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Wheatley questions the nature of intention in human behavior

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

Are our actions as intentional as we think they are? Or are our conscious minds merely a tip of an enormous iceberg of our unconscious selves that governs our behavior, for all that we think and plan and worry?

These are among the questions sixth-year psychology graduate student Thalia Wheatley has been posing in her research on consciousness and intentionality.

"We tend to think of ourselves as consciously driven, and we reason about things, but that's such a small factor in determining our actions," she said.

Wheatley does a series of experiments where she makes people think they intended certain actions they actually had no intention of performing or didn't even perform, she said.

One experiment she designed has caused a bit of a stir: her adviser, psychology professor Daniel M. Wegner, has presented it at five conferences, two of which she's attended, and they co-authored a paper on it that was recently published in American Psychologist.

In the experiment, in which two people move a computer mouse, placing the cursor on the screen on different objects, she studies whether participants can be confused into thinking they not only moved the mouse when they didn't, but also that they did it intentionally.

In another experiment, she uses hypnosis to make participants feel a pang of disgust whenever they read or hear the word "take," having them read stories about corruption, incest, shoplifting, etc. Participants rate stories with "take" in them as more disgusting and morally wrong than other stories, Wheatley said.

To ensure it is the word triggering their disgust, afterwards she asks each participant, "Would you like to take a cookie?" Participants who are told to feel disgust at the word "take" don't want any cookies, whereas those in the control group have no problem accepting the cookie.

And in a third experiment, she hypnotizes people to cover their ears when they hear a certain soft noise, and then, after they are out of hypnosis, she plays the noise and sees how they react.

"Participants cover their ears and ... look confused and have a hard time explaining why they did it," she said. But if she initially tells them they will hear some feedback as she adjusts their microphone, they use that excuse to explain their action, regarding it as intentional, she said.

"If we can manipulate what people think are the reasons for their behavior and how intentional their actions feel, [we can conclude] that consciousness is not a perfectly accurate readout for our behavior," she said.


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