A highly influential experiment, conducted over 30 years ago, presented an array of indistinguishable stockings to subjects who were then asked to pick the one they found most appealing. Overwhelmingly, the subjects preferred the stockings on their right. When asked about the reasons for their choice, none of the subjects indicated the relative location of the item. Rather, they explained their choices by pointing out superior features of the chosen item. Of course, since the items were in fact indistinguishable in all relevant respects, no such superior features were present. The subjects were confabulating.
The results of this experiment, and others that followed, are quite surprising. They suggest that we are tremendously bad at introspecting on the reasons for our choices, and all too naturally come up with irrelevant explanations for them. We are often completely unconscious of the actual reasons for our choices. If this is the case, it puts our conception of ourselves as self-determining agents in jeopardy.
In this week’s Newsweek, Sharon Begley reports on a fascinating new study by Daniel Casasanto that reveals a pervasive spatial bias that depends on handedness. According to the study, subjects associate positive ideas with the region of space that corresponds to their ‘strong’ hand. For example, right-handed subjects judge stimuli presented on their right as more positive (e.g., good, intelligent, happy, attractive) than those presented on their left. This pattern is reversed in the case of left-handed subjects.
Many interesting conclusions can be drawn from these results. However, the thought that our judgments about whether something is good, pleasant or worthwhile, and whether a person is intelligent or happy, are influenced by such factors as its relative position in space is disconcerting. Once again, our conception of ourselves as agents in control of our choices and actions is under threat. We might have thought that our reason for choosing the tiramisu for desert was the fact that it looked most fresh and appealing, but perhaps the reason was merely that it was displayed to our right.
So, do we simply abandon this conception of ourselves as some remnant of a pre-Copernican era? Or, can we find a way to accommodate psychological data about the unconscious factors continuously influencing our choices and still hold a conception of ourselves as agents in full control of their choices and actions? The question is not easily answered.
Racial Cognition and the Ethics of Implicit Bias
By Daniel Kelly and Erica Roedder, Purdue University / New York University
(Vol. 3, April 2008)