Sometimes, your emotions rule your actions. It can be as simple as finding yourself unable to gracefully jump from a height, because your hindbrain will not listen to rational arguments about safety harnesses and belay lines, or as dramatic as blowing your top when you know you’re going to regret the scene later. It can also be very, very subtle – so subtle you may not even know it’s happening.
Some of our most important emotions – fear, for example – are handled by our unconscious minds. This is because conscious processing information takes time; not much time, to be fair, but enough that you may find yourself nursing a spider bite before you were aware of the spider. The unconscious mind, in the form of the amygdala, has special neurons for processing images that suggest danger is about, from other people’s afraid expressions to snakes, so you can … This is why I have, on occasion, snatched my hand back or leapt about as a result of what turned out to be some ball of fluff. My conscious mind may by embarrassed at the overreaction, but it’s a small price to pay for the chance to avoid a slow death by poisoning.
This division of labor has another consequence, though: the unconscious brain may react to something that never reaches consciousness. Imagine me jerking my hand back, without ever actually seeing the ball of fluff that had been briefly mistaken for a spider. I would have no idea what had prompted that action…but I would have all the lingering effects of that fight-or-flight startle, which might be mistakenly taken out on someone else.
It could, for example, make me dislike the next person I met. This was shown in a study where student volunteers were asked to asked to look at a driver’s-license style photo of a stranger and rate how much they liked them (from “not at all” to “quite a lot”). Between pictures of strangers, other pictures of people – all looking terrified – flashed on the screen for just a second. The trick was that only one eye saw the fearful faces; the other saw a flashing pattern that dominated visual processing in the brain, so it was the only thing people knew they saw.
We can be certain the students didn’t consciously see the fearful faces, because they did no better than chance when asked to guess which pictures had been subliminally shown. And we can also be certain they did unconsciously “see” the faces, because their “skin conductance response” told us so – a rather fancy term for the fact that you begin to sweat a nearly-imperceptible level when emotions like fear are triggered (yes, part of the classic lie detector).
When students didn’t consciously know they had seen a fearful face, researchers could predict how much they would like the look of a stranger from their skin conductance response: the more students got ready to sweat, the less they were going to like the stranger. The unconscious mind had picked up on the fearful expression and sent the usual instructions to get ready for battle, but the conscious mind had no idea why, so it blamed the inoffensive picture of the stranger. I can’t say what, but something about that dude just seems off; I don’t like him.
The argument for working to be more aware of your emotional responses comes from the second part of the study, when the trickery of showing different pictures to different eyes was removed and people knew that they had just seen some terrified expressions. Then, the skin conductance response told researchers nothing about how much the students would like or dislike a stranger; the students had tied any emotions to the fearful faces, and kept them separate from this innocuous driver’s license photograph. There was probably still some unconscious influence on their opinions – Freud was right about consciousness just being the tip of the iceberg, after all – but at least one of them had been removed.
Lapate, Rokers, Li, & Davidson. (2013). Nonconscious emotional activation colors first impressions: A regulatory role for conscious awareness. Psychological science PMID: 24317420