Fooling Ourselves

Recently, someone sent me an interesting article which discussed looking for love. The article was primarily about how to find people that you can connect with in a significant and intimate way. At the end of the article, it presents you with a short task which involves writing down all the traits which you would find desirable in someone whom you’re romantically involved with. It then has you pare down your list with a few different tactics. All seems pretty logical and reasonable right? Well around the same time as I read that article, I happened to also be reading a book by Timothy Wilson entitled “Strangers to Ourselves.” (Page numbers referenced in this post are from this book in case you’re interested.) This book discusses our subconscious mind from a psychological standpoint and through discussion of various studies tries to identify the degree to which we rule our subconscious and the degree to which it rules us. The chapter I was reading that the time was discussing individuals attempting to select a house to buy through making a similar list, naming, and then ranking the characteristics of their ideal house. This got me to thinking.

As Wilson discusses in this book, our subconscious often has significant pull over our happiness in any given situation, but we are often unable to understand this. We rationalize and create narratives for ourselves which explain our actions, but these are often done after the fact by our conscious mind. Take for example this experiment: An attractive research assistant would walk up to men in the park and have them fill out a questionnaire. At the end of it, she would tear off a piece of it and write her phone number on it, telling the subject that they could contact her if they had any further questions. The researchers then counted what percentage of men called the number and asked her on a date. In the control group of men, they were simply asked while resting on a bench in the park, the other group were questioned on a high walkway bridge over a large gorge. Those stopped on the bridge had a much higher rate of calls: 65% as opposed to 30% of those on the bench (p. 103). Clearly the men on the bridge misattributed their sense of arousal, sweaty palms, and increased heart rate from crossing the bridge to the sense of attraction with the researcher.

Let’s address then the earlier situation I mentioned with the couple looking to buy a house. This couple listed out a number of items describing what sort of house they were looking for, from kitchen layout to number of bathrooms, etc. They then toured a number of houses with their realtor and ranked them from from one to seven in regards to each measure. Curiously enough however, this couple eventually chose to disregard the list and go with a house that they liked, but which did not fit their initial assumptions (p.164). They simply felt that it was inexplicably the right one and have since been living happily with the house for years. Apparently real estate agents are quite familiar with this phenomenon, so much so that they have a phrase which says, simply enough, “Buyers lie.”

How then with these shortcomings of our ability to truly judge what we want, can we think that we’d be any better at choosing a partner? Could listing our preferences in fact be making us less happy? In another study (which I seem to recall is also referenced in the book “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell), participants are presented with a number of posters. Some of them are then asked to describe what they like and don’t like about a them and then select one to take home and hang in their room. The other group is simply allowed to take the poster home with them without analysis. The researchers called each group after a few weeks had passed to ask about their satisfaction levels with their posters. Interestingly enough, the group which was asked to describe their selection were less happy with their decisions (p. 171). Could it be that perhaps our subconscious is best left to it’s own decisions when it comes to happiness? Perhaps our conscious just gets in the way. To borrow a quote from the book: “As Goethe put it, ‘He who deliberates lengthily will not always choose the best.'”

Yet, not all is folly in this pursuit of romance, further analysis of the poster study showed that those individuals who were better able to describe why they liked and disliked the posters, art students and the like, were less effected by the difference between them and the participants who were not asked to describe their choices. Perhaps then the more we examine and attempt to learn from our experiences in searching for love and romance, the more we can begin to learn to match our conscious preferences to our subconscious ones. Because our knowledge of our own subconscious is extremely limited, and because even when we believe to know our own motivations, we often misattribute them, our only real choice is to continuously try to improve our understanding of ourselves. Wilson offers some interesting advice in this matter of introspection. He also, despite all the shortcomings he addresses, believes that introspection is valuable, suggesting that we use multiple methods, from journaling to psychotherapy (not surprising, he is a therapist), to simple observation of our own behavior to attempt to construe a model of our own subconscious.

And to be quite honest, we have to start somewhere, perhaps our understanding of our own desires is incomplete, but by creating a hypothesis (writing down what we consciously believe would make us happy in a partner), we are then able to observe the results and modify as needed. I hate to come across as too scientific in this regard, because we all know that love often defies our best attempts to define it, but I believe that a bit of rational thinking never hurt anyone (too much). Also, to be quite honest, if my subconscious decides that I’ve found the perfect woman, I’m probably going to have a hard time arguing with it.

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