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.
In the course of any given day, the number of snap decisions we are called upon to make is staggering. Simply getting to the office in the morning demands decisions about what to wear, when to leave the house, what route to take, where to park the car, and so on. Many of these involve considerable deliberation, especially when something sudden and unexpected happens that interferes with the decisions we would normally have made – the car not starting, high density traffic on our regular route, a meteor striking our office building, etc.
However, the vast majority of our decisions are made on the fly – they seemingly involve no deliberation at all. Should I use the big black coffee mug, or the smaller blue one? Having left the house, do I then go on the paved path, or simply cut through the lawn towards my car? Fiddle with the radio and only then drive, or the other way around? Even more subtle examples are ubiquitous. How should I pick up the coffee mug, left hand, right hand, by the handle, from above? How firmly should I press the toothbrush to my teeth, and when have I brushed sufficiently? How much pressure on the gas pedal would allow me to bypass that geriatric SUV safely? The list is endless.
Most of these decisions seem to involve no deliberation that we are aware of at all, and yet, it seems obvious that we are there, making them. In a sense, they are automatic, and yet, we’re the ones making them. At the very least, it seems to us that we could have done otherwise.