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Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology
The Guilford Press Copyright © 2004 The Guilford Press
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Chapter One Being Here Now
Is Consciousness Necessary for Human Freedom?
John A. Bargh
I do not think, therefore I am. -Jean Cocteau
Although Socrates claimed that the unexamined life was not worth living, the examined life isn't any picnic either. Facing our mortality and the reality and meaning of our existence head on is not something that we generally enjoy doing. To the contrary, we are all quite resourceful in finding ways to avoid any thoughts about such topics (e.g., Becker, 1973; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991, Chapter 2, this volume). And with good reason: Being more honest about the reality of one's life situation is linked to a greater likelihood of depression and suicide (e.g., Alloy & Abramson, 1979; Taylor, 1989). The honestly examined life, therefore, tends to be a pretty scary place.
It is somewhat paradoxical that among all of the earth's creatures, humans are superior both in the ability to recognize and ponder our own mortality and in the capability for mentally transforming our worlds to avoid thinking about it. The ability to detach oneself from the direct control and influences of one's current environment depends crucially on our capacity for mentally transforming and construing that environment (e.g., Mischel, 1973; Mischel, Cantor, & Feldman,1996). These cognitive transformations enable us both to act when the current situation is unsupportive of that action (such as through a newfound belief in efficacy and agency within that situation; Bandura, 1986; Yalom, 1980) and to not act in the presence of "hot" situational triggers to action (such as when we delay immediate gratification in the service of more substantial and important long-term goals; Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999). Living thus a layer or two detached from the realities of our present situation also permits the operation of comforting "positive illusions" as to the true state of affairs (Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 1996; Taylor, 1989) so that, like the children of Lake Wobegon, we can all be "better than average" on every dimension.
One such positive illusion-the feeling of control, of personal ownership or responsibility for one's own actions and their consequences (e.g., Langer, 1975)-has powerful social benefits as well. As Prinz (1997) and Bargh (1999) have argued, even if volitional states are determined, people behaving as if they have free will and are personally accountable for their actions is of tremendous, even essential, value for the functioning of modern societies. The personal belief in one's own agency has the consequence of infusing one's behavioral options with the normative expectations and guidelines of society at large. The knowledge (or threat) that one will be held accountable by others causes those norms to become very real constraints on one's actions.
The ability to detach our conscious mind from the mundane concerns of the present brings other tremendous advantages to the individual, such as the contemplation at leisure of past events so as to better understand their meaning, causes, and consequences (as Socrates had recommended), as well as the anticipation of and planning for future events (see Gollwitzer, 1999). Heidegger (1927/1962) emphasized this "time-traveling" quality of conscious experience; for him, existence or "Being" was, paradoxically, permeated by non-Being: "the no-longer (Past) and the not-yet (Future) that hold such power and influence over our thoughts and concerns and emotions" (Barrett, 1958, p. 226). A half-century later, Ram Dass (1971) famously urged us to "Be here now," precisely because we usually are not.
However, while we are away time traveling, somebody had better be home minding the store. Regardless of where in time and space our conscious mind is currently focused, we are stuck living in the present, with the strong and continuous need to respond adaptively and sensibly to those present circumstances (see Bargh, 1997). To free the conscious mind to reminisce about the past and to plan for the future, the nonconscious self-regulatory processes to be described in this chapter must be capable of handling the demands of the present. This strongly suggests that deliberate, conscious choice processes are not a necessary element of mundane functioning in the here and now.
CONSCIOUSNESS AND NONCONSCIOUSNESS IN EXISTENTIAL THOUGHT
However, existential philosophers have reified (some might even say deified) the role of deliberate, conscious choice in everyday life as the sine qua non of existence-the choices we make, or fail to make, are said to give life its meaning and define who we are as individuals. For Sartre (e.g., 1944), consciousness and freedom were one and the same thing (Barrett, 1958, p. 256). Existential philosophy has had a tremendous impact on contemporary psychology, especially through the humanist tradition which placed conscious choice as central and necessary to nearly all human behavior and judgment (see Bandura, 1986; Mischel et al., 1996; review in Bargh & Ferguson, 2000). In this approach, human freedom is pitted against direct environmental causes or influences on one's behavior such as external coercion and force (whether implied or actual), and gratifying short-term pleasures such as tasty desserts or cigarettes, the consumption of which defeat one's long-term goals. The emphasis on transcending or overcoming environmental control can also be seen as a reaction to the dominance of behaviorism-especially radical behaviorism-within experimental psychology for much of the 20th century (see Bargh & Ferguson, 2000), because behaviorism stressed the role of environmental causes to the exclusion of all others.
Because it equated freedom with conscious choice, existential philosophy was in fact antagonistic toward any conception of human nature in which people were said to be controlled by nonconscious forces. Thus, Sartre (for one) was strongly opposed to the idea of a hypothetical (Freudian) unconscious calling the shots (Barrett, 1958, pp. 254-255), just as he was to the Skinnerian notion of complete environmental hegemony. Sartre and other existential writers (such as Otto Rank) recoiled against any deterministic approach to the human mind, because they felt it let people off the hook too easily regarding the consequences of their actions.
One should keep in mind, however, that all three of these models of human nature-behaviorist, Freudian, and existential/humanist-take rather extreme positions by positing a single dominant cause of human behavior and higher mental processes to the exclusion of any others. The behaviorist stresses the role of the immediate environment, the Freudian the person's unconscious drives and wishes, the humanist the individual's conscious intentions and choice. When, half a century ago, the existentialists/humanists championed the causal importance of conscious choice (Kelly, 1955, Maslow, 1962; Rotter, 1954), they were reacting to the then-dominant behaviorist and psychodynamic conceptions of man. Given this context it is understandable that they pushed their own causal model as hard as they could, in order to best emphasize the importance of conscious choice as opposed to determining unconscious forces or environmental stimuli.
Historically, however, staked-out philosophical stances such as these have had two different, and often conflicting purposes, which need to be carefully distinguished. Both of these purposes in fact date back to the early Greek philosophers. One is a practical or utilitarian form, a "philosophy of life" that provides guidelines and rules for conduct and right living; the classic examples of this were the Stoics and Epicureans (Gottlieb, 2000). Barrett (1958) argued that prior to the advent of academic philosophy, philosophers lived their own lives fully in accord with their deeply held beliefs. Kierkegaard, for example, eschewed a happy domestic life with his beloved because it would interfere with his quest to find God. Sartre's insistence on personal freedom and responsibility is the modern exemplar of this kind of philosophy. Accordingly, existentialism lends itself quite readily to use as a therapeutic method, exhorting individuals against fatalistic acceptance of their lot in life and motivating them to take action to change it if necessary (Rank, 1930/1998; Yalom, 1980).
The other historical purpose of philosophy is to use logic and reason to better understand the universe and how it works, including of course the underlying mechanisms of human judgment and action. More than anyone else, Aristotle is associated with this "scientific" vein of philosophy. It is the stream of philosophical inquiry out of which every modern scientific discipline developed (Gottlieb, 2000)-including, most recently, psychology.
It is notable therefore that the more scientific and empirical of the existential writers, such as Jung (e.g., 1919), gave greater emphasis to the role of unconscious influences in everyday life than did the more practically and phenomenologically oriented existentialists such as Sartre. Let us say then that whereas existential psychology as a whole recognizes the reality of unconscious psychological processes, it chooses to emphasize conscious and intentional processes for the sake of the greater social good.
The modern notion of unconscious psychological phenomena-as in mental processes operating outside conscious awareness and often without conscious intent-has more in common with the mechanistic approach of the behaviorists than the dynamic approach of the Freudians. Today's unconscious is no longer only a hypothetical Freudian construct but an empirically established reality embedded in mainstream cognitive psychological theory (e.g., Hassin, Uleman, & Bargh, 2004; Kihlstrom, 1987). Mainly because of its roots in artificial intelligence research (among others), in which it was not possible or even plausible to posit intervening deliberate conscious choice processes, cognitive psychology is entirely comfortable with the idea of nonconscious mental and behavioral processes (e.g., Barsalou, 1992). And if the process could not be instigated by acts of free will or conscious choice in these models, then the cause had to be external to the individual (i.e., in his or her environment).
The positing of such environmental causation, however, harkens back to the stimulus-response (S-R) psychology of the behaviorists, which failed as an exclusive and all-encompassing account of human behavior (see Chomsky, 1959; Skinner, 1957). The contemporary theoretical solution to this difficulty has been to permit (as the behaviorists adamantly did not) these external causes to operate in combination with internal psychological mechanisms, such as perceptual, motivational, and behavioral constructs. The external situation or setting activates and puts into motion these internal psychological processes, which then operate in complex interaction with events and stimuli in the outside world-often over extended periods of time, unlike the old S-R psychology. Once activated, these systems operate outside conscious awareness and guidance. This model of human judgment and behavior, in which aware and intentional conscious choice is not a necessary component, has been found to have considerable predictive and explanatory power (Bargh & Ferguson, 2000; Ouellette & Wood, 1998).
CONSCIOUS CHOICE IS NOT ESSENTIAL TO EVERYDAY LIFE
With time and experience, behaviors and decisions that once required a good deal of conscious thought and monitoring no longer do so; they become more efficient in their use of limited attention, and more routinized so that we no longer have to make choices and decisions every step of the way (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999). As William James (1890) put it, consciousness tends to drop out of any process where it is no longer needed. As long as we make the same decisions and choices given the same circumstances, the choice itself becomes redundant with the circumstances, and so those choices start becoming "made for us" in the sense that we behave and react directly, based on what is going on in the environment. All skills develop in this way, gradually receding from the need for conscious control and so being capable of operating nonconsciously (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999).
This principle applies regardless of whether we intend for the skill or process to become automatic. For instance, we may want to become more proficient at driving a car or playing chess, and so we practice these skills, hoping to free our limited conscious attention and thought from details for which it is not really needed-leaving it instead free to plan ahead (looking for potential trouble spots on the road ahead, plotting game strategy) and to be ready for any unforeseen difficulties. But if we always make the same judgment or evaluation of a given object or event, that evaluation eventually becomes automatically associated with the object/event's mental representation, so that it becomes activated (made for us) upon the mere presence of that object/event in one's environment (e.g., Bargh, Chaiken, Govender, & Pratto, 1992; Fazio, Sanbonmatsu, Powell, & Kardes, 1986). One negative consequence of this phenomenon can be the automatic association of stereotypical beliefs and expectations about a social group, on the one hand, with the defining features (e.g., racial or ethnic, gender related, and age related) of that group, on the other hand, so that those stereotypical assumptions become automatically activated on just the presence of a group member in one's environment (e.g., Brewer, 1988; Devine, 1989).
Similarly for our frequently and consistently pursued goals: if in a given situation we tend to choose the same goal, the representation of that goal becomes more and more strongly associated with the mental representation of that situation (Bargh, 1990). Thus, eventually that goal comes to be activated automatically when one enters that situation and then operates to guide one's behavior toward the goal-without one consciously choosing or intending to pursue that goal at that moment, and even without the person aware of the real reasons for his or her behavior in that situation (Bargh & Gollwitzer, 1994; Bargh, Gollwitzer, Lee-Chai, Barndollar, & Troetschel, 2001; Chartrand & Bargh, 1996). A wide variety of goals have been demonstrated to become active and operate automatically in this manner, such as goals to judge and form an impression of someone, to achieve high performance on a task, to cooperate with another person, or to protect one's self-esteem (by derogating minority groups) following a failure experience (Spencer, Fein, Wolfe, Fong, & Dunn, 1998).
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