After having read Mlodinow’s “The Drunkard’s Walk” I continued with his latest work that deals with the working of our unconscious mind and how it steers our lives and decisions. Mind you, we’re not talking about the Freudian-style repressive unconscious, but about what is called the ‘New Unconscious’ in order to distinguish from the Freudian thinking. Even this new ‘school’ agrees with Freud in one thing: much of our behaviour and decisions are governed by processes of the unconscious mind - much more that we know or would like to and the author argues that it’s important to understand the influence of the subliminal in order to overcome many of the obstacles in our lives.

The book is divided into two parts, the first titled “The Two Tiered Mind” and the second “The Social Unconscious”. The first chapter introduces the ‘new unconscious’ and explains that many processes are unconscious because of the architecture of our brains (later chapters will explore this in somewhat more depth) and unlike the Freudian view, unconscious actions are seen and healthy and normal. Even stronger, they are necessary in order to function efficiently and effectively. While Mlodinow doesn’t mention it anywhere and it may be a gross simplification (in which case I stand corrected) it’s easy to draw a parallel to Kahneman’s System 1 and 2 thinking.

The second chapter explores reality - or rather how we construct reality from sensory input and what our mind does with it. Research shows that our subconscious mind registers more than our conscious brain does, but the subconscious also processes the information before it passes it on and so we actually experience a model of the world, and not the world as it really is. The modelling function of the subconscious mind is illustrated by research in how missing information from our senses (seeing and hearing) is filled in by our mind. This smoothing over of imperfections happens automatically and we hardly ever notice it.

Chapter 3 deals with remembering and forgetting and again it is demonstrated how unreliable memory can be. Also gaps in memory may be filled in by our unconscious mind, for example as a result of by expectations or even wishful thinking. People are fairly good at remembering the big picture of what happened, but rather bad at remembering details which then when needed often may be made up by our unconscious mind. We need this kind of forgetting of details in order to be able to handle the enormous amount of information that we are confronted with. The downside, however, is that false memories and real memories may feel exactly the same to us.

The next chapter discusses being social, and also explains why people are the most social animals of all and that this is one of the most distinguishing features that separates us from other species. One rather specific human ability is our desire and ability to understand what others think and feel. This is called ‘theory of mind’ (TOM). A small part of TOM is conscious, but much of the process is again done by the subconscious. And oddly, we not only apply it to other humans, but even to animals and innate objects. This chapter also briefly discusses the various movements: behavioural, cognitive and social psychology.

Chapter 5 is the first of the second part of the book and is about reading people. Much of the chapter deals with nonverbal communication. Nonverbal signalling and reading are processes that happen largely outside of our conscious awareness and control and thereby unwittingly reveals a lot about ourselves and our state of mind (e.g. our expectations). So our unconscious mind will majorly contribute to how others view us - and respond to us.

The sixth chapter is titled “Judging people by their covers” and more or less elaborates on the previous chapter, telling how people automatically react to non-verbal cues. While our conscious mind is busy thinking about the meaning of the words from others, our unconscious mind is busy judging the speaker by other criteria, for example the pitch and timbre of the voice. Research shows that the way people speak (fast/slow, high/low, etc.) highly affects how people perceive the speaker. Also touch seems to be an important tool for enhancing social cooperation and affiliation. And of course looks cannot be underrated (the infamous Kennedy-Nixon example is used once more).

Chapter 7 is about categorization - one of our most powerful strategies to efficiently process information. Categorization means that we can deal with ‘things’ based on a limited number of traits and don’t need to deal with the details of the ‘thing’ itself. This is highly beneficial, but also has drawbacks. One of these is that categorization can quickly lead to polarization: fuzzy differences and subtle nuances lead to clear-cut distinctions. Categorization is another process that happens automatically by our unconscious minds which for example leads to unconscious discrimination. Even though you think that you judge people rationally, your unconscious mind will do something quite different. The good news is that when we are aware of our bias and apply conscious focus, we are able to overcome the unconscious effects. This requires effort, but is not impossible.

The next chapter is about groups. In-groups and out-groups and the ‘us versus them’ effect. The strange thing is that we think much more positively about people who are in a group together with us (even if they are perfect strangers) than we think about people from another group. This does explain some of the behaviour around sport events…

Chapter 9 is titled “Feelings”. These shift from situation to situation and quite often in ways that are not clear to us. So not even we know about our feelings, or the source of our feelings. Actually as research shows, emotions can be just as well constructed as memories and perceptions. Still, when asked no-one has trouble explaining their feelings - we are extremely capable at making up plausible and totally believable reasons. Often these reasons relate to expected and socially accepted explanations.

The final chapter is about the “Self”, kicking off with our tendency to feel good about ourselves. This may be a major reason that we sometimes apply a distorted view of reality (e.g. the ‘above average effect’). The psychologist Haidt is quoted saying that there are two ways to get to the truth: the way of the scientist and the way of the lawyer. The scientist observes evidence and looks for patterns and theories to explain them. The lawyer, on the other hand, starts with the preferred conclusion and then looks for evidence to support this view and at the same time tries to discredit evidence that doesn’t. Our brains happen to be decent scientists, but truly outstanding lawyers, which helps to have a positive picture of ourselves. It’s hard to fool the internal scientist with blatant lies, but because there is a lot of ambiguity our internal lawyer has a lot of room to manoeuvre - he bends but doesn’t break the rules. Even in the fields of science where objectivity is regarded as the greatest thing, often people’s views of evidence are highly correlated to their vested interests because when assessing emotionally relevant data our brains automatically include our wants and dreams! Negative as this sounds, the distortion of reality can be a positive mechanism because it keeps us going against the stream and also it is possible to overcome its effects, for example by viewing things from various points of views.

While the book has no direct connection to safety, it’s an interesting overview how we humans function and how things are affected by non-rational and non-conscious workings of our brain, which in the end explains quite a lot of what is going on and which we also should keep in mind before we start executing certain plans - they just may not work the way we think!

Find out more about Leonard's work at:

Again, I’ve read the Penguin pocket version: ISBN 978-0-241-96054-7