SPSP conference: the cheat-sheet

So, you didn’t make it to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) annual conference in San Antonio? Have no fear, I forked out loads of money to go…Why, I don’t know. I was the only journalist there. Anyway, as a result, you can use my SPSP cheat-sheet to pretend you were there. Easy!


The main reason I went, besides the fact that I’m a spendthrift idiot, was to see a pre-conference symposium on consciousness, organized by Roy Baumeister (pictured below left) and Kathleen Vohs. What interested me about the event was that John Bargh was speaking there.
Bargh and Baumeister have had an interesting argument going on for a few years about the roles of the conscious and the unconscious in the human mind. Bargh is the most famous proponent of the idea that most human activity is carried out by the unconscious, that a lot of the time our minds are unconsciously reacting to stimuli according to subliminal priming cues – something he and others have shown with a lot of priming experiments, where subjects are ‘primed’ with subliminal images or words, which then unconsciously affects their behaviour and motivation. Two years ago, Bargh told me in an
interview that he thought 99% of human behaviour was accounted for by the unconscious.

Baumeister and Vohs, meanwhile, have insisted that consciousness has an important role to play, that we do in some sense ‘choose’ how to act, we can choose to control our automatic impulses, and therefore we can be held responsible for what we do.
This is obviously a fairly important debate, not just for my own work, on the relevance of ancient philosophy to modern life, but also for our culture, and our whole sense of ourselves as free agents capable of moral choice.

Well, I was expecting fireworks but alas it turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. Sadly (or maybe happily), Baumeister and Bargh seem to have arrived at something like a common ground, in which the important roles of both the conscious and the unconscious is acknowledged. The conscious, they now seem to agree, can do some things which the unconscious can’t. It can do sequential reasoning – logic, maths, sentences. “The unconscious can’t do maths”, as Baumeister put it.

It can also take other people’s perspectives, so it’s important for negotiations. It’s important for story-telling, narratives, and some forms of causal reasoning. It’s important as a time-traveller – going back in the past, projecting into the future, and thereby making plans. And our consciousness is the controller, at least sometimes. It can over-ride automatic responses, it can manage self-presentation, it can modify our impulses to fit in with our evolving culture and get on with other people and other tribes.

So there are all sorts of things the conscious mind does, which we become much worse at when we’re under ‘cognitive load’. Baumeister, Vohs and Masicampo presented
a new paper they have forthcoming, which reviews several studies and ‘proves’ what exactly conscious thoughts do for us.
There are other things the conscious mind does less well. It’s not good for rapid information processing or threat response. It’s not good for bodily responses – in fact, thinking too consciously about a shot can make a sportsman ‘choke’ under pressure. And, as Bargh pointed out, the unconscious plays an important supporting role. For example, you know those moments when you’re driving, for example, and day-dreaming about the past or the future, then you realize you have just been on auto-pilot, as it were – steering your way around the city unconsciously. Well, that’s part of the role of the unconscious. It can be your auto-pilot, freeing up your conscious mind to roam through time and space.
So Bargh and Baumeister had a big love-in, much to my disappointment. But I guess it’s good news for humanity if they are getting on. It suggests an optimistic vision of the human psyche, in which the unconscious and the conscious aren’t at war with each other – as they were in Freud’s theory, for example. Instead, they support each other and complement each other. Bargh gave the metaphor of a dolphin, swimming beneath the surface, and occasionally jumping out of the water into our view.

Having proven to most people’s satisfaction that consciousness does, actually, play a role in human behaviour, Baumeister went on to consider the purpose of consciousness. He concluded that its role was
‘for facilitating social and cultural interactions’. It gave us the biological advantage of enabling us to plan, time travel, regulate our behaviour to fit with evolving cultural norms, record our cultural insights to share them across generations, and negotiate with other people and tribes. So it gave us an advantage over other animals, enabling us to become the dominant species on Earth.

That all makes sense – but I wonder if consciousness doesn’t do more than this, as well. Is the purpose of consciousness really just to help us reproduce and survive better? It seems a very complicated tool for such a basic job. And is our consciousness only for communication? Aren’t there, perhaps, moments of peak consciousness that we can’t communicate to others? I suppose what I’m suggesting is that consciousness seems a bit more mysterious than simply helping us fight, fuck and negotiate better. Its powers seem excess to those challenges. It enables us to contemplate the universe, to contemplate God himself. What’s the evolutionary point of that? But perhaps I am being a ‘mysterion’. I suppose one could explain consciousness purely in terms of evolutionary adaptation.

Another speaker at the pre-conference on consciousness, the psychologist Jonathan Schooler, did go further in his explanation of consciousness, suggesting it might actually play a role in the nature of the universe. This didn’t go down well with the philosopher Patricia Churchland, who was in the audience, and who accused Schooler of ‘Hegelian idealism’. Ouch! Churchland herself seemed a bit up in the clouds, however. She gave a rather rambling talk, which started off by rejecting the idea that consciousness had no role to play – when in fact, she suggested, we can modify our behaviour by conscious training. But then she seemed to come full circle, suggesting that actually our behaviour is determined by neuro-chemical activity, so we can’t be held responsible for what we do, and the legal system is really a convenient fiction for the benefit of society.

It seems to me that we still haven’t really got over the problem of dualism. On the one hand, it seems ridiculous to suggest there is something called ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ which can hover in a cloud of free will above the determined rules of the material realm. On the other hand, it does seem that there is this thing called consciousness, which can make free moral choices. How the hell does that happen? Not an easy one to answer. Philosophers and psychologists hate to even suggest there is a ‘homonculus’ sitting inside us making choices and steering us. And yet there is this thing, called the self, which coordinates various mechanisms and information channels in the brain. Isn’t there?

The Stoics thought that conscious awareness was a form of divine matter, which they called the Logos. The more you trained yourself, the more brightly the fire of your inner Logos burned. In the modern era, Baumeister has suggested that agency is some sort of natural resource, which you can use up, but which you can also make more of. The more you exercise self-control, he has suggested, the more you develop your
‘moral muscle’, and your ability to control your impulses and make more free decisions. This is a very hip field in psychology, if the SPSP conference is anything to go by. There were several talks and panels on self-control, self-regulation, and ego depletion – a term associated with Baumeister, regarding how our resources of self-control can get used up and depleted. It’s a very ‘hot’ term – I walked past one young delegate complaining to her friend ‘oh my God, I was out so late last night. I’m totally depleted!’
Another hot topic at the conference was mindfulness. There were many, many talks about mindfuless training, loving kindness meditation, breath meditations, the effects of meditation on the brain, the fact that meditation increases the production of an enzyme called telomarese which is important in cell repair, the role of loving kindness meditation on vagal tone (vagal, not vaginal) and so on, and so on. Wow, western psychologists are so into Buddhism at the moment. No one mentioned Stoicism, sadly – although there were several panels on self-control and cognitive re-appraisal which did draw on Stoic ideas…but apparently the psychologists weren’t aware of the Stoic connection, or didn’t see fit to mention it. Instead one was struck by a great tsunami of Indian and Tibetan buddhism. We must bow to our Asian conquerors! Oh well. Still – mindfulness. A good idea, right? Another example of training our conscious mind and using it to change our thinking and behaviour. We saw some results from the impressive Shamatha Project, which has studied the effects of taking a multi-weak meditation retreat. Looks very interesting – would love to go on a retreat myself this year.

Another theme which interested me was the emphasis on field experiments, and taking social psychology beyond the lab and beyond undergraduate experiment subjects. Apparently, 80% of social psychology experiments involve undergrads being tested out in laboratories. That’s going to skew the results. I saw an interesting talk by
Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Chicago, that studied people’s self-control in real life situations, using in vivo technology like iphone apps and bleepers to see what people were doing, what desires they were feeling, and how successfully they were controlling those desires. But, as I said in a question, we can’t tell to what extent the act of observing the experiment subjects and asking them to record their desires is actually changing their behaviour, making them more conscious, mindful and self-controlled. I would think it is.

Finally, there were still a fair amount of happiness / wellbeing / positive psychology studies, though not as many as I would have imagined. There was no mention, for example, of Martin Seligman’s $125 million Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme for the US Pentagon, even though that seems to me to be one of the major events in contemporary psychology. There were some interesting panels and talks on measuring wellbeing, on regional differences in wellbeing and life satisfaction (two interesting facts: Utah is the happiest state, and New York is one of the most neurotic states, despite or because of the fact it has the highest density of psychologists and psychiatrists). There were quite a few talks and panels on mind training techniques (mindfulness, keeping a journal, doing acts of kindness, changing your perspective and so on). But there were also signs of a backlash – one of
the most interesting talks, for me, was by Iris Mauss, on how people who put a higher premium on happiness tend actually to be less happy, and more prone to depression. I’ll hopefully write more on that study in the coming days.

All in all, it was a fascinating conference, I was impressed with the quality of work on offer, and by the general standard and vibrancy of American experimental psychology. Attending my first ever psychology conference made me realize how much philosophy could learn from experimental psychology – but it also made me think that experimental psychology still needs the help of philosophy, to protect it from over-hasty generalizations and poor semantic definitions. Nowhere is that clearer than in the psychology of happiness and eudaimonia.

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