You know what you’re doing, right? We are all rational beings. We are all blessed with huge neocortexes and use them on a regular basis. This is especially so when we do something as thoughtful as use a search engine. Our rational loop is kicked into high gear. Right?
Well, I hate to break it to you, but you’re not as rational as you think you are. Even the emotionally sparse act of using a search engine is driven largely by subconscious behavior. We are a bundle of pre-written scripts, which play out with little interference from our conscious minds. So, for this entry in the Human Hardware series, I want to spend some time exploring the theory of the illusion of conscious will, to borrow the name of a book by Daniel Wegner, the same person who advanced the theory of transactive memory. Unfortunately for Descartes, it’s not so much a case of “I think, therefore I am” as much as it is “I do, therefore I am.”
But how can this be? We know when we do something. We are consciously aware when we move our arm, or sit up, or read a book. We willed it to happen, and it happened. Somewhere in our brain, we made a decision, the appropriate signals were sent, and we acted.
I meant to do that…
But, as Wegner explores in his book, it may not be quite that simple. In a now famous study, Benjamin Libet (1983, 1985; 1993) asked people to move their finger while measuring brain activity with an EEG machine. They looked for the rise in brain activity that should capture conscious will. This was following up on a similar study by Kornhuber and Deecke (1965). But Libet also devised a way of not only capturing the exact moment when the brain decided to move the finger, which (much to everyone’s amazement) started a full half second before the actual movement, but also the moment when people became aware they wanted to move their finger, the first spark of conscious will. And, to even more amazement, this came after the brain started getting ready to move the finger. In fact, a full quarter second after the brain started firing to move the finger, participants consciously thought about moving the finger.
Now, you might say, what’s a quarter second here or there? And we are just talking about moving a finger here. But the results of Libet’s experiment opens up a whole basket of king size questions about the nature of conscious will, that Wegner explores in some depth (the book is almost 400 pages long).
Why do we have conscious will?
The primary question is, what’s the purpose of our feeling of will? Most of us believe that it’s a pretty simple sequence. We think about doing something, the brain acts on our intent, we start doing it, and our body tells us we’re doing it. It’s a simple cause and effect chain. But Libet’s experiment showed that the sequence could be entirely different. In fact, before we’re aware of anything, the brain readies itself to move the finger. A quarter of a second later, we become aware of wanting to move the finger. About a 100 milliseconds later, we think we’re moving our finger, but it’s 80 milliseconds later when the finger actually moves. Suddenly, cause and effect may not be what we thought it was. Everything becomes jumbled up.
It’s not really the question of free will that Libet’s experiment calls into question. Obviously, the decision to move the finger had to come from within the individual somewhere. It’s the question of conscious will. We started the process to move the finger a quarter second before we became aware we wanted to move the finger. And in that quarter second lies a universe of possibilities.
A mix up of cause and effect
What Libet’s finger moving experiment showed is that conscious will might not play the role we think it does. Rather than the cause of the chain of actions, it’s actually sort of a feedback signal, a parallel process that’s there for other reasons. What conscious will does is help us sort out who’s doing what in our worlds. And, it’s a great motivator. It gives us the illusion that we’re more rational than we are, and it hides the tremendous amount of processing that’s done under the surface. It gives us the illusion that we’re consciously and rationally driving our destiny. It looks like evolution has built in this little deceit. But why?
The fact is that the unconscious processing of our mind is a pretty efficient system that works very well most of the time. If we had to pay attention and rationalize everything we did, we’d spend months just getting through what we accomplish in one day. And I’m not talking about things like breathing and keeping our heart beating. I’m referring to activities that we think we’re doing consciously, but actually there’s a tremendous amount going on under the surface. Things like driving to work, making supper, or choosing which clothes to wear. If we had to rationally think our way through all the things required to do these daily tasks, we wouldn’t make it past breakfast. Our pre-written scripts keep us on track. Things like feelings, emotions, and habits are actually the software of our lives running through our human hardware.
Rationalization, even after the fact, exists to keep us from questioning the effectiveness of our little unconscious routines. Evolution has determined that leading us to think we’re acting consciously is the best way to keep us from digging too far under the surface and messing up a system that generally works pretty well. It paints a veneer of rationality on everything we do, even when in most cases, no rationality exists. And it’s done a tremendous job of this. It’s taken some pretty sophisticated diagnostic techniques and several centuries to begin to see through evolution’s little ruse.
How do we determine intent and motivation?
So, if we act based on some currently mysterious mix of subconscious motivation that rises due to factors and stimuli we can only guess at, and then fool ourselves into thinking we consciously willed it, how do we discover our motivations? How do we know why we did what we did?
Let’s look at how we’ve tried to find out why people buy what they do. In most cases, we ask them. We ask them in a survey, or a focus group or a telephone interview. And there’s a fundamental problem here. When you ask people why they have done something, they give you a rational answer, based on this little mind game that evolution plays on us. We’re not giving the real answer. And to make matters worse, we don’t even know we’re giving misleading information. We think we’re answering truthfully. Our little internal deceit now becomes a matter of record and goes to shape marketing strategies worth billions of dollars. Advertising has been caught in a vast and tangled web of little white lies.
We saw this firsthand in our own research. In our very first research study, we asked people why they chose the search results they did in a controlled lab situation. And they gave us their reasons. The reasons were perfectly rational. It was the most relevant result. I recognized the brand. I recognized the URL. Almost no one said they clicked on the result based on its position on the page. But when we started observing hundreds of individual search sessions, we saw the same patterns over and over. The number one organic result always seemed to get about 27% of the clicks. This was double the next nearest result. Obviously, position did play a role. We realized then that there was a big difference between what people did and what they said they did.
Today, I just wanted to introduce the idea that conscious will might not be a reliable a cause as we think it is. In the next Just Behave column, I will look at the implications for search and online marketing.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.