John Bargh and automaticity

The new issue of Edge has an interview with John Bargh, the Yale evolutionary psychologist, who is best known for his work on automaticity: his work basically suggests, and tries to prove, that much of our thought and behaviour, and even our higher cognitive processes, are automatic and intuitive, and happen without our free will or reason.

Reason, in his model, is reduced to what Jonathan Haidt called a ‘post-hoc justifier’ – we automatically or intuitively arrive at a conclusion about someone or something, and then our reason follows on behind and invents a rational justification for this gut feeling.

Worth reading, but I’d make one quick point in reply. In taking on the idea of free will and consciousness, Bargh is basically taking aim at traditional philosophy, and particularly Stoic philosophy, which has such a strong emphasis on our free will and the power of our freedom to control our decision-making.

I would say, in defence of Stoicism, that the Stoics understood earlier than most how automatic and habitual our thought processes were. That’s precisely why they emphasized habits, and the need to repeat exercises over and over, until they became automatic.

The fact that we can change our automatic responses through repeated reasoning has been proved, by cognitive behavioural therapy. Someone may automatically react to situations with depression, or with panic attacks, and after a course of CBT, using rational philosophy, they will no longer react that way. They acquire new habits.

So this proves, to my mind, that we are to some extent the master of our own soul, we have an element of freedom. Put it this way – we are driving a car, and we are to some extent just cruising, not really focusing on our driving, doing it automatically. And then BAM, we hit the side of the road, scrape the paint off the door, put a dent in the fender. That will tend to jolt us out of our automaticity, and we may then try to consciously re-programme our driving, and then we may slip back into automaticity, and BAM again we have to re-calibrate. And eventually we may learn to be a better driver, and these new driving skills will in turn become more automatic.

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