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Embracing the unconscious

Joanna Chrzanowska's webinar was a whistle-stop tour of how psychologists' understanding of the unconscious has developed over time, says Camilla Cooper.

This was a tour that didn’t just chart how understanding had grown, but also revealed its influence on the work of researchers and marketers. We travelled from Freud’s id, ego and superego, through the now discredited work of Dichter and Bernays, to neuroscience and then the present day of Kahneman and behavioural economics.

But, Joanna argued, behavioural economics has not been fully embraced by the qualitative community and this is because it is often interpreted as making humans out to be ‘irrational and a bit stupid’. An interpretation I disagree with (more on this later).

So, it’s heartening to know that researchers are adopting evolutionary psychology thinking which helps explain the biases and heuristics we see in play in our decision-making. Just as our physiology evolved to adapt to our environment, so did the way we think — though evolution hasn’t quite caught up with modern-day life.

As Joanna explained, if you think about the context in which our brains evolved, cognitive biases make a lot of sense. Our brains are essentially designed to make decisions that enhanced the likelihood of our ancestors passing their genes to the next generation. For example, safety in numbers was paramount and explains the social proof and status quo biases.

Relating this back to the unconscious — it can be viewed as a council of elders, a series of sub-selves that sits alongside systems 1 and 2; each of which comes to the fore to overcome an evolutionary challenge — self protection, disease avoidance, affiliation, status seeking, mate acquisition, mate retention and kin care.

Joanna summed up with a timeline of how scientific thinking has taken us from the ‘unconscious’ to the ‘non-conscious’. Essentially these concepts are very similar, but importantly, the new terminology doesn’t have the same negative baggage attached to it. The webinar, therefore, also provoked a wider point around behavioural economics, and the debate between whether we, as humans, are ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’.

Behavioural economics does not actually state that we are irrational beings; it is just that the decisions we make are not ‘rational’ in a purist, economic sense. Perhaps we should think about how we can move away from the negative connotations around ‘irrational’ thought? Instead of framing them (to use a BE term!) as ‘irrational’ decisions it might be more helpful to think of them as decisions that take place below the level of consciousness, so we are not pitting rational and irrational thought against one another, with the view that one is better than the other.

Do listen to Joanna’s webinar, it’s a brilliant way to understand the psychological underpinning of the work that we as qualitative researchers do. As she says, we should embrace the concept of the unconscious without apology.


Camilla Cooper
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