Skip to content

On SUBLIMINAL and Advocacy

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior” (Pantheon 2012), by theoretical physicist and bestselling author Leonard Mlodinow, is the perfect read after Hal Herzog. Herzog explained that people say one thing and do another, particularly when it comes to animals, where they say they care about animals and don’t want them to suffer, yet they continue to eat them and use them in other ways that clearly involve suffering. Mlodinow doesn’t address what we think and do regarding animals, but what he does examine is why/how we manage to convince ourselves of the verity of what we believe.

There’s much of interest to anyone whose work/life has to do with figuring out why people do what they do, say what they say and believe what they believe. If you’re current on research on the brain you know that the unconscious plays a major part in who we are. It’s the warehouse of visual, auditory and kinesthetic data collected over your entire life. What we are aware of consciously is a minuscule percentage of what’s actually in our mind, but since we’re wired for evolution and not for accuracy, what our conscious mind does is just fine. It’s when you step out of what’s best for evolution that things get tricky. And we step out of that area frequently and think that we’re doing just fine there too, but the fact is that the way we think is anything but rational or logical. What we perceive and what is “real” can be vastly different, from our memories of what happened five minutes ago, to the reason we provide for marrying or hiring someone.

There’s also much of interest to people whose work involves studying groups or seeing the world in terms of groups. The chapter called “In-Groups and Out-Groups” isn’t news as much as it is confirmation of what you likely already know, and includes studies that support that:

“we find people more likable merely because we are associated with them in some way . . . . we also tend to favor in-group members in our social and business dealings, and we evaluate their work and products more favorably than we might otherwise, even if we think we are treating everyone equally” (168).

If you’re like me, you probably disagree with that last part. Part of why I don’t do a lot of reviews on vegan products like shoes and food and handbags, is that I am frequently disappointed. I like to buy from like-minded people (confirming the middle section of the quote), but if the quality/taste isn’t there, I won’t go back to them simply because they’re vegans. Mlodinow has evidence to support his claims, however, and we have no idea how I would behave had I participated in the studies he includes.

Here’s another intriguing tidbit . . .

You may find it discouraging to hear that, even when group divisions are anonymous and meaningless, and even at their group’s own personal cost, people unambiguously choose to discriminate in favor of their in-group, rather than acting for the greatest good” (174).

I’ll leave that one without commentary.

The most pertinent discussion for Animal People has to do with climate change. And religion. I’ll let Mlodinow explain . . .

[Reputable organizations] plus a thousand academic articles on the topic were unanimous in concluding that human activity is responsible [for global climate change], yet in the United States more than half the people have managed to convince themselves that the science of global warming is not yet settled. Actually, it would be difficult to get all those organizations and scientists to agree on anything short of a declaration stating that Albert Einstein was a smart fellow, so their consensus reflects the fact that the science of global warming is very much settled. It’s just not good news. To a lot of people the idea that we are descended from apes is also not good news. So they have found ways to not accept that fact, either. (209).

The fact is that, as Herzog notes, presenting well-reasoned arguments doesn’t engender understanding for the other point of view. As Mlodinow writes, “we poke holes in evidence we dislike and plug holes in evidence we like,” and our conclusions support what we originally believed. We don’t follow evidence and make conclusions; we make conclusions and then find evidence.

I read books about our minds and our brains, and most of them don’t ever mention animals (this one does, but doesn’t address their rights) or veganism (there is one mention of a vegan cookbook author, though). And I read them because the way we make decisions and why we have the beliefs we have would seem crucial to designing or choosing strategies and tactics to reach the largest number of people and ultimately change their behavior.

But the more I learn about the human mind, the less I think we can create a plan, as plans usually make sense. And the way we make decisions often doesn’t. And most important, we think we know why we are doing things, and we can provide articulate explanations, but those explanations are often way off the mark.

I come back to the reality that our ironclad argument against using animals (and which I took great pains to outline in Thinking Critically About The Animals We Use) won’t have the desired effect for most people. But it might, for some. My intention was not to change what others think, but to change how they think. That might be a step in the right direction, or it might not. Similarly, Earthlings won’t have the desired effect for most people, but it might, for some. Herzog demonstrated that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, people would still eat animals.

Probably the only thing we can say for certain is that the more ways we create to reach other humans, the better the odds that we’ll reach more of them and change their behavior. So we must keep creating, and not ridicule those whose creations or ideas are different from ours. I’ve said it before . . . we need all hands on deck. We need all the help we can get. And the animals deserve all the help we can give them. The obstacle that is the unconscious is as close to insurmountable as any.





Leave a Reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS