Think You're Thinking for Yourself? Think Again.

"There’s no more central message of psychology than the fact that most of what goes on in our heads we have no access to."

Richard Nisbett: There’s no more central message of psychology than the fact that most of what goes on in our heads we have no access to. We have no idea that it’s going on. And that becomes clearer and clearer in every passing year. There’s more and more research showing we perceive things that have an influence on us. We have no idea. We don’t even notice that they’re there to have an impact.

I was at a world economic forum a while back and there were a bunch of economists and psychologists and political scientists and physicians and government people and business people. And our job was to think of ways to get people to do things that are in society’s interests. And the word incentivize came up over and over again. And usually that was followed by some kind of idea about a monetary reward or a monetary fine of some sort. And I was the lone social psychologist and I’m thinking, you know, incentives can backfire often. Not only they’re not effective, they can actually — I mean why am I offering you this money for doing that unless maybe you’d rather not. I mean why am I threatening you with punishment unless it’s a fairly attractive thing. What social psychologists have learned in the context here of social influence is that what other people are doing has often been vastly more powerful than anything you can do in the way of incentives. A lovely example of this is the state of California recently started hanging tags on people’s doors if they were using more electricity than their neighbors. It says you’re using more electricity than your neighbors. And they cut down significantly.

The state has so far saved hundreds of millions of dollars in electricity costs and billions of tons of CO2 have not been poured into the atmosphere because of the hangtag. And monetary incentives, I don’t think could have had that magnitude of effect. And there are experiments you can do — you can take people absolutely from A to Z, turn around 180 degrees and they have no recognition that they have changed their attitude. They think the attitude they have now is the attitude when they began the discussion. But you know because you’ve checked them way before that in an experiment you’ve done, you know what their attitude was. And you’ve rigged things so that they’re getting information and opinions that are going to push them in a particular direction.

So context, especially social context, have effects on us that are just beyond our recognition. If you and I meet for the first time over coffee, I’m probably going to think, you know, you’re a swell guy. I mean I’d like to get to know him better. God forbid we meet over iced tea because I’m going to think: kind of a cold fish. So ambient temperature in a room, the ambient temperature of what you’re touching influences your judgment about a person. You put people in a blue or green environment, they’re more creative. And keep them the heck out of a red environment. Although if you are on a dating website, wear a red shirt if you want to get more hits. So the element that influences us most, most powerfully and most constantly is the behavior and the attitudes of other people. Social psychologists just keep finding the extent of which we are powerfully influenced by other people’s behavior.

"There’s no more central message of psychology than the fact that most of what goes on in our heads we have no access to," explains social psychologist Richard Nisbett, who offers some smart thinking tools in this video interview. He also delves into the science of influence, in particular the power some parties enjoy by influencing the behavior of others.

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