Human, all too human

“It has been said that man is a rational animal.
All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.”
Bertrand Russel

Back in time, the nature of the mind has long been considered to be entirely or mainly conscious, and the processes of thought to be intentional and controllable. Philosophers (Kant; Descartes’ cogito; or John Locke’s “mind first” cosmology), scholars, and intellectuals more broadly, have defended the view that human inference functions following the laws of statistics and probability. In classical economics, the core theoretical principle is a conception of human decision-makers as fully rational beings, as posited in the studies of Adam Smith.

In the 19th century, evolutionary theory and hypnotism both pointed to the existence of underlying, subconscious causes to human behaviour. Darwin (1872) posited in “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”, the existence of an unconscious and unintentional cause behind behaviour; Freud with the term unconscious referred to those actions that are not consciously intended and whose cause is not known by the person (take for instance the well-known ‘Freudian slips’: the errors in memory or speech, interpreted as an interference from the unconscious mind). In 1955, Simon laid the basis for the Bounded Rationality Theory, introducing a novel perspective on human decision-making. The concept of bounded rationality underlines the cognitive limitations in computational capacity of individuals. In other words, human beings are not fully rational in their reasoning, but subject to simplifications and to a sort of ‘limited rationality’. This supports an evaluative process that is not comprehensive but rather ‘satisfying’ in the sense of ‘good enough’ (Barros, 2010). Humans only possess an incomplete knowledge about the possible courses of action; a fragmentary overview of the outcomes; and construct representations guided by preferences rather than exclusively focusing on maximising utility. Simon received the Nobel Prize for economics in 1978 for his theory of Bounded Rationality, paving the way for future research in the domain of behavioural economics. More recently, a paramount contribution has come from the field of neuroscience, where studies on mental functioning and on the role of emotional responses demonstrated that the affective component is indispensable for human reasoning and decision-making (see Damasio, 1994). Our consciousness is a ‘symptom’ of a higher level of processing going on in our minds. As it is becoming clear, contemporary research reversed the previous paradigm, and for decades now, researchers have been documenting the broad range of higher mental processes that can occur unconsciously.
Bargh and Morsella (2009) discussed four mental systems that operate unconsciously, each with distinct qualities and features:

  • The perceptual system determines impression formation, and orients attention in the environment;
  • The evaluative system is behind immediate responses such as approach/avoidance that result from automatic assessments;
  • The motivational system can automatically guides us towards goal attainment (the evolutionary past recorded in human genes, guide our behaviour through motivation. Research on goal pursuit established the capacity of unconscious activity of both setting a goal, and of pursuing it for an extended period until the goal is attained);
  • The emotional system, that guides our behaviour, motivation, and goal pursuit via affective responses.

The complex processes at work in our minds, cannot be regarded as exclusively automatic nor exclusively controlled and deliberate, rather they are combinations of the two. There are many examples of actions that require attention and concurrently rely on automatic components. Take for instance car driving or cooking a meal: once we have learned how to drive and cook (in the learning stage our full attention is required!) we can perform these actions while doing also something else, such as chatting with our partner. Thus, a process can be deliberate and unintended at the same time. This point is important to make to avoid simplifications. For instance, the demonstration that stereotyping is automatic does not entail that it is uncontrollable. Controllability refers to the moderation of the influence of automatic processes by the person’s motivation and effort. Indeed, cognitive control can be enacted. For instance, when one is aware of the formation of a stereotypical response, or of an automated consumption reaction (activated for instance by the sight of a delicious slice of a luxurious chocolate cake), we can still adjust our judgment/action.