Why choose the tiramisu?

Tiramisu_Fanes
Attr. Markus Mitterauer

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.

Continue reading “Why choose the tiramisu?”

Don’t mention the war: or, doing what you didn’t want to do

In last week’s issue of Science Daniel Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard University, summarised his research into a peculiarly incompetent example of agency. There are various actions we perform. We fix on our goal and act in a way that will bring it about. But sometimes we go about trying to not do something. Ever make a mental note not to mention a sore point in conversation, only to bring it up? Wegner calls these phenomena “ironic effects” and proposes that they are the effects of a monitoring process the brain undergoes when we try to avoid thinking about or doing something. Unsurprisingly, he found that “effective strategies include accepting symptoms rather than attempting to control them.” I.e. the best way to not do something is, sometimes, to stop trying to not do it. In the same way one does not maximise one’s pleasure by trying to maximise one’s pleasure (the paradox of hedonism), successful exercises of agency do not always follow the simple model of directing one’s thought or will toward one’s goal.

For an interview with Daniel Wegner go here.

Related articles:

$1.99 - smallThe Phenomenology of Agency
By Tim Bayne, University of Oxford
(Vol. 3, January 2008)
Philosophy Compass

$1.99 - smallThe Natural Philosophy of Agency
By Shaun Gallagher, University of Central Florida
(Vol. 2, February 2007)
Philosophy Compass