Conscious Control

Our conscious minds control less than we think.  From the latest Nature:

A person's responses can often be explained by non-linguistic behaviours of other people and simple instincts for social display and response, without any recourse to conscious cognition. This `second channel' of human communication acts in parallel with that based on rational thinking and verbal communication, and it is much more important in human affairs than most people like to think. …

The researchers could predict how around 70% of the students would rate an instructor just by analysing the instructor's body language in 30 seconds of soundless video. … The researchers were able to devise an algorithm that could predict whether a call would result in a sale from only a few seconds of data.  Successful operators, it turned out, spoke little and listened more. And when they did speak, their voices fluctuated strongly in amplitude and pitch, suggesting interest and responsiveness. … In an experiment involving a 45-minute mock salary negotiation between students in a business school, [Alex] Pentland says that by combining several display signals from the first 5 minutes of the negotiation, his team could predict who would come out on top with 87% accuracy. …

As a result of such experiments, the MIT group has identified a handful of common social signals that predict the outcomes of sales pitches, the success of bluffing in poker, even subjective judgements of trust. These signals include the `activity level', effectively the fraction of time the person speaks; their `engagement' or how much a person drives the conversation; and `mirroring', which occurs when one participant subconsciously copies another's prosody and gesture. …

Humans lived in social groups long before language evolved, and the language function presumably exists on top of a more archaic brain system for non-linguistic social signalling. … Apes, chimpanzees and other primates – our close evolutionary cousins – lack anything like our facility for language, yet still lead sophisticated social lives through displays of power, meaningful noises and facial expressions.

Our conscious minds are more PR folks than CEOs of our total minds.  We are much better at explaining than predicting ourselves.  So the first step to wisdom is to realize how little we know about why we do what we do, or why we think what we think. 

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