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Keys to motivation, self-knowledge lie in the unconscious, psychologist says

Timothy Wilson, chairman of the psychology department, reads from his latest book, “Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious.”
Photo by Caroline Sheen
Timothy Wilson, chairman of the psychology department, reads from his latest book, “Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious.”

By Fariss Samarrai

Consciously try to imagine your unconscious. It is another side of you, a different you than you may imagine, and perhaps the real you.

Freud 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.

“We couldn’t get out of bed without it,” said Timothy Wilson, chairman of the Department of Psychology and one of the nation’s leading researchers on the human unconscious. “It’s vital to our ability to function.”

Wilson’s 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.

The 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 on words.

The unconscious is analogous to the computer codes underlying the visible program functions.

Unfortunately, the unconscious is largely inaccessible. Even imagining it is like looking for your shadow with a flashlight.

“But we can develop inferences,” Wilson said.

We 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.

“We 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 for self-knowledge.”

Such 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.

We 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.

But when we consciously try to write our own narrative (“I’m a very outgoing person”), we start creating myths that may not explain why so often we behave otherwise.

The 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.

“We 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.”

Dave McConnell, a Methodist minister in Bozeman, Mont., recently read Wilson’s book and found it illuminating. He said it is helping him to better understand himself and his parishioners.

“Often we don’t 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, “it’s a fun book to read,” McConnell said. “And very accessible.”

Wilson 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.

The group that was introspective, that spent a lot of time rationalizing why the relationship was good or bad – “Her parents don’t like me,” “He thinks I’m kind,” “We’re 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 wasn’t working.

“It’s possible to talk yourself into a new set of feelings,” Wilson said, “It’s good not to be impulsive, but we can often trust our gut feelings and not analyze everything to death.”

And 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.

“If we change our behavior, the rest will follow,” Wilson said.

Wilson 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.

“We 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.”



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