Why do we behave the way we do? The secret lies deep within. | Mint

Why do we behave the way we do? The secret lies deep within.

At a time when American society was awash with the fear of communism and mind control, news about subconscious influencing of human behaviour was much talked about around the world.
At a time when American society was awash with the fear of communism and mind control, news about subconscious influencing of human behaviour was much talked about around the world.

Summary

  • An almost negligible proportion of our brain’s processing takes place at a conscious level. This is amply clear, but too many are taking too long to acknowledge it.

Why are most of us on our feet, bags in hand, as soon as the flight has reached its parking bay? It is a routine one cannot miss in India. The aircraft doors are not yet open. But here we are, all ready to start a race for the exit. Once the aircraft doors open, there is jostling to move ahead of others. Even if they are the first to disembark, they find they’re back to square one inside the terminal, as they must wait for their luggage to arrive. Apparently, there is no tangible reward for passengers who rush out of the aircraft. If so, why do people indulge in this behaviour on a regular basis?

One of the first persons to study human behaviour deeper than what is apparent on the surface was Sigmund Freud. He was one of the first to propose that there is much to our behaviour than what is superficially observed. Freud’s Psychoanalysis Theory is based on the foundational idea that biologically determined unconscious forces drive human behaviour. In the late 19th century, back when Freud introduced this theory, there were no instruments to study the unconscious nature of human behaviour. So Freud, as an early ‘neuroscientist,’ proposed his own explanations of what happens at the unconscious level.

In the late 20th century, once some kinds of brain studies could be done through EEG and fMRI machines, it was found that much of what Freud had said about the biological foundations of human behaviour had no scientific basis.

But in the 1950s, when Psychoanalysis Theory’s popularity was at its peak, there was an incident that fuelled the world’s interest in human behaviour below the thresholds of consciousness. On 12 September 1957, James Vicary, a market researcher in New York, announced the results of an experiment he had done during a film’s screening in a New Jersey theatre. Using a special instrument, he projected the messages “Drink Coke" and “Eat Popcorn" on the screen for 1/3,000th of a second many times during the film. In his press release, he claimed that viewers exposed to these subliminal projections caused a 58% increase in popcorn sales and an 18% rise in Coca-Cola sales. This, he declared, was “subliminal advertising," a new way to influence human behaviour at a level below consciousness.

All hell broke loose. At a time when American society was awash with the fear of communism and mind control, news about subconscious influencing of human behaviour was much talked about around the world. The TV channel CBS tried to conduct a similar experiment. It sent subliminal messages urging the public to call their station at a given time, but it didn’t happen. Soon, James Vicary’s story took a more serious blow when the manager of the cinema involved his experiment told Motion Picture Daily that the experiment had had no impact. Finally, Vicary confessed that he never conducted any such experiment. He made it up because his company was going through tough times and he said it was designed to prop up his market research business.

After Freud’s inability to provide a scientific proof of his subconscious and the fiasco of Vicary’s subliminal advertising claim, any talk about something beyond the conscious processes of human behaviour was looked at with suspicion. A long-held belief in the rational, conscious human being emerged with renewed conviction.

In 2003, in his book How Customers Think: Essential Insights Into the Mind of the Market, Gerald Zaltman, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, provided a different take on human behaviour. In this book, Professor Zaltman mentions that 95% of human decisions occur at a level below consciousness and the traditional study of human behaviour is only focused on the 5% of human behaviour that happens at a conscious level. He also developed a research method called Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique to unravel the workings of the vastly influential subconscious mind.

The most significant study on the conscious and and non-conscious processes of the human brain came from Professor Manfred Zimmermann of the Institute of Physiology at Heidelberg University . In his 1989 paper ‘The Nervous System in the Context of Information Theory.’ Professor Zimmermann contended that of the 11 million bits processing capacity of the human brain, only 40 bits—yes, you read it right—of processing occurs at a conscious level. Which means that 99.99999% of the brain’s processing happens at a non-conscious level. The significance of this knowledge about human behaviour was best captured in the words of Shankar Vedantam. In his book Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars and Save Our Lives, he said “ This new understanding of human behaviour constitutes a revolution no less intriguing—and perhaps more powerful than the discovery that the sun really does not revolve around the earth."

This information that 99.99999% of human brain processing happens at a non-conscious level is the big hidden truth about human behaviour. But for those people who believed so much for so long in the rational, conscious nature of human behaviour, this is too much of a change from the status quo to accept. But there is no doubt that the more we understand these non-conscious processes in the brain, the better will be our understanding of human behaviour. We will realize that the rush to the aircraft door is on account of an intense feeling of scarcity that stays embedded in our non-conscious.

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