How is the unconscious in communication critical for understanding and managing risk?

How is the unconscious in communication critical for understanding and managing risk?

This is a great piece by Hayden Collins, submitted as part of his study for the Graduate Certificate in the Psychology of Risk and reprinted here with his permission:

 

imageIt’s a misconception that consciousness initiates action. Norretranders supports this when he says “Man is not primarily conscious. Man is primarily non-conscious. The idea of a conscious I as housekeeper of everything that comes in and goes out of one is an illusion”.[1]

In this paper I will explain the relationship between consciousness and unconsciousness in decision making, how priming and semiotics influence unconscious decision making processes, the role of consciousness and unconsciousness in automaticity, and how a failure to understand these concepts will result in a limited capacity to understand and manage risk.

Experiments show that consciousness’ capacity is smaller than that of unconsciousness. Unconsciousness processes 11 million bits of information per second. In contrast, consciousness processes 40 bits per second. Consciousness is limited to the amount of information it can process, meaning actions are determined by information of which we have not been consciously aware. The decision is made before we can consciously rationalise it.[2] Without unconscious processing, swift decision making would be difficult. If consciousness initiated action, it would take approximately 4 years to process information that unconsciousness could process in 10 minutes.[3]

By accepting that decision making is primarily unconscious, it’s accepted that actions and decisions can be subliminally influenced by environmental stimuli.[4] The role of priming and semiotics is critical when understanding and managing risk.

Moskowitz and Gusundheit define priming as “…the passive, subtle, and unobtrusive activation of relevant mental representations by external, environmental stimuli, such that people are not and do not become aware of the influence exerted by those stimuli”.[5] Priming occurs when stimuli is strong enough to be processed unconsciously but is too subtle to be processed consciously. The stimuli affect decision making without the individual being aware of its influence.[6]

Anything that can be picked up by the senses can potentially prime an individual and influence decision making. This includes the sights we see, the odours we smell, and the sounds we hear.[7] How we relate to the stimuli will affect the action we take. Experiments on priming have shown that the faint odour of cleaning fluid will prime subjects to perform cleaning activities[8]. In another study, college students who were primed with stereotypes of the elderly were found to walk more slowly and have a reduced memory.[9]

‘Zero harm’ and ‘safety is a choice’ primes intolerance and absolutism, diminishing the learning opportunities from risk. This can lead to a culture of underreporting of incidents, and blame and punishment for those who do get injured. Language such as ‘get the job done’ and ‘can do’ encourages shortcuts, rushing, and deviation from standard process. Organisations that understand the role of priming in decision making use language that will positively prime individuals. Words such as ‘learning’ and ‘respect’ humanise safety and stimulate a richer understanding of risk, an understanding that would be lost should the illusion of conscious and rational control over decision making be accepted.

Unconscious decision making means that everything has significance. Not only is it critical that words are carefully chosen to minimise unwanted priming, It is equally important that misinterpretations are mitigated through consideration of the target audience and method of communication. An understanding of semiotics supports the communication of risk.

Semiotics is how we give meaning to signs. We live in a world of signs and interpretations vary between individuals. Meanings are not rudimentary; we create codes and conventions to ascribe meaning. This process occurs without conscious awareness.[10] People can react to the same sign differently, depending on their culture or past experiences.[11] The word ‘apple’ could represent food, health, knowledge or technology. The way signs are presented to an individual can also influence how that sign is interpreted.

Colours unconsciously impact emotions and perceptions. Reactions can be influenced by gender, age, and ethnicity. White is attributed to weddings in western culture and to funerals in the east.[12] Selection of font can also have unconscious influence on the creation of meaning. A study found that subjects asked to follow a recipe printed with a mentally challenging font were more likely to find the task time consuming and requiring a high level of skill than those reading the less challenging font.[13]

Failure to acknowledge the role of the unconscious in communication will limit the capacity to understand and manage risk. If decision making is primarily unconscious, how does consciousness assist the decision making process?

The conscious mind is rational, logical and systematic. These attributes allow consciousness to play the role of teacher or trainer when learning how to undertake complex activities. The best way to demonstrate this is learning to drive a vehicle. When first learning to drive, we are consciously thinking about the sequence of actions that must take place. The activity is awkward, confusing and difficult. Once the learning period has concluded, the skills required to drive a vehicle become automatic, consciousness is no longer needed and unconsciousness takes control. In fact, once automaticity has been achieved, consciously thinking about an activity results in a reduction of performance and mistakes are more likely to be made.[14]

The human decision making process is primarily unconscious. The illusion of consciousness being the initiator of action is an illusion. Failure to acknowledge this can result in the belief that all risk taking is rational and only rational responses to risk will be applied, such as underreporting, punishment and control. There is no room for understanding automaticity and the influence of priming and semiotics, as these concepts do not fit into rational models of thinking. Blame and punishment are by-products of a rational approach to risk. Accepting that decision making is non rational and unconscious results in a richer understanding of risk and allows for humanising methods of risk management.

Bibliography

Bargh, J., Bypassing the Will: Toward Demystifying the Nonconscious Control of Social Behaviour, in Hassin, R., Uleman, J., and Bargh, J., (eds.), The New Unconscious, New York, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Chandler, D., Semiotics: The Basics, Abingdon, Routledge, 2007.

Claxton, G., The Wayward Mind, London, Abacus, 2006.

Dijksterhuis, A., Aarts, H., and Smith, P., The Power of the Subliminal: On Subliminal Persuasion and Other Potential Applications, in Hassin, R., Uleman, J., and Bargh, J., (eds.), The New Unconscious, New York, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Hassin, R., Nonconscious Control and Implicit Working, in Hassin, R., Uleman, J., and Bargh, J., (eds.), The New Unconscious, New York, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Kahneman, D., Thinking: Fast and Slow, London, Penguin Books, 2012.

Long, R., For the Love of Zero: Human Fallibility and Risk, Kambah, Scotoma Press, 2012.

Long, R., Real Risk: Human Discerning and Risk, Kambah, Scotoma Press, 2014.

Long, R., Risk Makes Sense: Human Judgement and Risk, Kambah, Scotoma Press, 2012.

Moskowitz, G., and Gusundheit, Y., Goal Priming, in Moskowitz, G., and Grant, H., (eds.), The Psychology of Goals, New York, The Guilford Press, 2009.

Newberg, A., and Waldman, M., Words Can Change Your Brain, New York, Penguin Books, 2012.

Norretranders, T., The User Illusion, New York, Penguin Books, 1999.

Robinson, K., Out of Our Minds, Chichester, Capstone Publishing, 2011.

Singh, N., and Srivastava, S., Impact of Colors on the Psychology of Marketing: A comprehensive Overview, Management and Labour Studies, No.36, May 2011, pp. 199 – 209

Song, H., and Schwarz, N., If It’s Hard to Read, It’s Hard to Do: Processing Fluency Affects Effort Prediction and Motivation, Psychological Science, Vol. 19, No. 10, October 2008, pp. 986 – 988


[1] Norretranders, T., The User Illusion, New York, Penguin Books, 1999, p. 259

[2] Ibid., p. 208

[3] Dijksterhuis, A., Aarts, H., and Smith, P., The Power of the Subliminal: On Subliminal Persuasion and Other Potential Applications, in Hassin, R., Uleman, J., and Bargh, J., (eds.), The New Unconscious, New York, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 83

[4] Ibid., p. 83

[5] Moskowitz, G., and Gusundheit, Y., Goal Priming, in Moskowitz, G., and Grant, H., (eds.), The Psychology of Goals, New York, The Guilford Press, 2009, p. 128

[6] Dijksterhuis, op.cit., p. 80

[7] Long, R., Risk Makes Sense: Human Judgement and Risk, Kambah, Scotoma Press, 2012, p. 98

[8] Moskowitz, op.cit., p. 212

[9] Bargh, J., Bypassing the Will: Toward Demystifying the Nonconscious Control of Social Behaviour, in Hassin, R., Uleman, J., and Bargh, J., (eds.), The New Unconscious, New York, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 39

[10] Chandler, D., Semiotics: The Basics, Abingdon, Routledge, 2007, p. 11

[11] Newberg, A., and Waldman, M., Words Can Change Your Brain, New York, Penguin Books, 2012, p. 58

[12] Singh, N., and Srivastava, S., Impact of Colors on the Psychology of Marketing: A comprehensive Overview, Management and Labour Studies, No. 36, May 2011, p. 199

[13] Song, H., and Schwarz, N., If It’s Hard to Read, It’s Hard to Do: Processing Fluency Affects Effort Prediction and Motivation, Psychological Science, Vol. 19, No. 10, October 2008, p. 988

[14] Norretranders, op.cit., p. 172

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