Interview with John Bargh

Further to my post below on John Bargh and automaticity, I got in contact with John through Yale University to ask for a quick interview with him about his ideas, and in the great tradition of brilliant yet accessible academics, he accepted.

Bargh is a professor of psychology at Yale, and one of the leading social psychologists of his generation. He is the leading thinker of a school known as the 'social intuitionists', who have challenged the idea that we are 'masters of ourselves' through our reason and free will, and suggested instead that a great deal of our judgements about and responses to the world are automatic and unconscious, and that our reason often acts as a sort of butler, or even a lawyer defending the decisions we have already automatically made.

This view obviously has great implications for philosophy and psychology, particularly Stoicism, which very much emphasizes our ability to become 'captains of our soul'. Now read on...

Thanks for your time, John. Could you give my readers a brief summary of what 'automaticity' means?

Well, the word itself has a long history. It comes from an engineering context of automatic guiding systems, things like thermostats, and from the idea of the obligatory nature of things: when x, then y, and so on.

In the 1980s, it was extended into social psychology, to the idea of humans' immediate, unintentional reactions to things. For example, our automatic racial stereotypes.

Tell us about your experiments in this area.

We did an experiment back in the early 1990s, where we flashed photos of African-Americans to Caucasian-Americans on a computer screen, for 13 milliseconds, so quickly they weren't consciously aware of them. We then put them into a mildly provocative situation, in a room with another Caucasian-American, where there was a chance of reacting hostilely, to test how they perceived that person and reacted to the provocation. And we discovered those that had been primed with the subliminal photo of the African-American were more likely to react with hostility in the following situation, though they didn't know why.

So it seems we have an automatic primer towards negative racial stereotyping?

Yes. Now, that primer could have come from different sources. It could be cultural, of course. It could also be evolutionary: there's new evidence, for example, that women are at their most racist when they're at their most fertile.

And automaticity is the idea that our minds are full of these sort of automatic primers?

Yes, they're ubiquitous. You expose someone to a subliminal stimulus, for example a picture of a clown, and they're primed to make more positive evaluations, it puts in an approach motivation, it even relaxes the muscles you use to approach something. And the person won't be conscious of why or how this evaluation has happened.

So if we agree that the mind does make all sorts of automatic evaluations and judgements based on primers, what's the theory to explain how and why this happens?

What we think is it's the default back-up system which existed in the days before consciousness. Alot of animals today still use this operating system. We also have a conscious, reflective system, but it's the automatic system that keeps us grounded in the present.

And is this older operating system the limbic system?

It's all over. I know very little about neuro-anatomy, so I'm not going to try and localize it.

So how much of our mind is the older system, and how much is the more recent conscious system?

The estimates are that 99% of all the things going on in body and brain are automatic. Gregory Bateson uses the example of a TV screen: consciousness is what's happening on the screen, but behind that you have all the machinery of the TV, and behind that you have the wires and cables connecting it to the TV station, and so on.

So we might have preferences - eating some potato chips, going for a run, calling a friend - but these preferences came from somewhere, it's not magic.

So what does this mean for free will?

Well, I'm in the middle of a big discussion about that with the psychologist Roy Baumeister, who does alot of work on self-control, on models of the self and so on. We debated each other at the annual Society for Personality and Social Psychology convention in Tamba Bay, and we're now continuing that discussion on our blogs on Psychology Today.

Sounds like you have a good rivalry!

He and I have always done that for each other. It's sort of a dialectic. It makes both of our arguments better. He's a very worthy opponent.

So anyway, to get back to your question, what this means for free will. Personally, I don't believe it exists. But that's a personal belief. We can at least say that the scope, range and domain of it is much less than people thought 20 or 30 years ago, when people like [sorry, I didn't get the names of the people he mentioned] asserted that we're always aware of the reasons why we do things.

That's obviously not true. Clearly, through these primers, we're being played by the world.

And in some ways, the problem is this idea that we have free will, that we're the masters of our soul.

Tim Wilson has shown that people's theories of why they do what they do are pretty far off. People are worried about subliminal adverts playing them, for example, which have been shown to have a minimal effect, but they are not worried about the effect of regular TV on them, or of negative campaign adverts, for example, which do have a real effect on people.

OK. But the idea of being 'master of the soul' comes from ancient philosophy, from Plato and the Stoics in particular. And they never said that all humans were masters of their soul - on the contrary, they said the vast majority of humans sleep-walked their way through life. They said that we could become masters of our soul, but only through years of training, Socratic self-enquiry and struggle. The same idea is found in, for example, the idea of Buddhist or Christian monks, training themselves over years to become more aware of what they're thinking and whether their automatic responses make sense. So this idea that we can develop free will is at the heart of the spiritual aspirations that have guided humanity for millennia. What do you think of this idea?

I'm a social psychologist. I'm interested in the normal, the mundane. And the normal is for people not to challenge their automatic thinking. It doesn't mean people can't change it, but whether they will make the effort is debatable.

If you do change your automatic behaviour, it will take alot of training. Will most people do it? Probably not. Why? Because they're busy surviving, and it requires the realisation 'I'm not in full control'. Most people don't learn that theory.

So you accept we can consciously change our automatic responses?

It's not as simple as conscious versus automatic. We're often motivated by goals that can be unconscious. A lot of good things can come automatically, for example, pursuing goals or projects. We can do this outside of our own awareness.

But I'm interested in whether we can consciously change our automatic responses. Let's say you suffer from depression or anxiety, and your automatic responses to the world are obviously serving you badly. In that instance, do you accept you can consciously change your automatic responses?

Well, it could be your conscious thinking that is serving you badly in that instance - it could be your conscious thoughts and ruminations that 'I can't do it' which are making you depressed.

So let's say you have a belief - conscious or unconscious - along the lines of 'I can't do it': can we consciously change that belief?

Yes. This is the nice thing about the way we keep approaching the true nature of the will and agency. Thirty years ago, consciousness was seen as a bottleneck for everything. It was clearly too much for the system to do. By taking some things off the table, it helps us to know what it is for. There are only a few things left on the table. We're beginning to understand the ability of the mind to change, the plasticity, the ability to adapt to new circumstances.

So the mind can re-programme itself to some extent?

Well, often it comes from outside the mind. In earlier stages of our history, for example, we took our orders from the elders. We weren't free agents. Change came from top down. When we came out with our research on racist stereotyping, one psychologist tried to show how you can change people's negative stereotypes through cognitive training. But you can't cognitively change each individual. Change has to come from the top down. An African-American is elected president and then things change. [To which one might reply, yes, but the people elected him, so that was still the free choice of individuals.]

But at the individual level, do you agree that people suffering from emotional problems can learn to change their automatic responses?

Yes, I think that's definitely true. Beck and Ellis [the two inventors of CBT] gave us one of the original models of automatic thought. CBT really influenced me in the 1970s. Aaron Beck, for
example, talked about the chain of human thinking, how it moves too fast for us to follow it. It's like a rubber band snapping. But Beck insisted that, if you listen carefully, you can hear it. I actually tried this, in the 70s, and he's right, you can hear it, you can follow it, if you slow it down.

It's the speed that's the problem. You have to listen right after an external stimulus, and you can still hear it, and try to follow the chain.

Mindfulness, in a word.

Yes. Ellen Langer talks about this in her book, Counter-Clockwise - the idea of taking control over automatic things. It's even being made into a film, where she's played by Jennifer Anniston!

So this top down system of ours allows us to do this, to chart a course. We're still not sure where this ability comes from, or why. But we know how we can use it to adapt to circumstances.

It's been fascinating, John. Thanks very much for your time.

Thank you. It's useful for me too.