Keys to motivation, self-knowledge
lie in the unconscious, psychologist says
by Caroline Sheen
Wilson, chairman of the psychology department, reads from
his latest book, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering
the Adaptive Unconscious.
By Fariss Samarrai
try to imagine your unconscious. It is another side of you, a
different you than you may imagine, and perhaps the real you.
considered the unconscious a storehouse of primitive urges and
desires, a selfish you. But more recent research indicates the
unconscious is more sophisticated than a primal scream.
couldnt get out of bed without it, said Timothy Wilson,
chairman of the Department
of Psychology and one of the nations leading researchers
on the human unconscious. Its vital to our ability
new book, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive
Unconscious, details the shadow side of our mind, the unconscious
part that may be the most honest us. This elusive part of our
mind controls our behavior and could be the key to self-knowledge.
unconscious, Wilson said, is where our intuition lies, our gut
feelings, our motivations. The unconscious allows us to
size up the world, to take note of our surroundings as we talk
and think about other things, to compose sentences without thinking
about sentence construction, to comprehend without concentrating
unconscious is analogous to the computer codes underlying the
visible program functions.
the unconscious is largely inaccessible. Even imagining it is
like looking for your shadow with a flashlight.
we can develop inferences, Wilson said.
can better understand ourselves by looking at the way we act
the unconscious in action and at the way other people perceive
us. This often is counter to the way we believe we are, Wilson
said. The narrative of our lives that we consciously create is
a combination of truth and fiction.
all create a narrative about the way we are that may be very much
unlike the way we act, Wilson said. The unconscious
provides a better narrative of ourselves. It offers the potential
as trusting gut feelings. Initial responses to things in the world,
such as another person or a piece of art, may be more honest renderings
of our true selves than a careful analysis of why we may feel
or believe something.
may say, for example, that we are extroverted. But why are we
so often shy? It may be that we are shy. We may say we love the
ocean, but why are we drawn to the mountains? It may be that we
prefer rolling green hills to roiling blue waves.
when we consciously try to write our own narrative (Im
a very outgoing person), we start creating myths that may
not explain why so often we behave otherwise.
key to understanding the unconscious, Wilson said, is to
not navel-gaze. Introspection is a conscious activity, providing
false narratives that are unlikely to lead to self-knowledge.
have to take an outside stance, Wilson said. We have
to become an outside observer of ourselves by watching what we
actually do and by paying attention to what others think of us.
McConnell, a Methodist minister in Bozeman, Mont., recently read
Wilsons book and found it illuminating. He said it is helping
him to better understand himself and his parishioners.
we dont know why we do what we do, he said. The
more we look inward, the less we know. This book shows us there
are other levels of knowing, through our intuitions and behaviors,
where we can gain a deeper, more significant knowledge.
Besides that, its a fun book to read, McConnell
said. And very accessible.
once studied the romantic relationships of U.Va. students. Students
in one group were asked to explain in great detail why their relationships
were working out well or poorly, and whether the relationship
was likely to continue. Another group was asked to simply state
whether the relationship was good or bad and whether it was likely
to continue. Several months later, Wilson checked to see which
group was more accurate at predicting the outcome of the relationship.
group that was introspective, that spent a lot of time rationalizing
why the relationship was good or bad Her parents
dont like me, He thinks Im kind,
Were the same religion tended to be wrong
about how the relationship would work out compared with members
of the group who went with their intuition that the relationship
simply was or wasnt working.
possible to talk yourself into a new set of feelings, Wilson
said, Its good not to be impulsive, but we can often
trust our gut feelings and not analyze everything to death.
we can change our behavior over time, Wilson said, by looking
at our actions the unconscious in action and consciously
practicing new kinds of behavior. The unconscious may not be fully
knowable, but it can be trained.
we change our behavior, the rest will follow, Wilson said.
once applied his research to first-year students who had come
to the University with shining credentials but were having a bad
first semester. He encouraged the students to view their academic
problems as the result of temporary obstacles that could be overcome
and not as a sign of personal failure. This new self-view caused
them to do better in succeeding semesters.
can break the spiral of errors through a learning process,
Wilson said. We can develop a better narrative for our lives
by looking clearly at our behaviors, changing what needs to be
changed, and then allowing a new self-image to follow.