June 19, 2009
We discovered a new vein of research — the relation between physical and social or psychological concepts — that we came to by taking evolutionary principles seriously and applying them to psychology. We weren't using evolutionary psychology, which has largely been focused on mating and reproduction. Our focus, rather, was in terms of evolutionary biology and the basic principles of natural selection: and that field makes clear that humans must have had these kinds of mechanisms or these processes to guide our behavior prior to evolution or emergence of consciousness.
A Conversation with John A. Bargh
"They say that in science there are complicators and there are simplifiers," says John Bargh, Yale social psychologist known for his early work on the topic of automaticity, and more recently for bringing experimental methodology to the philosophical question of free will.
According to Bargh, the tension between the complicators and the simplifiers is a good thing in any field of ideas or science. "I've always been a simplifier." he says, "looking for the simple mechanisms that produce complex effect, instead of building a complicated model. Once we find one of these veins — one of these avenues of research — we just go for it and mine it and mine it until we run out of gold.
Bargh's lines of research all focus on unconscious mechanisms that underlie social perception, evaluation and preferences, and motivation and goal pursuit in realistic and complex social environments. That each of these basic psychological phenomena occur without the person's intention and awareness, yet have such strong effects on the person's decisions and behavior, has considerable implications for philosophical matters such as free will, and the nature and purpose of consciousness itself.
He maintains that the resulting findings "are very consistent and in harmony with evolutionary biology. And this is very unlike psychology, which has always presumed a kind of consciousness bottle-neck or a self, some kind of a homunculus type of self sitting there, making all the decisions and deciding without any explanation of where they comes from or what's causing the self or what's causing the conscious choices. Emphasizing what our unconscious systems do for us, in turn, links us very strongly to other organisms and other animals very closely. Recent primate research is showing that primates are closer to us than we thought. They fall for the same kind of economic fallacies that Kahneman and Tversky talked about in humans 30 years ago."
— Russell Weinberger
Associate Publisher, Edge
JOHN A. BARGH is professor of social psychology at Yale University and director of the ACME (Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation and Evaluation) Lab.