robert_provine's picture
Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Author, Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond
Psychologist and Neuroscientist, University of Maryland; Author, Laughter

Human Behavior is Unconsciously Controlled.

Until proven otherwise, why not assume that consciousness does not play a role in human behavior? Although it may seem radical on first hearing, this is actually the conservative position that makes the fewest assumptions. The null position is an antidote to philosopher's disease, the inappropriate attribution of rational, conscious control over processes that may be irrational and unconscious. The argument here is not that we lack consciousness, but that we over-estimate the conscious control of behavior. I believe this statement to be true. But proving it is a challenge because it's difficult to think about consciousness. We are misled by an inner voice that generates a reasonable but often fallacious narrative and explanation of our actions. That the beam of conscious awareness that illuminates our actions is on only part of the time further complicates the task. Since we are not conscious of our state of unconsciousness, we vastly overestimate the amount of time that we are aware of our own actions, whatever their cause.

My thinking about unconscious control was shaped by my field studies of the primitive play vocalization of laughter. When I asked people to explain why they laughed in a particular situation, they would concoct some reasonable fiction about the cause of their behavior—"someone did something funny," "it was something she said," "I wanted to put her at ease." Observations of social context showed that such explanations were usually wrong. In clinical settings, such post hoc misattributions would be termed "confabulations," honest but flawed attempts to explain one's actions.

Subjects also incorrectly presumed that laughing is a choice and under conscious control, a reason for their confident, if bogus, explanations of their behavior. But laughing is not a matter speaking "ha-ha," as we would choose a word in speech. When challenged to laugh on command, most subjects could not do so. In certain, usually playful, social contexts, laughter simply happens. However, this lack of voluntary control does not preclude a lawful pattern of behavior. Laughter appears at those places where punctuation would appear in a transcription of a conversation—laughter seldom interrupts the phrase structure of speech. We may say, "I have to go now—ha-ha," but rarely, "I have to—ha-ha—go now." This punctuation effect is highly reliable and requires the coordination of laughing with the linguistic structure of speech, yet it is performed without conscious awareness of the speaker. Other airway maneuvers such as breathing and coughing punctuate speech and are performed without speaker awareness.

The discovery of lawful but unconsciously controlled laughter produced by people who could not accurately explain their actions led me to consider the generality of this situation to other kinds of behavior. Do we go through life listening to an inner voice that provides similar confabulations about the causes of our action? Are essential details of the neurological process governing human behavior inaccessible to introspection? Can the question of animal consciousness be stood on its head and treated in a more parsimonious manner? Instead of considering whether other animals are conscious, or have a different, or lesser consciousness than our own, should we question if our behavior is under no more conscious control than theirs? The complex social order of bees, ants, and termites documents what can be achieved with little, if any, conscious control as we think of it. Is machine consciousness possible or even desirable? Is intelligent behavior a sign of conscious control? What kinds of tasks require consciousness? Answering these questions requires an often counterintuitive approach to the role, evolution and development of consciousness.