I had a yoga lesson this morning. The teacher was describing how bad posture arose. At some point we get in to a bad habit. It might be for good reasons. We might always carry an infant on our right hip. Over time the changes to our posture become “second nature”. He said that in the same way driving moves from a conscious effort to second nature.
I started to wonder why we call it Second Nature when it was in evolutionary terms obviously our first nature. Is it second class? There are things that our autopilot cannot do. For example it cannot work on multiple problems at the same time. We know that because if we are driving on autopilot we stop talking if we need to turn across traffic.
System 1 is spontaneous and driven by associative memory. It can set off a cascade of associations. It makes as much sense of the situation as it can, as quickly as it can. Hence it jumps to conclusions. Once it has reached those conclusions it can create action. In evolutionary terms it can set off a desire to flee. Unfortunately it will miss associations and information in the interests of speed. It takes System 2 to engage in a logical search of memory and assemble all the available data.
System 2 thinking has its own issues. Self- control requires cognitive work. It drains energy from System 2 like any other task. People who are cognitively busy in Systems 2 can lose self - control. Students were given a tough mental task. At the same time they were asked to choose a dessert. They were more likely to pick a chocolate cake over a fruit salad when asked to multiply 17 by 24 at the same time. The energy for self- control was used elsewhere. Drifting to the fridge whilst working on a complex problem is not such a good idea!
The “gorilla in the basketball game” is another classic example of System 2 problems. Respondents were asked to watch a basketball game and to count the number of passes made by “the whites”. With a fast moving game this is an engrossing task. So engrossing that over half of them failed to notice a woman dressed in a gorilla outfit crossing the court in the middle of the game. It is not surprising in evolutionary terms that we have both System 1 and System 2 thought processes. Our second nature actually came first and System 2 became its controller. (If you want to try it on your friends here is a video.
Because your System 2 has been forewarned it will not work on you).
Our Lazy Controller also needs nutrition. Researchers in Israel studied judges deciding on the granting of parole to prisoners. The average decision took 8 minutes. The most likely outcome was to have parole rejected. Only 35% of cases were positive. Unfortunately that varied dramatically according to when the judges had eaten. They had meal breaks during the day. Successful appeals for parole rose as high as 65% after a meal break. It fell immediately before the next break. Mental activity needs real energy. The researchers speculated that without energy that the judges reverted to autopilot and the long run norm of results. If we want to avoid some of the excesses of the autopilot we will have to invest in control to bring System 2 into play. System 2 may need that trip to the fridge after all.
One of the other problems with our Second Nature has become known as “priming”. If I ask you to think of EAT and complete the word SO_P in most cases you will choose SOUP. If primed with WASH it will become SOAP. Priming increases cognitive ease because it gives extra clues about the task ahead. It can keep us on autopilot decision making. It allows “second nature” to dominate.
It does not even have to be a word clue. It can be tactile. Do you chew pencils when you concentrate? Try doing it in two different ways. Chew or suck the end. Now chew the middle by having the point on one side of your face and the rubber tip at the other end. Chewing this way will help you to appreciate the humour of Far Side cartoons. Sucking the end will mean you don’t find some of the jokes funny. Your facial expression is prompting your autopilot. “Pencil across” means you mouth is smiling. Sucking forces a frown.
Does it matter? Sometimes we need to aware of the priming effect and engage System 2 to stop it. In Arizona there was a referendum on whether to invest more money in the school system. It turns out that the polling station primed the voters. Those that voted in a School were more supportive. Even in other places, those that had a polling booth with pictures of a classroom on the wall were more in favour.
Priming is one of the key parts of the whole idea of a “nudge”. Nudges are designed to encourage socially desirable behaviour. One experiment took place in the kitchen of an office. There was an honour system. People were meant to leave money in the box to replace the milk they used. On alternate days two types of pictures were placed above the box. On half the days the picture showed flowers. On the other half, it showed close ups of different pairs of eyes. The result was four times as much money was placed in the box on “eye days”.
Many of the effects discussed in these Newsletters can be explained with priming. The smell of chocolate primes comfort and means we stay longer in the store. It may even prime romantic novels. Warmth can prime comfort as well. If the server touches you, does this prime empathy and hence increase the tips? (The Midas Touch). All of this happens subconsciously. Do we call it second nature, not first, because it implies we are not in control of our actions?
Second Nature is Ageist
Not all primes are good. Students were primed with a simple task. “Make a sentence including this series of words”. One group got the following words: Bald, Florida, forgetful, grey and wrinkles. They were then asked to walk to another room for the next test. This was a pretext. The researchers actually only measured how long the walk took. This sequence had primed “aged”. This group walked slower than groups with other neutral sets of words. The reverse prime can be used. People were asked to walk around a room for 5 minutes. Half were constrained to walk at the pace more common for an older person. Those respondents were much quicker to recognize words associated with old age: forgetful, old, lonely.
This is reminder again of the difficulty of counteracting ageism. In other Newsletters I have discussed the difference between explicit and implicit ageism. It appears that our subconscious second nature is ageist! To counteract it the Lazy Controller will have to be mobilized.