Talking to Our Selves: Reflection, Ignorance, and Agency

Here are some highlights from this 2015 book by my favorite moral philosopher — John M. Doris:

In 1957, a marketing consultant named James Vicary reported huge sales increases at a New Jersey theater concession. All one need do, Vicary said, was intermittently flash Eat Popcorn and Drink Coca Cola on screen for 1/3000th of a second, and unsuspecting moviegoers ate more popcorn and drank more Coke. Before long, subliminal advertising was a staple of Cold War paranoia. Exposés like Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders and Wilson Brian Keys Subliminal Seduction glutted bookstores, while The New Yorker pronounced Packard’s opus an “authoritative and frightening report on how manufacturers, fundraisers and politicians are attempting to turn the American mind into a kind of catatonic dough that will buy, give or vote at their command.” Pretty creepy stuff, this catatonic dough: movie night as Night of the Living Noshers, with film buffs cast as junk food zombies.
The hysteria hadn’t to do with over-indulgence in sugar, salt, and grease, about which Americans have little compunction. What was sinister, according to alarmists, was that victims of subliminal sales techniques were made to do things; people’s desires were manipulated without their knowledge or consent. Clearly, something sneaky was going on: in 1974, federal regulators stepped in, ruling subliminal advertising deceptive, and “inconsistent with the obligations” of licensed broadcasters.
Turns out the alarmists were unduly alarmed: after decades of research, scientific evidence for the effectiveness of subliminal advertising remains in short supply (Pratkanis and Greenwald 1988; Dijksterhuis et al 2005). By 1962, Vicary had recanted, admitting that the Coke and popcorn “study” was a publicity ploy for his marketing business. Near enough, he was never heard from again.
Not everyone thinks it’s safe to go back in the theater. Surveys indicate that a majority of Americans have heard of subliminal advertising, and a majority of these believe it works (Rogers and Smith 1993). Books like The Secret Sales Pitch (Bullock 2004) and Subliminal Persuasion (Lakhani 2009) are still getting written; a celebratory 50th anniversary edition of The Hidden Persuaders appeared in 2007.

* The philosophy at issue subscribes to reflectivism, a doctrine according to which the exercise of human agency consists in judgment and behavior ordered by self-conscious reflection about what to think and do. Typically, this doctrine is associated with a corollary: the exercise of human agency requires accurate reflection. In an exercise of agency, as construed by reflectivism, a person correctly divines the beliefs, desires, and other psychological states relevant to her decision, makes her decision in light of these states (sometimes called her reasons), and acts accordingly.

* However attractive, this assumption is compromised by decades of research in the social, cognitive, and behavioral sciences. Empirical research suggests that reflection appears in a limited portion of human conduct; very often, behavior is altogether thoughtless, and quite unconstrained by the deliverances of reflection. And on those instances when people do reflect, there is little warrant for confidence that these reflections are informed by accurate self-awareness.

* At least in the cultures that are home to the Western philosophical tradition, there is an entrenched practice of people treating one another as morally responsible agents, and although this practice is sometimes egregiously infelicitous in its particulars, I’m convinced it is tolerably functional—in any event, considerably more functional than going without it. On my view, the trouble is not so much with the practice, but with extant attempts to provide theoretical support for the practice: reflectivist understandings of agency have prevented philosophers from understanding the ways in which human beings do, in fact, function as agents.
I envisage an alternative theory. The theory is anti-reflectivist: it does not require reflection and accurate self-awareness for the exercise of agency. The theory is valuational it locates the exercise of agency in the expression of a person’s values. The theory is collaborativist: it understands individual exercises of agency as products of social interaction. The theory is pluralist: it allows that a diversity of processes may effect the exercise of agency.

* The history of ideas in the twentieth century was a history of disintegration: physics rendered nature into infinitesimal particles, anthropology sundered humanity into incommensurable cultures, politics divided nations into irreconcilable factions, and literary theorists deconstructed what little remained.

* the history of mind in modernity (and post-modernity) is the history of a fragmented psyche

* cognitive performance is remarkably—not to say ridiculously—context-specific (Olin and Doris 2014): to mention a couple of representative findings, people may be good at estimating distances on lawns but not in hallways (Lappin et al. 2006), and better able to detect erroneous statements written in difficult fonts than in fonts that are easily read

* Just as success at one cognitive endeavor does not guarantee success in another, the attainment of ordinary (or even extraordinary) decency in one regard does not guarantee decency in others. People exhibit astonishing susceptibility to social and material influence, even when that influence is employed in the service of flagrant inhumanity, and the perpetrators of atrocity, more often than not, are disquietingly like the rest of us (Doris 2002: 53-8; Doris and Murphy 2007). As Solzhenitsyn learned in the Gulag, the line dividing good and evil crosses every human heart.

* Human beings are profoundly social organisms who do everything together, from making love to making war. It may seem like philosophers fully appreciate this obvious observation: that humans are, in Aristotle’s words, zoa politika, is a staple of introductory philosophy classes. Yet much Western philosophy bears the imprint of individualism, the supposition that people reason best asocially, doors closed and curtains drawn, as in the gripping fiction of Descartes’ Meditations.

* There’s also virtual sociality, where a solitary person can be said to function socially. The disapproving gaze of the “imagined other” characterizing shame is familiar in moral philosophy, but examples abound, such as the private, but socially engaged, activity of journal writing (time was, Dear Diary received a lot of letters).

* even solitary behavior is often governed by cultural norms.

* A gynecologist friend of mine reports that a surprising number of her patients avow the following constellation of inclination and disinclination: I want to have intercourse—I do not want to use contraception—I do not want to have a baby.

* America where the rugged individualist is celebrated, the conformist is castigated, and the child is admonished about succumbing to “peer pressure.”

* autistic children present atypically when asked to report their moral reasoning. In one study (cited in Doris and Nichols 2012: 432-3), neurotypical and autistic children (ages 5-9 years) were asked:
“Why was it wrong for Johnny to hit Billy?”
Neurotypical children gave the expected sorts of answers, exhibiting culturally appropriate instances of moral reasoning:
“Because it hurt Billy.”
Autistic children, however, often produced quite inappropriate responses:
“I was on an escalator once.”
This phenomenon is well known from clinical studies in the area: autistic children often produce conversational non-sequiturs, and present other evidence of social disconnection, such as presentation of strangely inappropriate gifts (cf. Dawson and Fernald 1987: 496-7). Evidently, impairments in sociality are associated with impairments in moral reasoning.

* Consider Narcissistic Personality Disorder, where afflicted individuals present with self-importance and feelings of entitlement (American Psychiatric Association 2000: 715).4 Unfortunately, the narcissist’s affliction is an affliction on those around him: individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder may believe they are exempt from social norms, such as waiting their turn in line. One patient, “Brian,” was compelled into therapy after a series of legal problems resulting “from his belief that rules and laws for other people didn’t apply to him” (Schwartzberg 2000: 106-88). Matters came to a head when Brian arrived at the airport for a trip minutes before his scheduled departure and discovered that his seat had been reassigned. Outraged, he claimed that his luggage was aboard the plane with a bomb in it, which did not endear him to authorities. Apparently, Brian was unable to grasp the fact that his flight was not literally his flight; the narcissist behaves, as Mom used to say, like the world revolves around him.

* If isolation is implicated in psychopathology, it may fairly be concluded that sociality is required to sustain normal adult reasoning, it is not merely a developmental prerequisite.

* Substantial cognitive achievement, such as scientific and technological discovery, is very often social achievement. In the first instance, knowledge is cumulative: the present generation learns from the previous generation, and the steam engine gives way to internal combustion, which in turn (one prays) gives way to some more sustainable technology. In the second instance, knowledge is specialized, especially in cases of large-scale industrial productions: it takes a lot of engineers, in a lot of fields, to make a skyscraper stand, or an airliner fly. Moreover, a diversity of researchers employing a range of methodologies facilitates scientific progress, because a larger percentage of the empirical and theoretical space is thereby investigated, increasing the likelihood of identifying undersubscribed, but high pay-off, research programs…

* people tend to believe propositions they entertain…

* people may reason better when a diverse set of views is represented across the population of intellectual contestants (Zamzow and Nichols 2009: 377-9). In addition to the aggregate benefits of such “checks and.balances,” the agonistic character of intellectual discourse in a diverse population of motivated reasoners may provoke individual contestants to reason more compellingly (if not more impartially) while they advocate for their views. As you strive for fame and fortune, you’re motivated to maintain your own theory and repudiate opposing theories, so you’re likely pretty good at producing support for your view and objections to your opponent’s.

* Specifically moral reasoning is also socially embedded. The idea is not that solitary individuals are somehow bereft of moral views; it’s that people are most likely to reason about those views when justifying themselves to others.

* In the early days of American desegregation, it was hoped that putting African American and white children in the same place would effect increased racial harmony. After all, one of the staple results in social psychology is that familiarity facilitates attraction (e.g. Grush 1976; Matlin 1970; Zajonc 1968). What happened instead was the formation of ethnic in-groups, which eventuated in in-group/out-group conflict…

* Group interactions are likely to be emotionally freighted, in ways both dramatic and mundane, and many familiar emotions like anger, guilt, and sympathy are characteristically triggered by social cues: it’s the tone of your colleague debasing a peer that makes you angry, it’s your friend’s stunned look that makes you feel guilty for slighting him, and it’s the tears running down a child’s face that triggers your sympathy. While such processes may follow conscious pathways, they needn’t. A celebrated example is “emotional contagion,” where people unconsciously mirror the affective states of those around them (Hatfield et al 1994): your good spirits may give me a lift without my realizing it, and my foul mood may have the opposite effect on you.

* moral emotions like sympathy and guilt tend to improve moral behavior, and the moral emotions are emotions that are especially likely to be triggered in a social context.

* people seek out psychotherapy in hopes of making their lives go better, so this active process has a more agential appearance than the capitulations just described. Of course, people often enter therapy in response to something like duress: a stalled career, a strife-torn marriage, or stacks of unpaid bills. But these incentives are not obviously inimical to agency. On the contrary, people trying to change their lives for the better is an excellent place to look for agency. Psychotherapy can help effect this change. Numerous outcome studies, using both clinician assessment and client self-report, indicate that talk therapy works; it can ameliorate various adverse psychological conditions, such as depression and anxiety…

* One clinical study evaluated a short course of cognitive therapy designed to help patients increase their awareness of emotions, modify dysfunctional beliefs, and enhance communication; twelve months after initiation of treatment, the severity of patients’ symptoms, compared to controls, was rated as significantly reduced by independent evaluators and by the patients themselves, and average health care expenditures were reduced by more than a third…

* It seems relatively uncontroversial to infer that the values at issue here—reducing pain, disability, and health care expenses— are values worth promoting, and are values held by the patients themselves; indeed, to assert the opposite would be controversial. Moreover, the patients work to realize their values. Is there good reason to deny them agency, even if they did not implement their values as completely independent individuals?
Uncertainties remain. Therapists’ theoretical predilections have relatively little to do with client outcomes, and the means by which therapy works are imperfectly understood. However, there seems to be strong evidence for the following: a “positive alliance” between therapist and client is associated with positive outcomes…

* To the collaborativist, this is an unsurprising finding: sociality— of the right sort—does people good. If it’s correct to say that the good in question is a good the people in question value, we’ve got a place to look for agency: sociality may facilitate agency in circumstances where people are unable to do so on their own.
Moreover, the theoretical indeterminacy of psychotherapy is congenial to the critic of reflectivism. If the explicit theoretical rubric under which therapy is conducted is not a critical determinant of therapeutic outcomes, it’s tempting to say that accurate reflection is not required for clinical success: whether you think your troubles are due your relationship with your mother or your father may not matter much, so long as you’ve a good relationship with your therapist. If we also conclude, as I’ve just concluded, that therapy can facilitate agency, we’ve here a case where agency is achieved without accurate self- awareness. In this instance, collaborativism and anti-reflectivism may travel together.

* If I form a vague intention to exercise more, I may never drag my lazy butt from the couch, but if I specify a concrete plan to run the Carolina North Trail, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5pm, then quitting time on Tuesdays and Thursdays may stimulate thoughts of my lumbering along the trail, which may in turn facilitate the planned-on lumbering. Evidence suggests that this approach may be effective for exercise (Milne et al 2002:173) and a variety of other health interventions: in one study, people missed fewer doses of a vitamin if they committed to when and where they would take it each day (Sheeran and Orbell 1999: 359, 364), in another, women who committed to location and time were more than four times as likely to perform a breast self- examination in the following month (Orbell et al 1997: 950). Here, reflection supports self-direction, not as deliberation proximate to action, but as prior strategizing about implementation: think about your plan, ahd you won’t have to think about your performance…

* Cognitive capacity is limited, so people can’t focus on everything equally: attention to one thing may require inattention to another.

Thinking may be the most impressive thing humans do, but it’s not the only thing humans do, and given finite biological resources, what’s spent on the brain can’t be spent on muscle, blood, and bone (Wrangham 2009: 105-27). Moreover, a cognitive system less prone to omissions might be, for many problems, an over-engineered system. Processing power is a mixed blessing, an observation underscored by Luria’s (1987: 159) celebrated mnemonist, whose prodigious memory so saturated his mind with detail that he experienced life “as though through a haze.” One might suspect something similar of self-awareness. Attending to what’s within your head may prevent you from attending to what’s without; lose yourself in your thoughts, get lost on the way to the store.

* Even if foods only seem to have tastes, there are systematic patterns of seemings that help animals get around in the world: bitter-seeming things are more likely to be poisonous, sweet-seeming things are more likely to be calorie rich, and so on (Glendinning 1994; Kreps 2009). The appearances are invaluable, though not infallible, signals.

* It’s probable that some illusions of self, namely, positive illusions of self, are implicated in well-being (Taylor and Brown 1988, 1994; cf. Lazarus 1983). For example, individuals with greater tendencies to self-enhancement may be more resilient in the face of traumatic events, as has been found with survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (Bonanno et al. 2005). Nevertheless, the thesis that selfenhancement is generally advantageous has drawn heated criticism (Badhwar 2008; Block and Colvin 1994; Colvin and Block 1994; Kurt and Paulhus 2008). The connection between surplus positivity and happiness is hardly transparent: excessive optimism about one’s finances might cause one to under-save, and excessive optimism about one’s health might cause one to under-insure…

* Evidence indicates that supportive social relationships promote well-being, and in some cultures, marriage is a primary context for such relationships, so one may infer that marriage promotes well-being for members of these cultures. Numerous studies point to a “marriage protection” effect where marriage is causally implicated in lower mortality rates, perhaps especially for men (Johnson et al 2000; Kolip 2005; Lynch 1979; Wilson and Oswald 2005). In America, the happily married may enjoy lower rates of unemployment (Forthofer et al 1996) and better health (DeLongis et al 1988; Kiecolt-Glaser and Newton 2001), while dissolution of marriage is associated with depression and loneliness, even when the union in question was an unhappy one (Price and McKenry 1988; Weiss 1976). In Germany, widows were found to be more depressed than non-widowed comparison groups (Stroebe et al 1996), and German women’s life satisfaction was observed to decline immediately before and after the death of a spouse (Lucas et al 2003:534). Contra Plato’s Phaedrus, it’s not love that’s madness, but want of love: a review of mental hospital admissions found them highest in the separated and divorced, lowest in the married, with singletons in the middle (Bloom et al 1978: 869; cf. Horwitz et al 1996). Although the nature of the causal relationship is uncertain (and likely bidirectional), it seems safe to surmise that relationships like marriage support well-being.

In turn, marriages are associated with illusion. According to one group of marital researchers, the presence of positive illusions is “nearly universal” among “satisfied spouses” (Fowers et al 2001: 96). In an early study by Edmonds (1967: 684-6), it was found that married people tended to strongly agree with sentences such as “If my mate has any faults I am not aware of them.”

* Maybe people are aware of the daunting odds, but suppose they’ll occupy the lucky half. It’s also possible that people clearly appreciate that the difficulty applies to them, but decide to go forward anyway; as the saying goes, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved (for some loves, anyway). If so, why doesn’t everyone get prenuptial agreements? It’s not easy to find records of how many do (perhaps because the practice is largely restricted to the wealthy), but given the state of the divorce courts, it’s safe to say that lots don’t. With the advantages prenups offer in the rather likely event that unhappy push comes to unhappy shove, forgoing one looks like irrational optimism, not so different from neglecting to save or insure. On the other hand, maybe people fear that prenups sour marriages with defeatism, and decide the advantages of planning for the worst are not worth the risk of relationship damage; as one divorce mediator put it, the “premises of prenuptial agreements are logically contradictory to the premises of modern marriage” (Margulies 2003: 426). But if this is what people believe, they take the point I want to make: relationships benefit from positivity exceeding a sober assessment of the probabilities.

* There’s evidence that people simultaneously maintain inflated and accurate views of their romantic partner’s attractiveness; they think their partners are more attractive than their partner’s friends and their partners themselves do, but are aware of this discrepancy, and are able to fairly accurately report their partner’s reputation for attractiveness (Solomon and Vazire 2014). Close relationships, like other human endeavors, are characterized by a mixture of awareness and ignorance.

* Authenticity has its place, but that’s not every place.

* Unrealistic positivity has been repeatedly implicated in good health outcomes (Taylor et al 2003), and it appears that this positivity extends to perceptions of control. In a study of cancer patients, perceptions of control were negatively associated with maladjustment; patients with higher perceptions of control were less likely to experience anxiety and depression…

* In relationships, as with illness, people are often motivationally challenged: Yve had enough. Ym out of gas. I can t go on. Here, I’m willing to speculate, sturdy perceptions of control have motivational utility: if you don’t think marital outcomes are responsive to effort, how do you get yourself to undertake the effort? By supporting value-relevant motives, illusions of control may facilitate behavior that helps to realize values. If so, we’ve identified a pathway whereby self-ignorance supports, rather than impairs, agency. This pathway is indirect: falsely believing I can directly influence something may effect efforts eventuating in behaviors or circumstances that influence the something in question. The fact is the child of the fiction.

* While it may be that people are genuinely clueless about the causes of their romantic commitments, I don’t think they often proclaim their ignorance. Coupled readers might try an informal experiment: go home and announce to your partner, “You know babe, I have no idea, I mean no idea, why I’m with you.”

* This sounds like saying you become your bullshit. Yes—but your bullshit had better become you. Fictive biography may facilitate agency, but living by fantasy isn’t the formula for agency; self-conceptions that are completely uncorrelated with ability may impede* the expression of values.

* Self-ignorance often functions to effect self-direction, and its absence can be an impediment to agency: a complete and accurate understanding of your relationship, or your health, might prevent you from making them all you want them to be.

* On one view, self- deception is adaptive because it allows people to deceive others with less “cognitive load” than conscious deception; to put it roughly, pretense burns more energy than sincerity, so the self-deceived deceiver is the more efficient deceiver…

* reasoning capacities evolved not so much to discover the facts—probably lots of considerably less fancy ways to do that—but to persuade conspecifics [members of the same species].

* Biographies are often structured by norms governing social roles, and this climate of expectation facilitates, through channels both conscious and unconscious, role-appropriate behavior.4 When someone presents herself as a gourmet she restricts her conduct; the professed gourmet risks censure by her acquaintances (or her self) if she exhibits behavior, like serving bargain wine at an important dinner, which confounds her self-appointed role. Some things fit the gourmet…

* many romantically involved couples indulge in telling and retelling the story of their beginnings. The point of these tellings and retellings, it seems to me, is not to discover an accurate history; it is to create a shared history. For American couples, there’s research indicating that something like the famous “we knew right away” chronicle associated with “love at first sight” may be the dominant form (McCollum 2002). My informal impression is that, in addition to “we knew right away,” there’s a second major form, “we hated each other.”

* In the two archetypal forms, love stories seem to share a theme: they celebrate strong feelings, and therefore help create and sustain emotional connections. With the mutual formation and endorsement of romantic biographies, lovers become couples. In contrast, a story like, “I wasn’t much drawn to your father, but I hadn’t been on a date in 17 months,” doesn’t seem to have the requisite bounce. (Note to reader: keep stories like that to yourself, even if—especially if—true.) Moreover, sharing idealizations can help make them reality: studies of dating couples suggest that positive illusions can be “self-fulfilling prophecies,” where idealized partners internalize their partners’ idealizations, and may thereby act in ways more closely approximating the ideal (Murray et al 1996: 1170; 2003; cf. Drigotas et al 1999). The endearment “you make me a better person,” sounds cheesy, but there you are.
Human beings order their lives together by jointly developing rationalizations, and the central requirement for these rationalizations is not accuracy, but accord: friends may jointly recall a big night on the town as bigger than their bar tabs report, neighbors may jointly recall a harsh winter as harsher than the meteorological record shows, and colleagues may jointly recall a dull performance by a professional rival as duller than unbiased assessment suggests. We’ve laughed and cried together, such stories say, and this commonality helps provide the foundation for together going forward.

* having a good conversation is typically more important—‘far more important—than conversing in facts.

* For agency, the key word is participant While it’s true that people are subject to social influences that constrain their self-understandings, they are not passive entities in these negotiations, the outcome of which is influenced by whatever values each party brings to the table. This is not to deny that inequalities of power may impede the exercise of agency; that’s one thing that makes inequalities of power bad. But in other instances, the opposite is true: relationships help people express their values in their lives, as they do in the right sort of friendships, romantic involvements, and institutions. Agency requires not freedom from influence, but mutual influence.

* In August 1911, an emaciated man was found at a stockyard near Oroville, California, apparently having walked out of the rugged canyon land fronting Mount Lassen and the Sierra Nevada. It was eventually determined that he was from a group anthropologists call Yahi, one of the native cultures decimated by European settlers in California. Ishi, as he came to be known, was the last of his people.

Ishi’s story became widely known through Theodora Kroeber’s bestselling memoir, Ishi in Two Worlds (2002/1961). Theodora was the widow of Alfred Kroeber, a distinguished Berkeley anthropologist who arranged for Ishi to reside at the University’s San Francisco anthropology museum, where he lived from shortly after his appearance in the stockyard until his death from tuberculosis some four and a half years later.

At first contact with Spanish explorers in 1542, there may have been around 300,000 Native Californians scattered in hundreds of groups across the region; while native peoples mounted some lethal resistance, the predations of Spanish colonization and the Gold Rush left perhaps 20,000 alive at the ninteenth century’s end (Starn 2004: 24-5, 65; cf. Thornton 1987: 25-32, 162). Lest enormity be lost in numbers, understand that Native Californians were literally hunted; some California towns offered 5 dollars per Native scalp..

Thus Ishi, who was probably born around 1860, was born to a culture in crisis (Kroeber 2002/1961: 68). The Yahi likely never numbered more than a few hundred, and by 1908 only four remained, concealed by remote backcountry. When their last encampment, Wowunupo Mu Tetna (Grizzly Bears Hiding Place), was plundered by surveyors and cowboys, death probably came quickly for everyone but Ishi (Starn 2004: 41). Of his desperately solitary existence between the destruction of Wowunupo Mu Tetna and his emergence at Oroville, little is known, but Ishi gracefully acclimated to life in the museum: he learned some English, worked as an assistant custodian, demonstrated traditional skills to museum patrons, and developed seemingly warm relationships with a number of people…

* When a person’s values change, they become less like the person they were before; at the extreme, if a person’s values are completely changed, they are no longer the same person.

* the desire for something like internal control has been identified in various locales; for example, across samples from 23 countries and Hong Kong, including both individualist and collectivist cultures, external locus of control was negatively associated with job satisfaction…

* Continuity, identity, and agency are all socially contingent: where human organisms achieve these, they do so as members of groups.

* the hubris of elevating humanity above the rest of nature.

* re-envisaging human beings, not as little gods with big brains, but as animals that, alongside other animals, have evolved with a curious assortment of endowments for muddling through the world. Human cognition—including the rarified sort called Reason—is but one of these endowments, not so different than feather, fur, and fang: by turns comical, wonderful, and tragical.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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