How does the 'associative machinery' of fast thinking work? - Chapter 4

How does the 'associative machinery' of fast thinking work? - Chapter 4

Read the following words:

“Mango”                              “Puke”

In a few seconds you will experience appalling images and pull a disgusted face. You automatically responded to the word ‘puke’ like you would respond to the actual event. Our minds automatically assume causality between the words mango and puke, forming a scenario in which the mango caused nausea. This results into a short-term aversion to mangos. You are also extra ready to recognize and respond to concepts and objects associated with ‘puke’, such as vomit, sick, nausea and words associated with ‘mango’, such as exotic, fruit and red. Words associated with other causes of puking are also easier to recognize (food poisoning, hangover). You were a little surprised, as your System 1 noticed the uncommon juxtaposition of the words.

This wide range of responses occurred effortlessly, automatically, quickly and could not be stopped. This is an example of your System 1 at work. The visions and thoughts you experienced are the result of the process called ‘associative activation’: ideas that have been formed generate numerous other ideas. A word evokes memories, which triggers emotions, which evoke reactions like facial expressions and an avoidance tendency. These reactions intensify the feelings to which they are connected, and the feelings intensify compatible thoughts. This rapid process of physical, emotional and cognitive response is called ‘associatively coherent’. System 1 tries to make sense of the unusual situation (two random words) by linking them in a logical story. It starts with evaluating the current level of threat and then creates a context for the current situation and future events. System 1 treats the connection between two words as a representation of reality. Your body reacts as it would react to the real event and your emotional reaction is part of the interpretation of that event. As cognitive researchers recently emphasized: you do not merely think with your brain, but also with your body.

The process that causes mental events in sequences is called ‘the association of ideas’. Philosopher Hume identified three principles of association: causality, contiguity in place and time, and resemblance. An idea can be abstract or concrete and can be described as a noun, a verb, an adjective or in a physical way. A psychologist sees an idea as a node in a network, the associative memory, in which it is linked to numerous others. There are several types of links: cause-effect (drinking-hangover), things- properties (carrot - orange), things – categories (tulip – flower). According to the current view of the functioning of the associative memory, the mind goes through a sequence of ideas at once. One idea evokes many other ideas, of which only a few are conscious.

Psychologists discovered in the 1980’s that seeing or hearing words causes instant and measurable changes in the ease with which numerous related words can be evoked. If you have read the word ‘beverage’ and then have to finish the word ‘TE_’, you are more likely to go for ‘tea’ than for ‘ten’. This would be different if you had seen the word ‘number’. You will also be quicker than normal to recognize the word ‘tea’ when it is whispered or blurred out. In addition, you are primed for other drinking-related ideas (thirsty, water). These primed ideas can prime other ideas.

Priming is not restricted to words and concepts. Our emotions and actions can be primed by events that we are not aware of. The classic experiment of John Bargh showed how young students walked significantly slower after finishing the task of constructing sentences with a set of words associated with old people (bald, wrinkle, gray, Florida). This experiment involved two stages of priming: 1) the words prime thoughts of old people, although the word ‘old’ was not mentioned and 2) the thoughts prime an action which is associated with the elderly (walking slowly). The students had not noticed that the words had an elderly theme and insisted that none of their actions were influenced by the words. Although they were not aware of the idea of old age, their behavior had changed nonetheless. This phenomenon is called the ‘ideomotor effect’. A reciprocal experiment evoked a coherent reaction: participants had to walk slower than usual and were afterwards quicker to recognize words associated with the elderly. If people are primed to think of old age, they tend to act old, and acting old results into the thought of old age.

Reciprocal links are common in the associative machinery. Being happy makes you smiles and smiling tends to make you feel happy. Gestures can unconsciously influence feelings and thoughts. Nodding makes you more acceptive of something you hear and shaking your head results in the tendency of rejecting it. The advice to ‘act nice and calm, no matter how you feel’ is excellent, because you are likely to actually feeling nice and calm.

These discoveries show that our choices and judgments are not as autonomous and conscious as we think they are. We may see voting as a conscious act reflecting our values and judgments of policies, one that is not affected by irrelevant factors. However, a study demonstrated that the location of polling station can influence the voting pattern.

Money primes evoke problematic effects. People who were shown words with a money theme or images of money became more independent, self-reliant, selfish and preferred being alone. They waited longer before asking for help and were less willing to help others. The idea of money thus primes individualism. These findings indicate that living in a money-driven society unconsciously and negatively shapes our attitudes and behavior. In some societies, people are often reminded of respect, God or their national leader. The latter might result into reduced independent and spontaneous behavior.

Most people are in disbelief when they are told about priming studies. This makes sense, because System 2 thinks it is in charge and cannot be manipulated. Priming is a phenomena arising in System 1, which we have no conscious access to. System 1 produces impressions that frequently turn into beliefs, which become choices, judgments and actions, without us being aware of it. In this light, it is no surprise that System 1 is also causing systematic errors in our intuition. We are not completely influenced by random primes though, the effects are often small. Only voters in doubt will be influenced by the location of the polling station. They could, however, make the difference.

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