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in only about 5% of our actions. This suggests that despite our belief in free will and
self-determination, it appears that much if not most of our behavior is determined by pro-
cesses that are nonconscious, or automatic (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999). Daniel Wegner
and his coworkers showed that people mistakenly believe they have intentionally caused
a behavior when in fact they were forced to act by stimuli of which they were not aware
(Wegner, Ans¬eld, & Pilloff, 1998). Wegner and Whealey (1999) suggested that the
factors that actually cause us to act are rarely, if ever, present in our consciousness.
Bargh (1997) wrote that automatic responses are learned initially from experience
and then are used passively, effortlessly, and nonconsciously each time we encounter
the same object or situation. For example, Chartrand and Bargh (1996) showed that
when individuals have no clear-cut goals to form impressions of other people, those
goals can be brought about nonconsciously. It is possible to present words or images
so quickly that the individual has no awareness that anything has been presented,
and furthermore the person does not report that he or she has seen anything (Kunda,
1999). But the stimuli can still have an effect on subsequent behavior. Employing this
technique of presenting stimuli subliminally in a series of experiments, Chartrand and
Bargh (1996) “primed” participants to form an impression of particular (target) indi-
viduals by presenting some subjects with words such as judge and evaluate and other
impression-formation stimuli. These primes were presented on a screen just below
the level of conscious awareness. Other experiment participants were not primed to
form impressions subliminally. Soon thereafter, the participants in the experiment
were given a description of behaviors that were carried out by a particular (target)
individual but were told only that they would be questioned about it later. Chartrand
and Bargh reported that those participants who were primed by impression-formation
words (judge, evaluate, etc.) below the level of conscious awareness (subliminally)
were found to have a fully formed impression of the target. Subjects not primed and
given the same description did not form an impression of the target. Therefore, the
participants were induced nonconsciously to form an impression, and this noncon-
sciously primed goal guided subsequent cognitive behavior (forming the impression
of the target person presented by the experimenter).

Nonconscious Decision Making: Sleeping on It
Buying a can of peas at the grocery store usually doesnʼt strain our intellect. After all,
peas are peas. While we might prefer one brand over another, we wonʼt waste a lot
of time on this decision. If the decision, however, involves something really impor-
tant”what car should we buy, who should we marry, where shall we live”then we
may agonize over the choice. But, according to new research, that is exactly the wrong
way to go about it. For one thing, dif¬cult decisions often present us with a dizzying
number of facts and options. Four Dutch psychologists (Dijksterhuis, Bos, Nordgren,
& van Baaren, 2006) suggest that the best way to deal with complex decisions is to rely
on the unconscious mind. These researchers describe unconscious decision making or
thought as thinking about the problem while your attention is directed elsewhere. In
other words, “sleep on it.”
In one part of their research, Dijkersterhuis and his co-researchers asked shoppers
and college students to make judgments about simple things (oven mitts) and more
complex things (buying automobiles). The shoppers, given the qualities of certain auto-
mobiles, were asked to choose the best car. The problems were presented quickly, and
the researchers varied the complexity of the problems. For example, for some people,
Chapter 3 Social Perception: Understanding Other People 65

the cars had 4 attributes (age, gasoline mileage, transmission, and handling), but for
others, 12 attributes for each automobile were presented. Some participants were told to
“think carefully” about the decisions, while others were distracted from thinking very
much about their choices by being asked to do anagram puzzles. The results were that
if the task was relatively simple (four factors), thinking carefully resulted in a more
correct decision than when the person was distracted. But if the task became much more
complex (12 factors), distraction led to a better decision.
Whatʼs the explanation? Unconscious thought theory (UTT) suggests that while
conscious thought is really precise and allows us to follow strict patterns and rules, its
capacity to handle lots of information is limited. So conscious thought is necessary for
doing, say, math, a rule-based exercise, but may not be as good in dealing with complex
issues with lots of alternatives (Dijksterhuis et al., 2006).
Should we always rely on our “gut” feelings when making complex and impor-
tant life decisions? We do not have a complete answer as of yet to that question. For
example, we donʼt know precisely how emotions or previous events might enter into
the mix. There is, however, a growing body of research that gives us some con¬dence
that too much contemplation about our loves and careers and other aspects of our lives
that are important to us may not be helpful.
Social psychologist Timothy Wilson has examined these issues in novel, even
charming ways. Wilson ( 2002) has argued, and demonstrated, that we have a “pow-
erful, sophisticated, adaptive” unconscious that is crucial for survival but largely, to
ourselves, unknowable. Fortunately Wilson and others have devised experimental
methods to probe our unconscious. In one study, Wilson, Kraft, and Dunn asked one
group of people to list the reasons why their current romantic relationship was going
the way it was (described in Wilson, 2005). Then they were asked to say how satis¬ed
they were with that relationship. A second group was just asked to state their “gut”
reactions to the questions without thinking about it. Both groups were asked to predict
whether they would still be in that relationship several months later. Now you might
hypothesize that those who thought about how they felt would be more accurate in
their predictions (Wilson, 2005). However, those who dug deep into their feelings and
analyzed their relationships did not accurately predict the outcome of those relation-
ships, while those who did little introspection got it pretty much right. Again there
appears to be a kind of “wisdom” inherent in not thinking too much about complex
issues and feelings. These ¬ndings and others about the power of the nonconcious
mind raise the issue among cognitive psychologists about what precisely do we mean
by consciousness.

Automaticity and Behavior
Just as impressions can be formed in a nonconscious manner, so too can behavior
be in¬‚uenced by nonconscious cues. That is to say, our behavior can be affected by
cues”stimuli”that are either below the level of conscious awareness or may be quite
obvious, although we are not aware of their effects upon us. Priming can also be used to
affect perceptions nonconsciously. Psychologists have found that priming, “the noncon-
scious activation of social knowledge,” is a very powerful social concept and affects a
wide variety of behaviors (Bargh, 2006). For example, Kay, Wheeler, Bargh, and Ross
(2004) found that the mere presence of a backpack in a room led to more cooperative
behaviors in the group, while the presence of a briefcase prompted more competitive
behaviors. The backpack or the briefcase is a “material prime,” an object that brings
out behaviors consistent with the “prime” (executives carry briefcases and compete;
Social Psychology
66

backpackers climb mountains and cooperate). Similarly, “norms can be primed,” as
demonstrated by Aarts and Dijksterhuis (2003) in a study in which people who were
shown photographs of libraries tended to speak more softly.
Priming affects our behavior in a wide variety of social situations. These “automatic
activations,” as Bargh (2006) notes, include the well-known “cocktail party effect.”
Imagine you are at a loud party and can barely hear the people that you are speaking
with. Suddenly, across the room, you hear your name spoken in another conversation.
Your name being spoken automatically catches your conscious attention without any
cognitive effort.
In another example of nonconscious behavior, imagine a couple, married for a
quarter of a century, sitting at the dinner table vigorously discussing the dayʼs events.
The dinner guest cannot help but notice how husband and wife mimic, clearly uncon-
sciously, each otherʼs gestures. When he makes a strong point, the husband emphasizes
his comments by hitting the table with his open hand. His wife tends to do the same,
though not quite so vigorously. Neither is aware of the gestures.
Indeed, there is evidence that such mimicry is common in social interaction (Macrae
et al., 1998). Chartrand and Bargh (1999) termed this nonconscious mimicry the cha-
meleon effect, indicating that like the chameleon changing its color to match its sur-
roundings, we may change our behavior to match that of people with whom we are
interacting.
Perception may also automatically trigger behaviors. Chartrand and Bargh (1999)
had two people interact with each other; however, one of the two was a confederate
of the experimenter. Confederates either rubbed their face or shook their foot. Facial
expressions were varied as well, primarily by smiling or not. The participant and the
confederate sat in chairs half-facing each other, and the entire session was videotaped
and analyzed. Figure 3.1 shows the results of this experiment. Experimental subjects
tended to rub their faces when the confederate did so, and the subjects tended to shake
their foot when the confederate did. Frank Bernieri, John Gillis, and their coworkers
also showed that when observers see two people in synchrony”that is, when their
physical movements and postures seem to mimic or follow each other”the observers
assume that the individuals have high compatibility or rapport (Bernieri, Gillis, Davis,
& Grahe, 1996; Gillis, Bernieri, & Wooten, 1995).
In another experiment, Chartrand and Bargh showed the social value of such
mimicry. For individuals whose partner mimicked their behavior, the interaction was
rated as smoother, and they professed greater liking for that partner than did individuals
whose partner did not mimic their expression or behavior. These experiments and others
demonstrate the adaptive function of nonconscious behavior. Not only does it smooth
social interactions, but it does away with the necessity of actively choosing goal-related
behavior at every social encounter. Because our cognitive resources are limited and can
be depleted, it is best that these resources are saved for situations in which we need to
process social information in a conscious and controlled manner.

Automaticity and Emotions
If cognitive activity occurs below the level of conscious awareness, we can ask whether
the same is true of emotion. We all know that our emotional responses to events often
are beyond our conscious control. We may not be aware of why we reacted so vigor-
ously to what was really a small insult or why we went into a “blue funk” over a trivial
matter. Where we need conscious control is to get out of that bad mood or to overcome
that reaction. It appears that our emotional responses are not controlled by a conscious
Chapter 3 Social Perception: Understanding Other People 67




Figure 3.1 Behavior
of research participants as
it relates to the behavior
of a confederate of the
experimenter.
From Chartrand and Bargh (1999).




will (LeDoux, 1996). As Wegner and Bargh (1998) indicated, the research on cognition
and emotion focuses primarily on what we do after we express an emotion, not on how
we decide what emotion to express.
Sometimes we can be aware of what we are thinking and how those thoughts
are affecting us but still not know how the process started or how we may end it. For
example, have you ever gotten a jingle stuck in your mind? You canʼt say why the jingle
started, nor can you get it out of your mind, no matter how hard you try. You think of
other things, and each of these distractors works for a while. But soon the jingle pops
up again, more insistent than ever. Suppressing an unwanted thought seems only to
make it stronger.
This phenomenon was vividly demonstrated in an experiment in which subjects were
told not to think of a white bear for 5 minutes (Wegner, 1989). Whenever the thought
of a white bear popped into mind, subjects were to ring a bell. During the 5-minute
period, subjects rang the bell often. More interesting, however, was the discovery that
once the 5 minutes were up, the white bears really took over, in a kind of rebound effect.
Subjects who had tried to suppress thoughts of white bears could think of little else after
the 5 minutes expired. The study demonstrates that even if we successfully fend off an
unwanted thought for a while, it may soon return to our minds with a vengeance.
Because of this strong rebound effect, suppressed thoughts may pop up when we least
want them. A bigot who tries very hard to hide his prejudice when he is with members
of a particular ethnic group will, much to his surprise, say something stupidly bigoted
and wonder why he could not suppress the thought (Wegner, 1993). This is especially
likely to happen when people are under pressure. Automatic processing takes over,
reducing the ability to control thinking.
Of course, we do control some of our emotions but apparently only after they
have surfaced. If our boss makes us angry, we may try to control the expression of
that anger. We often try to appear less emotional than we actually feel. We may mod-
erate our voice when we are really angry, because it would do us no good to express
that emotion. However, as Richards and Gross (1999) showed, suppressing emotion
Social Psychology
68

comes at a cost. These researchers demonstrated that suppressing emotions impairs
memory for information during the period of suppression and increases cardiovascular
responses. This suggests, as does Wegnerʼs work, that suppressing emotions depletes
oneʼs cognitive resources.

Emotions: Things Will Never Get Better We can see now that nonconcious factors
affect both our behavior and our emotions. Daniel Gilbert and his co-researchers have
demonstrated in a series of inventive experiments that we are simply not very good in
predicting how emotional events will affect us in the future. For one thing, we tend not
to take into account the fact that the more intense the emotion, the less staying power it
has. We tend to underestimate our tendency to get back to an even keel (homeostasis)
to diminish the impact of even the most negative or for that matter the most positive
of emotions. We think that if we donʼt get a particular great job or we are rejected by a
person weʼd love to date that itʼll take forever to recover from it.
Gilbert, Lieberman, Morewedge, and Wilson (2004) were especially interested in
how individuals thought they would respond emotionally (hedonically) to events that
triggered very emotional responses. These researchers point out that when extreme emo-
tions are triggered, psychological processes are stimulated that serve to counteract the
intensity of emotions such that one may expect that intense emotional states will last a
shorter time than will milder ones. How does this happen? Gilbert et al. (2004) note that
people may respond to a highly traumatic event by cognitively dampening the depth
of their feelings. So they note that a married person wanting to keep a marriage intact
might rationalize her mateʼs in¬delity but for a lesser annoyance”say, being messy”
her anger lasts longer. In a series of studies, Gilbert et al. revealed peopleʼs forecasting
of how individuals would feel after one of a number of bad things happened to them
(being stood up, romantic betrayal, had their car dented). The more serious the event, as
you would expect, the stronger the emotional response. But, as Gilbert et al. predicted,
the stronger the initial emotional reaction, the quicker the emotion dissipated. Now this
doesnʼt mean that people learn to love their tormentors, but the intensity of the emotion
is much less than people forecast.

Controlled Processing
As mentioned earlier, controlled processing involves conscious awareness, attention to
the thinking process, and effort. It is de¬ned by several factors: First, we know we are
thinking about something; second, we are aware of the goals of the thought process;
and third, we know what choices we are making. For example, if you meet someone,
you may be aware of thinking that you need to really pay attention to what this person
is saying. Therefore, you are aware of your thinking process. You will also know that
you are doing this because you expect to be dealing with this person in the future. You
may want to make a good impression on the person, or you may need to make an accu-
rate assessment. In addition, you may be aware that by focusing on this one person, you
are giving up the opportunity to meet other people.
People are motivated to use controlled processing”that is, to allocate more cogni-
tive energy to perceiving and interpreting. They may have goals they want to achieve
in the interaction, for example, or they may be disturbed by information that doesnʼt ¬t
their expectancies. Processing becomes more controlled when thoughts and behavior
are intended (Wegner & Pennebaker, 1993).
Chapter 3 Social Perception: Understanding Other People 69


The Impression Others Make on Us: How Do We
“Read” People?
It is clear then that we process most social information in an automatic way, without a great
deal of effort. As we said earlier, perhaps only 5% of the time do we process it in a con-
trolled and systematic way. What does this mean for accurate impression formation?

How Accurate Are Our Impressions?
How many times have you heard, “I know just how you feel”? Well, do we really know
how someone else feels? King (1998) noted that the ability to recognize the emotions
of others is crucial to social interaction and an important marker of interpersonal com-
petence. King found that our ability to accurately read other individualsʼ emotions
depends on our own emotional socialization. That is, some individuals have learned,
because of their early experiences and feedback from other people, that it is safe to
clearly express their emotions. Others are more con¬‚icted, unsure, and ambivalent about
expressing emotions. Perhaps they were punished somehow for emotional expression
and learned to adopt a poker face. This personal experience with emotional expres-
sivity, King reasoned, should have an effect on our ability to determine the emotional
state of other people.
King (1998) examined the ability of people who were unsure or ambivalent about
emotional expressivity to accurately read othersʼ emotions. She found that compared to
individuals who had no con¬‚ict about expressing emotions, those who were ambivalent
about their own emotional expression tended to be confused about other peopleʼs

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