Before You Know It: An Interview with Dr. John Bargh


How aware are we of the influences on our decisions? This basic human question we all wonder about has kept Dr. John Bargh busy for the last 30 years. Bargh is a social psychologist at Yale University, where he has created the Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation, and Evaluation (ACME) Laboratory, dedicated to studying automaticity and unconscious processing as a way to better understand social behavior and free will.

Most recently, his research has focused on “embodied cognition” effects, or influences of physical experiences — such as cleansing one’s hands, holding something warm or rough — on metaphorically related social variables. His latest book, “Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do,” summarizes it all — making it accessible to all of us. Brain World had the chance to chat with him.

before you know itBrain World: How did you start out?

John Bargh: I grew up in the American Midwest. I was born in a fortunate time because the field that I wanted to go into since I was 8 or 9 years old, which was psychology, had just had a revolution, which threw out the old behaviorists, who studied rats and pigeons, and said that your conscious mind and thoughts didn’t matter at all and didn’t affect anything. Suddenly, we could study the mind; we could study our conscious thought — it was a really exciting time, around the 1970s.

I was always interested in the big basic question we all have: how much control do we actually have over our behaviors and thoughts and feelings? I wanted to study that. And at the time, the assumption had moved completely away from the behaviorists — who said there was no effect of our own mind on what we did — to say that we were aware of everything we did, and only things we intended happened. So, basically, nothing happened without our awareness or our intention.

BW: Was there any evidence?

JB: No. This was just an assumption. It wasn’t tested. So I started out about 1980 or so to begin to see how much of the basic things in your life: like forming impressions of people, or likes and dislikes, your behavior, your motivations, and all the other things that make us human — to what extent do those happen without intention and awareness — or, was intention and awareness always necessary for these things.

So, every five years we’d start a different kind of research on attitudes or behavior or motivations. And time after time, we were surprised. When we started out, we didn’t think it would be very much at all. Then we found out that a lot of these basic, so-called higher mental functions or higher mental processes — involved in judging, impressions, attitudes, feelings, behavior, goals, emotions — can happen without your awareness, or even your intention. So that’s the story that’s the underpinning of my current book, the last 30 to 35 years of that kind of research.

BW: Is this a growing field in psychology? Has it been touched upon in neuroscience?

JB: I’m not the only one in the psychology field whose been doing this kind of work. And more recently, there has indeed been neuroscience evidence on this, confirming the kinds of things that the behavioral studies were finding before the neuroscience, which is really encouraging because it could have gone the other way. The neuroscience seems to support these kinds of influences between, for example, the physical and the social. For instance, the links that exist between touching something warm or cold and your social behavior, or how the basic evolutionary needs to be physically safe and to avoid disease can relate to your political attitudes. All the things that we’d been finding are being very much supported by the more recent neuroscience on the same topics.

So, now we have 40 years of actual science, a systematic understanding of the influences in our choices, and how aware we are of them. This is the first time in history; we had Freud before that, but his work was based on case studies of mental patients, not on scientific studies of the average people.

BW: So to what degree are we aware of these influences on our decisions?

JB: Many of the decisions we make happen without our awareness of the influences that led us to take the decision. I know your readers are very knowledgeable, and I want to be very clear about this: we’re not talking about anything subliminal here. A lot of people define unconscious influence as a situation where you have to have something subliminal that you’re never even aware of. However, I’m talking about the things that you may be aware of, but you’re not aware of how they can influence you.

So, it’s a lack of awareness of the influence. You don’t know that this is what influenced you. And it’s coupled by the fact that when we are conscious of something, we really believe that whatever we were aware of and focusing on at the time, is what determined our choice or behavior. But often times, it’s something that happened recently, or back in our early childhood. Lots of other influences are operating besides what’s going on in our present. The mind is being influenced by the past and the future, and we’re only focused on the present, so we miss a lot of the other influences.

BW: So, for every choice we make, we do have some level of awareness (even if very subtle), but we’re not aware of how biased or influenced it is?

JB: I would be a little more extreme. There are people who say that we’re always aware of these choices, although perhaps not of the influences that affect us. That can be true, but those people are studying judgment and decision-making, so they’re always giving people the goal or intention to make the choice so they’re consciously aware of making this choice. And then, they show these influences. But I’m talking about the more general cases of everyday life, where there is no framework like that: where you’re not always thinking, and you’re not always trying to make choices or decisions. I’m talking about the more typical experiences in everyday life.

I’ll give you an example. Think of people who have just had a bad social experience; they have just been rejected by somebody, or maybe they weren’t included in a group that went out for lunch. Imagine something like that. What we found is that they’re more likely to choose warm food, soups, and other warm things, than they are to choose cold sandwiches. They’re making a choice of what to eat for lunch, and the influence of their rejection experience makes them choose something warm — more warm that they usually would. And that’s something they’re not aware of.

BW: What are the mechanisms going on in the brain in these processes?

JB: A lot of this is coming from a very long-term evolutionary past. There’s one that connects, for example, the feeling of physical warmth to social warmth. And the same goes with coldness. It’s something that’s actually really hardwired in the brain. There is an area in the insula that reacts both to holding something physically warm, and also gets active when you’re interacting with your family and friends, like texting on your cellphone — in other words, when you’re having a socially warm experience.

There are people who argue that as infants we have these experiences with our caretaker — and especially with our mother while breastfeeding — that associates in the infant’s mind over and over that physical warmth is related to somebody taking care of them. In our mind, a warm person is someone who has our interest at heart, who cares about us and doesn’t want to do us harm, and that’s what a parent is to an infant. It’s remarkable how strong this connection is between feelings of physical warmth and social warmth and trust. We have those even as adults, but it’s stronger in infants because their whole survival depends on staying close to their caretakers.

BW: So these processes are strongly linked to memory and experience?

JB: It was originally thought that this was just something that’s in our experience, but then neuroscientists discovered that the actual same places really connected and activated in the brain for physical warmth and social warmth. So, say over tens, hundreds, or thousands of years of this association, the baby really does associate feelings of physical warmth with that they can trust this person, and this person will take care of them, and they should try to stay close to that person.

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