In the months leading up to the 2012 presidential election, Columbus, Ohio — a routinely fought-over swing state — saw a staggering 40,000 campaign ads broadcast on major TV networks. Nationwide, the country grew accustomed to seeing Barack Obama and Mitt Romney poking their heads into our living rooms and imploring us to reconsider our Nov. 6 choice.
An impression they certainly left, but not necessarily a convincing one. Indeed, Democrats frustrated with Romney were more compelled to lean left after each Republican smear ad. But growing bodies of research suggest this isn’t the principal motivator behind our decisions, that we are influenced not by conscious consult of our personal beliefs, but by the rash, ill-formed stereotypes lurking in our subconscious. These decisions aren’t always life-changing or hurtful, but they are revealing. From speed-dating to politics to racism, here are four ways we often get our own opinions wrong.
1. Racism Hits Too Close To Home
Consider the Monkey Business Illusion. You, the viewer, are instructed to keep track of the number of passes made between a weave of basketball players. The answer is plainly obvious: 16. But then (SPOILER ALERT) a question is posed: “Did you spot the gorilla?” and suddenly you realize you were blind the entire time as a furry gorilla passed through the weave, mid-scene, only to exit stage right.
The phenomenon is called inattentional blindness, and it’s what makes the illusion so compelling — especially after viewers watch it a second time, smugly pointing out the gorilla, yet still failing to realize the curtains in the background of the video were changing colors the entire time. What’s happening, essentially, is your brain fails to juggle the instruction of “count the passes” with the unforeseen visual data of the gorilla, or the curtains. This is because the human brain is actually a poor juggler of sensory information. Rather than actively scan for any and all visual stimuli, it acts as a kind of spotlight, “shining” attention on what seems relevant and what doesn’t. As it turns out, the subconscious brain is directing this spotlight all the time.
Dr. Keith Payne, a researcher in social cognition from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, calls the behavior “selective selectivity.” Basically, it’s our subconscious unknowingly telling us what to focus on. And since we don’t know it’s directing our attention, we don’t know what we’re missing, so we think we’re in control.
Payne tested this theory with his own version of the Monkey Business Illusion — which would show either a white or black man midway through, rather than a gorilla — after asking a group of women to browse online dating profiles either for themselves or for a friend. Prior research has shown people show greater racial bias at closer social distances, which Payne relied on to demonstrate how women browsing profiles for a friend saw the white and black man equally often. But when women were browsing for themselves, “they noticed the white man more than twice as often as the black man,” Payne explains. In other words, women primed to be more racially biased exhibited those traits subconsciously when tested. But, as Payne notes, it’s not just race relations that suffer.
"The power of the unconscious is greatest when our attention is under the heaviest demands," he wrote in an article for Scientific American. "In today's multitasking world, when we split our attention between Facebook and real friends, between our kindles and our kids, between our laptops and our loved ones, we delegate ever more to the unconscious. It makes you wonder who you have looked at today and have not seen."
2. Tall, Dark, and Handsome?
Payne’s iteration of the Monkey Business Illusion suggests our subconscious beliefs about the social world are far more judgmental than we’d like to believe. It suggests we form opinions about people, opinions that we don’t necessarily think are important, yet we place enormous subconscious weight on them, in turn motivating our conscious desires. To put it more in perspective, consider a 2005 study of speed-dating.
Before participating in the study, participants were asked what they valued most in a partner. Some said sense of humor, or intelligence. Men, more often than women, said attractiveness. But when each person circulated through their speed dates, the form they filled out at the end to rate their partner showed both men and women placed inordinate weight on attractiveness. Sociability, humor, intelligence — these things counted very little.
"In other words, there was a much higher correlation between what men said they wanted and what they actually did," Itamar Simonson, co-researcher and marketing professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, said in a statement. "Men say that appearance is important, and it is. Women do not say that appearance is particularly important to them, but it is, particularly in the context of speed-dating."
This is Payne’s theory of selective selectivity at work. Primed with the notion that each date will end in approximately three minutes, participants’ subconscious filters took over. Speed dating offers but a glimpse into someone’s personality — the full range of their wit, their interests, hobbies, and fears all suppressed by time. The one thing that remains clear are looks. Physical attractiveness was the only gauge people had to determine compatibility, so the subconscious brain persuaded people’s conscious beliefs that physical attractiveness mattered more.
3. As Far As You Can Throw Him
This brings us back to 2012, when the Romney/Obama battle was in full-swing. Each party tried to uplift its candidate with targeted and purposeful jabs at the opposition’s integrity, Obama pointing out Romney’s flip-flopping stances on abortion, and Romney criticizing Obama for not making good on the promises made back in 2008, during his illustrious Hope campaign.
Perhaps the greatest takeaway from the election — indeed, politics in general — was: Who could the public trust? In the end, obviously, people had more faith in Obama. But a new study paints Romney as the more trustworthy figure, at least to Republicans. And not just from a personality standpoint. In line with Keith Payne’s selective selectivity and Itamar Simonson’s speed-dating misconceptions, people who support Mitt Romney actually see him differently.
"That our attitudes could bias something that we're exposed to so frequently is an amazing biasing effect," Russell Fazio, professor of psychology at Ohio State University and senior author of the study, said in a news release. "It suggests that people may not just interpret political information about a candidate to fit their opinion, but that they may construct a political world in which they literally see candidates differently."
To test their theory, Fazio and his colleagues conducted a two-part study. First, they showed a group of Columbus, Ohio residents a series of partially distorted pictures of Mitt Romney, asking the subjects which of the photographs, set side-by-side, looked more like the former Massachusetts governor. Afterwards, the researchers asked subjects to detail their political affiliations. Before moving on to the second half of the study, the team then created composite images of the photos chosen by Democrat and Republican respondents.
The second study recruited a separate group of people to give their opinions about the composites. Fazio and his colleagues asked which photos of Romney made him seem more trustworthy. Overwhelmingly, the judges of the second group chose the Republican choices from the first study. The upshot? Researchers concluded through “reverse correlation image classification” that in order for the second group to choose one set of photos to be collectively more “trustworthy looking,” the earlier Republican group must have unconsciously sorted the pictures differently than the Democratic group.
The method “allowed us to peer into the mind's eye of the participants and see what Romney looks like to them," said Alison Young, a graduate student in psychology at OSU and lead author of the study. “We used a face that everyone knows really well, so bias should be hard to find. But in political domains, people have strong attitudes, so if we were going to find a bias, this was a good place to look for it."
What this all boils down to is that our brains are imperfect messengers of our beliefs and attitudes. Yet we may do well to heed the corresponding advice and resist the urge to shoot the faulty messenger. After all, the beliefs we hold are indeed our own, no matter how deep in our subconscious they may reside. The best we can do to override them, and at best, change them, is to acknowledge when we’ve begun to ascribe too much importance to aesthetic, rather than substance. Indeed, that’s the thread that runs through the complex diversity of political impressions, romantic interests, and race.
“As the world becomes increasingly multicultural and globalized, these unconscious blinders might make us immune to that diversity,” Dr. Payne wrote. “We cannot get to know or learn from people if we look right through them.”