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 E. Nisbett is Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished Professor of social psychology and co-director of the Culture and Cognition program at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Nisbett's research interests are in social cognition, culture, social class, and aging. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University, where his advisor was Stanley Schachter, whose other students at that time included Lee Ross and Judith Rodin.
Perhaps his most influential publication is "Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes" (with T. D. Wilson, 1977, Psychological Review, 84, 231–259), one of the most often cited psychology articles published in the seventies. This article was the first comprehensive, empirically based argument that a variety of mental processes responsible for preferences, choices, and emotions are inaccessible to conscious awareness. Nisbett and Wilson contended that introspective reports can provide only an account of "what people think about how they think," but not "how they really think." Some cognitive psychologists disputed this claim, with Ericsson and Simon (1980) offering an alternative perspective.
Nisbett's book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... And Why (Free Press; 2003) contends that "human cognition is not everywhere the same," that Asians and Westerners "have maintained very different systems of thought for thousands of years," and that these differences are scientifically measurable. Nisbett's book, Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count, argues that environmental factors dominate genetic factors in determining intelligence.
In 2010 Nisbett wrote Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count. The book reviewed extensive favorable attention in the press and from some fellow academics; for example, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Daniel Osherson wrote that the book was a "hugely important analysis of the determinants of IQ". On the other hand, more critical reviewers argued that the book failed to grapple with the strongest evidence for genetic factors in individual and group intelligence differences.
With Edward E. Jones, he named the actor–observer bias, the phenomenon where people acting and people observing use different explanations for why a behavior occurs.
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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