Towards the end of an article reporting how much unnoted context alters our feelings and behaviors, a NYT article describes the implication for how we think. It's another in a long series of blows to the idea that we're fundamentally rational (emphases mine)...
... an area called the ventral pallidum was particularly active whenever the participants responded.
“This area is located in what used to be called the reptilian brain, well below the conscious areas of the brain,” said the study’s senior author, Chris Frith, a professor in neuropsychology at University College London who wrote the book “Making Up The Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World.”
The results suggest a “bottom-up” decision-making process, in which the ventral pallidum is part of a circuit that first weighs the reward and decides, then interacts with the higher-level, conscious regions later, if at all, Dr. Frith said.
Scientists have spent years trying to pinpoint the exact neural regions that support conscious awareness, so far in vain. But there’s little doubt it involves the prefrontal cortex, the thin outer layer of brain tissue behind the forehead, and experiments like this one show that it can be one of the last neural areas to know when a decision is made.
This bottom-up order makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. The subcortical areas of the brain evolved first and would have had to help individuals fight, flee and scavenge well before conscious, distinctly human layers were added later in evolutionary history. In this sense, Dr. Bargh argues, unconscious goals can be seen as open-ended, adaptive agents acting on behalf of the broad, genetically encoded aims — automatic survival systems.
In several studies, researchers have also shown that, once covertly activated, an unconscious goal persists with the same determination that is evident in our conscious pursuits. Study participants primed to be cooperative are assiduous in their teamwork, for instance, helping others and sharing resources in games that last 20 minutes or longer. Ditto for those set up to be aggressive.
This may help explain how someone can show up at a party in good spirits and then for some unknown reason — the host’s loafers? the family portrait on the wall? some political comment? — turn a little sour, without realizing the change until later, when a friend remarks on it. “I was rude? Really? When?”
Mark Schaller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, has done research showing that when self-protective instincts are primed — simply by turning down the lights in a room, for instance — white people who are normally tolerant become unconsciously more likely to detect hostility in the faces of black men with neutral expressions.
“Sometimes nonconscious effects can be bigger in sheer magnitude than conscious ones,” Dr. Schaller said, “because we can’t moderate stuff we don’t have conscious access to, and the goal stays active.”
..Using subtle cues for self-improvement is something like trying to tickle yourself, Dr. Bargh said: priming doesn’t work if you’re aware of it. Manipulating others, while possible, is dicey. “We know that as soon as people feel they’re being manipulated, they do the opposite; it backfires,” he said...
Really, it's amazing we do as well as we do. Our mind seems a pretty thin veneer on a heck of a lot of evolutionary programming. I am reasonably certain, however, that self-awareness varies from person to person. In other words, consciousness, like strength, speed, and wit, is a variable. Perhaps with some training we can begin to acquire second hand access to our unconscious controllers, and subvert them. So, perhaps we cannot directly detect an unconscious motivator, but perhaps we can become better at evaluating our own behaviors. When we find ourselves skeptical, or friendly, or generous, or competitive, we might then infer the presence of an unrecognized trigger, and thus infer our unconscious goals.
More in another blog on the implications for the management of persons with behavioral problems ...