How Do People Think? Mostly They Don’t!

20th Sep 2010

Humans have evolved to largely rely on automatic thinking, that is, thinking that is unconscious and involuntary. This serves us well in many situations, since it would be burdensome to have to think long and hard about each new thing that we see. We use our knowledge of the world and past experiences to quickly sort the new information that we are presented with. However, sometimes this automatic processing leads us to make mistakes, and we need to be aware of our propensity to think automatically so that these mistakes can be avoided as much as possible.

How do we organize the new information that we are presented with? We use schemas, which are mental structures that organize our knowledge about the world.This is akin to a sorting system, in which we can throw new information into the appropriate “pile”, and then we can react to that information in a predetermined way. Our schemas contain our basic knowledge and impressions that we use to to organize what we know about the world and interpret new situations.

When applied to members of a social group, schemas are referred to as stereotypes. Often, stereotypes are subconscious, and even those people that think of themselves as extremely tolerant will still act in accordance with hidden biases. A well known scientific study by Correl et. al., created a video game to test whether peoples stereotypes about African Americans influenced their decision to “shoot” a suspect (that was either armed or unarmed) in the game. Surprisingly, even those who felt that they had no prejudice against African Americans were more likely to shoot at an unarmed black person than at an unarmed white person. This can be applied to real life situations, like police officers shooting at unarmed blacks more quickly and more often.

So obviously our unconscious thoughts can have serious repercussions, even if we are not aware of them. Stereotypes are one example of how our schemas affect our thought process, but the most common one is the phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Imagine this familiar situation… a man sees an attractive woman sitting at the bar, he believes she will turn him down, and she does. The man’s schema (that he will be rejected) causes him to act less warmly toward the woman, and his behavior is why she turns him down. Our thoughts about how an event will turn out can often have a very real effect on the actual outcome.

It is important to be aware that many of the decisions you make each day are based on unconscious thoughts, and that those decisions may not be so good for you. Questioning one’s automatic thinking can lead us to more accurate conclusions and the ability to understand the feelings and biases of yourself and others.