I think most of us would readily admit there are subconscious factors at work influencing our choices. Our past experiences have given us a vast repository of information that informs our logic. And we have personal preferences we develop from those experiences, whether we consciously recall them or not.
But what I’m curious about today is the choices we make that are not informed by our logic or those idiosyncratic experiences singular to each of us. They are the choices that are influenced by things of which we may quite unaware, and that influence all of us in similar ways.
I’ve been reading Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The authors do a fascinating job looking at how we present or frame choices for people predictably affects their behavior. Diners in a cafeteria, for example, more often choose food that’s near the front line and at eye level. The book’s examples get increasingly complex, dealing with everything from pensions and health insurance to encouraging energy efficiency. How we’re presented with choices is every bit as important as what the choices are; we can be ‘nudged.’
Other things I’ve been reading lately show that subconscious influences on our choices don’t stop there. Researchers at the University of Toronto Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey Leonardelli* ran two experiments. They found that people who are socially isolated reported feeling cold (as determined by their assessment of the room’s temperature.) In the second experiment, they offered socially-isolated subjects a choice of warm or cold drinks and food, and found they preferred warm food (presumably, to warm up.)
There’s certainly plenty of evidence in our language that supports this sensory/social association. We commonly use metaphorical expressions like “being left out in the cold”, “getting the cold shoulder” or describing a person as “cold-hearted”—all examples of being rejected or identifying a person as unfriendly. Contrarily, we use phrases like “a warm and friendly person”, a person or idea getting a “warm reception”, and seeing something positive as “warming my heart.”
The same is true for connecting other sensory experiences and our more abstract experiences. We talk, for example, about the sweet smell of success, the betrayal that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. We might talk about the rough road ahead or declare it’s all smooth sailing from here. A heavy topic of conversation is one that is to be taken seriously, while keeping the conversation light means the conversation should be superficial and pleasant.
So we don’t just use our senses to navigate our way in the physical world. Since conception, they’ve been helping to create a personal dictionary that we refer to, consciously and subconsciously, when we seek words or images to describe a feeling or experience. We make sense of a new experience by comparing it to something we’ve already experienced, and we encode it, with all its sensory/physical nuances, with a metaphor found in that personal ‘dictionary.’ Then we use these stored metaphors as part of our processing of every living moment.
Interestingly, Zhong and Leonardelli found it didn’t matter if the social isolating of their subjects was occurring in the room or simply being recalled. It seems once the association has been catalogued by the mind/body, the physical associations are part of the response.
Sounds good, right? Kind of impressed with our cleverness, yes? So creative and efficient! But there are pitfalls. You’re probably familiar with something like this scenario: you happened to be eating cherries just before you came down with a stomach bug. Now you can’t stand even the smell of cherries, though logically you know there was no causal connection.
In regards to social experiences, the problem with our sensory/social associations is we’re too quick apply them in reverse. Researchers have found that if we go into a cold room, we are more likely to perceive a person we meet there as unfriendly. If we are holding a warm cup of coffee, we’re more apt to perceive the person we meet as friendly.** We infer that heavy objects are more important, and subjects were more rigid in negotiations when influenced by hard objects.*** So, we don’t always reach accurate conclusions when we let those associations color our assumptions. But, as we’re not aware of the influence, we don’t question our reactions, checking them against more logical input.
What an intriguing thought: how much of what we judge to be true about the world, about others, about our situations and experiences, is influenced by these erroneous, subconscious associations we’re making? It gives a whole new level of challenge to avoiding assumptions!
Curious for more details ? References:
Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (Penguin, 2009)
*Cold and Lonely: Does Social Exclusion Literally Feel Cold?, Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey J. Leonardelli, Univ. of Toronto, Psychological Science, 15 September, 2008 . Click here for a concise review of the experiments and results.
**Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth, Lawrence E. Williams and John A. Bragh, Science 24 October, 2008, vol.322
***Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgments and Decisions, Joshua M. Ackerman, Christopher C. Nocera, John A. Bargh, Science 25 June, 2010, vol.328