beliefs about personal agency could be induced by manipulations of the key factors presumed to underlie feelings of will, according to the authors’ attributional model-even though those factors had not, in fact, been causal in the cursor’s movement.
Such findings demonstrate that people do not and cannot have direct access to acts of causal intention and choice. Kenneth Bowers (1984) had anticipated this finding when he pointed out that it is “the purpose of psychological research to enhance our comprehension and understanding of causal influences operating on thought and action. Notice, however, that such research would be totally redundant if the causal connections linking thought and behavior to its determinants were directly and automatically self-evident to introspection”