Posted by: wolf | June 6, 2008

Social Psychology Automata

I just read John Kihlstrom’s article “The Automaticity Juggernaut” (TAJ), where he gives what he had already handed out to Daniel Wegner: “a good scolding”, in Wegner’s words, when Kihlstrom had commented on Wegner’s “précis of The illusion of conscious will“. In TAJ, Kihlstrom shows that he not only disdains Wegner’s take on the psychological side of mental causation: he extends that view to other prominent social psychologists, most noteably John Bargh. Like that of his opponents, especially Wegner’s, Kihlstrom’s writing is entertaining and provocative, and all have put some of their papers online; if you are interested in psychologists’ views on free will and mental causation (and these days everybody seems to be concerned with the issue), you might want to check.

Now what is this all about?

Conscious will … is an indication that we think we have caused an action, not a revelation of the causal sequence by which the action was produced. (Wegner, p. 649; emphasis original. see link above)


Much of social life is experienced through mental processes that are not intended and about which one is fairly oblivious. (Bargh & Williams, 2006, p. 1).

Kihlstrom interprets quotes such as these (and, of course, the longer articles they are taken out of) like statements of the belief that there is no free will. Wegner and Bargh, in Kihlstrom’s interpretation, deny the possibility of conscious mental causation: that what we believe to be the cause of our doing something, i.e. conscious decisions to do something, is the “true” cause of our doing.

Conscious mental causation and automaticity

That puts W, B and K(ihlstrom) among the mainstream of current discussants of free will and such: Like some neuroscientists, W&B seem to believe that consciousness is qualitatively different from other brain processes not only phenomenologically (i.e. we are aware of conscious processes — that’s the whole point about consciousness — but we are not aware of the other brain processes) but also in ontological status: whereas “unconscious” processes can be causes of actions, conscious process can’t.

However, I think that K misunderstands W&B at least a little. W&B only hint at the possibility that consciousness is an epiphenomenon (a weird byproduct without any real meaning, to put it bluntly) of the “really” causally efficient brain processes. They are only precise about the idea that unconscious, automatic (see below) processes can be causally efficient. In contrast, they are vague about what status they want to give consciousness, and nowhere do they explicitly deny that conscious processes can be causally efficient. I will discuss W&B’s — especially Wegner’s — failure to be precise in this respect below.

It wouldn’t be right to say that W&B are talking about the same thing; still, it is not unfair to put them in the same category as K does in his paper. Both W&B’s theses about conscious and non-conscious causation of actions are based upon the same psychological concept: that our actions are at least influenced (whatever that means — it is taken to be somewhat weaker than caused) by external and internal states and events that we are not aware of. W is especially concerned with the “feeling of doing”; he has put up some smart experiments showing that people can be convinced they are actually doing something (e.g. move and stop a cursor across a computer screen with a mouse) even if they are not the “causers” of that action. That is, in W’s experiments it is shown that people can be mistaken when they attribute actions to their own conscious decisions. B is more concerned with automaticity, that means, with psychological processes that are characterized by four properties:

Inevitable evocation: Automatic processes are inevitably engaged by the appearance of specific environmental stimuli, regardless of the person’s conscious intentions, deployment of attention, or mental set.

Incorrigible completion: Once evoked, they run to completion in a ballistic fashion, regardless of the person’s attempt to control them.

Efficient execution: Automatic processes are effortless, in that they consume no attentional resources.

Parallel processing: Automatic processes do not interfere with, and are not subject to interference by, other ongoing processes – except when they compete with these processes for input or output channels, as in the Stroop effect.

(this is taken from K’s article, see link above).

Automatic processes are usually contrasted with controlled processes, meaning conscious control. This “automatic-controlled” distinction is actually one of the hallmarks of the “cognitive turn” in psychology, when the then-prominent behaviorist dogma (don’t even think about the mental!) was finally mothballed; nowadays dual-process theories abound not only in cognitive psychology, but also in social psychology where W&B have staked their claims. In cognitive psychology, the distinction is primarily based on the above definitions; in social psychology, however, some additions or modifications have been made. People like B refer to automatic processes as such processes that can not be consciously controlled. In a typical experiment, participants are subtly presented with stimuli out of the focus of their attention; i.e. they have to perform a “memory task” where all the to-be-remembered words have to do with the elderly. The real, concealed point of the experiment however is that afterwards people who have been primed with the “elderly stereotype” are going to walk more slowly, and are slightly stooping compared with people having been primed with neutral stimuli. So the point is that in social psychology automaticity often refers to the phenomenon of people being influenced by stimuli or internal processes (such as the stereotype activation) even if they are not aware of those influences.

Automaticity, illusion of mental causation, and free will

Taken together, W&B’s results paint the picture of people’s consciousnesses as epiphenomenal; people fooling themselves into believing they are causing their own actions, when those actions are “in reality” shaped by stimuli and processes outside of their conscious awareness. A diagram taken from Wegner & Wheatly (1999) is especially instructive in this regard:

Note that there is only an arrow going from “unconscious cause of thought” to “thought”, and the arrow from “thought” to “action” is labeled “apparent causal path”; and also that “unconscious cause of thought” and “unconscious cause of action” are not the same thing. So this diagram means that conscious thoughts are not the cause of actions — that is hard-core epiphenomenalism.

B, to be fair to him, nowhere puts forward so bold an assertion, and thus really has to be excluded from the discussion. And he is right in doing so.

Logical flaws in the “apparent mental causation” argument against mental causation

W’s case is more difficult. After having been scolded by the commentators in BBS far more than he himself admits in his author’s reaction, he concedes that thought can (sometimes) cause action. And a rigorous analysis of his experiments and his own interpretations of the result, there can only be one conclusion: fooling people into believing they are the “cause” of their actions when they are not has no consequence whatsoever with regard to the far more general question of whether there can be mental causation at all. It is a very simple logical flaw, a non sequitur: Just because sometimes your action has a different cause from that which you are aware of has no consequence for the thesis that some (other) time you can be totally aware of your reasons and then consciously decide to take an action. So Wegner actually falls into a logical trap. (Bargh is also dangerously close to that gap, but he stays further away than W).

Why does Wegner fool us into believing he does not believe in mental causation?

Taken together Kihlstrom’s scolding seems to be a bit overdone, given that both B&W admit that they don’t really mean what they seem to say about mental causation. On the other hand, at least Wegner really deserves a scolding, if, however, for a slightly different reason: he tries to fool us into believing that he, Wegner, does not believe in mental causation. He talks of “apparent mental causation” and of “the illusion of conscious will, and he draws diagrams as that above. These are blatant assertions. Unless (irony involved!!!) there wasn’t some automatic activation of bluntness involved, he must have asserted these statements on purpose. So why is he so “mystified” at the irate reactions his book and articles have stirred up? Why does he wonder about commentators accusing him of logical errors when he really did commit them? One thing I do not believe is that he can be really that surprised. One thing I do believe is that public discussion of hot topics — and the free will topic is always a good candidate for heated discussion — is sure to influence the commercial success of the books involved. I am not talking about the quality of the experiments involved. It is the interpretations that are problematic. There is already a very low goodness-to-bullshit ratio in the free will debate, to paraphrase Eric Thomson. The diagram about causes of actions, thoughts, and “unconscious causes” is not only logically flawed. It is bad science: a prominent scientist must know better than to commit simple logical flaws.



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