The key to acting most beneficial to ourselves is to actively use the adaptive unconscious by observing what our nonconscious needs and goals are and then act with them in mind (52). We basically create situations for informed gut decisions. Before describing ways to do this, Wilson takes us along to further explain the role of the adaptive unconscious and the trouble it can get us into.
The adaptive unconscious controls automatic thinking, which “has five defining features: it is nonconscious, fast, unintentional, uncontrollable, and effortless” (52). In contrast, of course, to conscious thinking, which “occurs more slowly, with intention (we typically think what we want to think), control (we are better able to influence what we think about), and effort (it is hard to keep our conscious minds on something when we are distracted or preoccupied)” (53). As an evolved processing house, the adaptive unconscious is older than the conscious mind. It has evolved to trigger fast reactions, especially when there is danger. It can detect and learn patterns quickly. Yet, it does not unlearn patterns well and thus influences our behavior in rather rigid ways. The conscious, on the other hand, develops slowly and never quite catches up, especially with pattern detection. We really have to stop and think in order to evoke the conscious and reflect on the direction the adaptive unconscious is sending us (66). This might be one reason why racial and sexist stereotypes remain pervasive, including in people who consider themselves open-minded.
Because we best understand the adaptive unconscious through our behavior, Wilson suggests that other people might know our personality better than we know ourselves. He presents research that supports this conclusion: there is low correlation between our own rating of our personality traits and those of others. This would not necessarily mean that others are right, however, others also agree more amongst themselves, so there is consistency in peer ratings (84). Predictions are also better when they are based on peer reports rather than on self-reports (85). One of the reasons for the strength of other people’s reports is that they rely on observation of our behavior constraint by the situation. When we predict our own actions, we rely instead on what’s inside. This causes us to ignore outside information, especially situational constraints and the inside information is not always accurate (85-6). We have come to believe that our self-understanding gives us an advantage because we have come up with good post-hoc explanations for our behavior driven by our adaptive unconscious (107). However, what several studies have uncovered is that this privileged information does not really give us an advantage: “the amount of accuracy obtained by people about the causes of their responses is nearly identical with the amount of accuracy obtained by strangers” (112). Wilson summarizes this with “Extra information does not always give people an accuracy advantage” (114), which is good to remember not only in the context of understanding ourselves.
The adaptive unconscious plays also an important part in what Wilson calls our “psychological immune system.” We create stories about the events that affect us emotionally and “once emotional events have been explained, tied into a neat little package, and stored away in our minds, we think about them less, and they lose much of their emotional power” (152). Wilson calls this the “ordinization process” – making novel events ordinary, especially those events that carry strong positive or negative emotions. This process is very important to our emotional well-being because it keeps threatening information at bay. And this “psychological immune system operates largely outside of our awareness” (154).
Wilson also argues that many of our feelings remain unconscious, just like personality traits and goals. Therefore, approaches such as shining a beam of the flashlight, going on an archeological dig – metaphors used by Freud and Jung – or any other from of introspection will not help us uncover truths (161). Wilson likens introspection to literary criticism because there is not one true way of seeing the unfolding of our lives, “so there [are] many truths about a person that can be constructed” (162).
Introspection has its place. However, Wilson would like us to write our biographies actively instead of trying to uncover something: “We weave what we can observe (our conscious thoughts, feelings, and memories, our own behavior, the reactions of other people to us) into a story that, with luck, captures at least a part what we cannot observe (our nonconscious personality traits, goals, and feelings)” (162). Thus, “introspection is best thought of […] as writing a self-biography, with limited source information” (163).
As decision making guides, Wilson dismisses traditional pro-con lists as unreliable. We can do a fairly poor job of analyzing our reasons behind our behavior, often leading us to make decisions we regret later (170). Instead, Wilson proposes to rely on our gut feelings. He cautions that we need to ensure that our gut feeling is informed by as much information as possible. After gathering enough information, we can let the adaptive unconscious make the decision for us (172). It is not quite clear, though, how we can tell that we have enough information or how we can distinguish a well-informed gut feel from a poorly informed gut feel. Also, Wilson does not address our ability to manipulate the information by only seeking out information that we feel is consistent with the decision we should be making. Wilson does not suggest any ways of safeguarding our decision making, which seems to contradict his earlier findings that our adaptive unconscious does not always make the most open-minded decisions.
We can utilize the adaptive unconscious in the process of healing. Based on research, Wilson explains that writing about an emotional experience can help us make sense of it. Although it causes more short-term distress, in the long-term it has quite a bit of positive benefits (177). He contents that writing exercises are so helpful because through the process of writing, we construct a story that helps us deal with the experience.
If many of our feelings remain unconscious, is there a way to figure out how we feel? Wilson suggests there is. Daryl Bem’s self-perception theory can help. Bem theorized that we often figure out how we feel by observing our own behavior – a post-hoc analysis. This theory works well if we are trying to “reveal feelings of which we are previously unaware. It is not such a good strategy if it results in the fabrication of new feelings” (206). The primary danger with using the self-perception process is that we often misunderstand our responses and the reasons behind them and we make wrong interferences. This is why Wilson suggests limiting the usage of the self-perception process to situations where we are not fully aware of our feelings (209). One important job of the adaptive unconscious is to make inferences, thus it will. Therefore, it is important that we perform the self-perception process consciously, in parallel with the adaptive unconscious. This will lead to a better match between our conscious self-narrative and our adaptive unconscious’ interpretation (210).
We can also influence and even change our adaptive unconscious, though not directly. Because observing behavior is the primary means of discovering the adaptive unconscious, changing our behavior is the best way to change our nonconscious influences. Wilson notes that “to fashion a satisfying, functional, self-narrative, however, and to establish a desirable pattern of habitual, nonconscious responses, the best advice is to practice, practice, practice” (216).
A personal narrative can help us to change by creating characters for ourselves. It can also help us understand our history, with its “many ways of telling a person’s story, and not just one historical truth that must be discovered before positive self-change can be achieved” (216). A good self-story conforms to three criteria: accuracy, peace-of-mind, and believability. To be accurate, a self-story must explain a person’s adaptive unconscious: our conscious conceptions of ourselves need to be “in synch” with our unconscious (218). The peace-of-mind criterion is satisfied when a story allows us to stop thinking about ourselves (219). The last criterion, believability, simply means that the self-biographer can “believe the story that he or she is telling [thus, they are not] arbitrary constructions” (220). Wilson summarizes the criteria: “What matters is that people commit themselves to a coherent self-narrative that corresponds reasonably well to their adaptive unconscious” (221).
Thus, although we can never completely know our adaptive unconscious, there are ways of learning more about it by observing ourselves. We can also change ourselves by changing our story and with that our adaptive unconscious (221).