Third, I'm going to try to draw out the social, political, and moral implications of these findings. When Freud came up with his conception of the unconscious, it had a radical influence on literary criticism, social thinking, and even political analysis. We now have a more accurate conception of the unconscious. But these findings haven't yet had a broad impact on social thought.
Finally, I'm going to try to help counteract a bias in our culture. The conscious mind writes the autobiography of our species. Unaware of what is going on deep down inside, the conscious mind assigns itself the starring role. It gives itself credit for performing all sorts of tasks it doesn't really control. It creates views of the world that highlight those elements it can understand and ignores the rest.
As a result, we have become accustomed to a certain constricted way of describing our lives. Plato believed that reason was the civilized part of the brain, and we would be happy so long as reason subdued the primitive passions. Rationalist thinkers believed that logic was the acme of intelligence, and mankind was liberated as reason conquered habit and superstition. In the nineteenth century, the conscious mind was represented by the scientic Dr. Jekyll while the unconscious was the barbaric Mr. Hyde.
Many of these doctrines have faded, but people are still blind to the way unconscious affections and aversions shape daily life. We still have admissions committees that judge people by IQ measures and not by practical literacy. We still have academic fields that often treat human beings as rational utility-maximizing individuals. Modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of the hard skills, while failing to develop the moral and emotional faculties down below. Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops. Yet by far the most important decisions they will make are about whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise, and how to control impulses. On these matters, they are almost entirely on their own. We are good at talking about material incentives, but bad about talking about emotions and intuitions. We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say.
My Other Purpose
The new research gives us a fuller picture of who we are. But I confess I got pulled into this subject in hopes of answering more limited and practical questions. In my day job I write about policy and politics. And over the past generations we have seen big policies yield disappointing results. Since 1983 we've reformed the education system again and again, yet more than a quarter of high- school students drop out, even though all rational incentives tell them not to. We've tried to close the gap between white and black achievement, but have failed. We've spent a generation enrolling more young people in college without understanding why so many don't graduate.