adam_alter's picture
Psychologist; Assistant Professor of Marketing, Stern School of Business, NYU; Author, Irresistible

The "Cognitive Iceberg:" Humans Are Blind To Many Of The Processes That Shape Their Mental Lives

The human brain is an inconceivably complex tool, and while we're focusing on the business of daily life, our brains are processing multitudes of information below the surface of conscious awareness. Meanwhile, this peripheral information subtly shapes our thoughts, feelings and actions, and crafts some of our most critical life outcomes. This information takes many forms, but I'll illustrate the principle with three brief examples:

1. Color

Color is a ubiquitous feature of the environment, though we rarely notice colors unless they're particularly bright or deviate dramatically from our expectations. Nonetheless, colors have the capacity to shape a range of outcomes: men are ever so slightly more attractive to women when they wear red colored shirts (rather than shirts of another color); the same effect applies to women, who seem more attractive to men when their pictures are bounded by a red colored border. Red signals both romantic intent and dominance amongst lower-order species, and this same signal applies to men and women. This same relationship between red and dominance explains why sporting teams that wear red are more aggressive and tend to dominate sporting teams that wear other colors; meanwhile, sports referees and umpires assign more points to teams wearing red uniforms, which may explain in part why those teams tend to outperform teams wearing other colors. But, red isn't always beneficial: we've come to associate red with errors and caution, which makes people avoidant and in turn limits their creativity (though it also improves their attention to detail). These effects have sound bases in biology and human psychology, but that doesn't make them any less remarkable or surprising to the lay population.

2. Weather and Ambient Temperature

No one's surprised that the sunny warmth of summer makes people happy, but weather conditions and ambient temperature have other more surprising effects on our mental lives. Rainy weather makes us more introspective and thoughtful, which in turn improves our memory — in one study, people remembered the features of a store with greater accuracy on rainy days than on sunny days. On a grander scale, the stock market tends to rise on fine, sunny days, while cooler, rainy days prompt sluggishness and brief downturns. More surprising, still, is the relationship between changes in weather and various accidents, suicide, depression and irritability, all of which are claimed to respond to changes in the electrical state of the atmosphere. The metaphor between warmth and human kindness is also more than a metaphor, as recent studies have shown that people find strangers more likable when they form their first impressions while holding a cup of warm coffee. The warmth-kindness metaphor extends to social exclusion, as people literally feel colder when they've been socially excluded. The simple relationship between fine weather and happiness is joined by a series of more surprising and complicated relationships between weather and warmth on the one hand, and a range of important life outcomes on the other.

3. Symbols and Images

Urban landscapes are populated by thousands of symbols and images that unwittingly influence how we think and behave. Self-identified Christians tend to behave more honestly when they're exposed to an image of the crucifix, even when they have no conscious memory of seeing the crucifix in the first place. Honesty is a virtue, but another experiment showed that Christians held lower opinions of themselves after they were subliminally exposed to an image of then Pope John Paul II. On a brighter note, people think more creatively when they're exposed to the Apple Computers logo, or when they witness the illumination of an incandescent light bulb; both the Apple logo and the illuminated light bulb are popularly associated with creativity, and deeply ingrained metaphors once activated have the capacity to shape actual behavior. Similar associative logic suggests that national flags should prompt unity, and indeed a sample of left-wing and right-wing Israelis were more accommodating of opposing political views when they were subliminally exposed to an image of the Israeli flag. Likewise, a sample of Americans responded more favorably to Muslims when seated in front of a large U.S. flag.

These three cues — colors, weather conditions, and symbols and images — are joined by dozens of others that have a surprising capacity to influence how we think, feel, behave, and decide. Once we understand what those cues are and how they shape our mental lives, we're better equipped to harness them to our advantage.