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OTHERS :

From turning off the snooze button at 6am to hitting the pillow again at night, you perform a gazillion different jobs—brushing teeth, bathing, deciding what to cook for breakfast, driving to work, clearing your inbox, making a presentation, asking your boss for a raise, helping your children with their school projects, finally winding down with a feel-good novel at night. At the end of the day, you are entitled to feel a sense of accomplishment. After all, you are in the driver’s seat of your life, day in and day out. But are you?

Contrary to our everyday experience, research suggests that many facets of our lives are actually determined by the subconscious. Of course, we may readily acquiesce that routine acts like brushing teeth and cooking have become so automatic that we go through the motions without consciously attending to them. But research findings suggest that even some of our so-called “conscious" decisions, actions, likes and dislikes are influenced by the subliminal recesses of our mind.

Most of us would like to think that our socio-political beliefs are shaped by our conscious, thinking selves. We generally believe that when we exercise our electoral franchise, we are making an informed choice. But alas, even our political convictions can fall prey to subconscious forces that we are scarcely aware of. In his book Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, Leonard Mlodinow details the research that was conducted by Sindlinger & Co., a commercial research firm. In the first presidential debate in the US in 1960, Richard Nixon was pitted against John F. Kennedy. The outcome of this debate was rather intriguing because those who heard it on radio felt that Nixon beat Kennedy “by more than a two-to-one margin", whereas those who watched it on TV felt that Kennedy was the clear winner. One would think that what was said would have been the key determinant. But voters were apparently swayed by Nixon’s “deep, resonant voice" on the radio, while the television audience was bowled over by Kennedy’s charismatic stage presence.

Three Harvard researchers, Margaret Shih, Todd Pittinsky and Nalini Ambady, performed an ingenious experiment, titled Stereotype Susceptibility: Identity Salience And Shifts In Quantitative Performance, published in the Psychological Science journal in 1999. Asian-American women students were divided into three groups and given a challenging math test. Before the test, the researchers cleverly made the students in the first group conscious of their ethnic identities by asking them questions related to the languages they spoke at home. With the second group, the researchers reinforced gender identities by asking about co-ed dormitory policies. The third group, which served as a control for the other two groups, was asked innocuous questions about their phone and cable TV service. In a questionnaire after the test, all the students said the questions posed before the test did not affect their performance in any way.

However, just as the researchers expected, those whose Asian identities were primed performed better on the math test relative to the control group. In contrast, those who were made aware of their gender did worse. Unbeknownst to the participants, when a particular group identity was evoked, they tended to confirm the stereotype associated with that group, namely Asians being good at math and women being poor at it. Thus, latent forces can affect even our performance in cognitive tasks.

What about our feelings? We can usually justify to ourselves why we feel a certain way. I am irritated because the autorickshaw in front of me is not letting me overtake it. Or I am elated that my team won an award. While day-to-day happenings and life events do play a role in shaping our emotions, the manner in which we perform simple acts can also determine our moods. For example, in a study, the authors, Johannes Michalak, Katharina Rohde and Nikolaus F. Troje, demonstrate how our gait affects our memories. Those who were instructed to walk in a happy manner remembered more positive terms in a memory test, whereas those who were told to walk like depressed people recalled more negative words. The study will be published next month in the Journal Of Behavior Therapy And Experimental Psychiatry.

What can we glean from these studies? Contrary to what we would like to believe, we are more susceptible to subconscious drivers than we think. Subtle contextual changes can often result in fairly dramatic consequences that we are unaware of.

Since our conscious selves may not always provide reliable information on why we feel or act a certain way—perhaps, then, we can never know ourselves or others inside out.

Aruna Sankaranarayanan is the founder and director of Prayatna, a centre for children with learning difficulties.

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