The authors point out, as just one of many examples drawn from the flourishing new field of behavioral economics, that it is simply illogical to accept a bill for $98.61 but not for $100.00. Although they do not state this, the authors’ assumption seems to be — how can the difference between $100 and $98.61 (just do the math) be possibly meaningful? To which I would reply, this is a perspective that makes sense only if you regard the human mind as a glorified adding machine. If, instead, you look at it, not from the vantage point of a single quantifiable variable, but contextually, psychodynamically, other explanations immediately come to mind. For example there is a certain cachet, an aura of expensiveness to the sum of $100 that does not apply to $98.61. A bill for $100 inevitably suggests a one hundred dollar bill, something most of us rarely get to see and even less carry in our wallets. A stack of $100 bills is automatically associated with wealth. There is the connotation that now we are beginning to get serious about money. On the other hand, the number $98.61 is associated with nothing in particular, except perhaps that someone has gone to the trouble of conscientiously attempting to calculate the exact amount of money that is owed. In contrast to a $100 bill which could suggest that the person may just be trying to jack up the price. Looked at that way, there is all the difference in the world between carrying a $100 bill and being presented with a bill for $100.

It may be, therefore, that we more readily accept a bill for $98.61 because we trust the imagined mindset of someone who seems to take the trouble to carefully spell out what he thinks we owe, while there can be something suspiciously easy about coming up with a nice fat number like 100. Note how once we open the Pandora’s box of psychodynamic meaning, the tidy world of neat arithmetic sums beings to shift. Is there a difference — a difference in meaning — between being 4’111/2” tall and being five feet tall? Most people would think there is a world of difference. Measurement, after all, has many meanings beyond the arithmetic. Think, for example, of just how difficult it can be to decide how much to tip a waiter who has just served you? Seen this way, a $100 bill could imply that the creditor is looking for as high end a price as he could justify, while conversely a bill for $98.61 could imply that there is at least an attempt to drive down the cost — and there is nothing necessarily irrational about this line of thinking.

Or consider what is called “loss aversion”: this, according to noted social psychologist, Michael Shermer, arises because “people tend to fear losses about twice as much as they desire gain.” Cognitive psychologists use this concept to explain experiments like the following: if you tell someone to imagine a situation in which they could lose, say, a dollar by losing a coin flip, and then ask them how much would you have to offer them if they win to take the bet — the average answer will be $2. In other words, the average person is twice as motivated to avoid loss as they are to pursue gain. Once again the underlying assumption is that from a rational standpoint gains are every bit as important as losses so that anything over a dollar — $1.25, say, or $1.50, certainly — would constitute a worthwhile return.

Now let’s bring in the psychodynamic point of view in which the issue of trust can never be overlooked. To what degree, therefore, do we trust the hypothetical stranger who is making the proposition? Once again the underlying assumption appears to be that since it is the trustworthy, authoritative psychologist who is introducing the proposition, the average person would have no reason to mistrust him or her. While there is truth in this, it is also true that our hypothetical person — based on numerous instances in which a key part of the psychological experiment has been duplicity on the part of the experimenter — has reason to be mistrustful. From that perspective, part of the aversion to loss could be towards being deceived or in some way manipulated.

To see this more clearly — since the point of every experiment such as this is, ultimately, to be able to apply it to a real life situation so as to better understand it — imagine the following: a stranger approaches you and, removing a coin from his pocket, says, “How much do I have to offer to pay you if you should win this coin flip — if you would have to pay me one dollar if you lose the coin flip — in order to get you to take the bet? Immediately it is apparent that a typical initial reaction would be, presumably, one of suspicion — not the contemplation of prospective gain or loss. Why, one wonders, is this person making the offer and why are they choosing me? What does this person really want — they must want more than just a dollar if they are going to the trouble of approaching me? It would be understandable to wonder if the coin, should they take the bet, would turn out to be a trick one. Or might the stranger be a con artist intent on luring them into a devious venture or, perhaps, just an unsavory, disreputable or even unbalanced person up to no good?

At this point, I can hear the voice of the experimental psychologist protesting, “Of course, we don’t mean a random stranger making this offer.”

Who then? A friend, an acquaintance? O.K. Imagine, for a moment, someone you know — someone who has never done this sort of thing before — making this offer. What would you think? Any number of things — is this a new party game? a joke of some kind? — might flash through your mind. What ever the case, it is hardly likely you would take it — as the experimenter seems to want the subject to — as a simple, straightforward proposition. For why would anyone make such an offer — without having some kind of ulterior motive (as obviously the experimenter does) — to someone they know?

We immediately see a crucial component this supposedly scientific experiment and others like it are forgetting about: the actual interpersonal relationship. The experimenter cannot make the assumption that the relationship he or she has with the subject at hand — which in this context is that of a benign, nonthreatening experimental setup — will in any way apply to the real world. For once a real life context comes into play, things change dramatically. Especially in the arena of gambling: and all economic transactions in the sense that you are betting on various outcomes are a form of gambling in which the degree you trust the person you are betting with or against is paramount. It is here that the motive and intention of the other become critical.

Seen this way, one of the things a person risks losing — even if he or she is betting a dollar — is the loss of trust in the person who is enjoining you to take on a betting wager. Even more important is the possible loss of trust in yourself, in your own judgment and ability to take care of yourself. There may also be the fear of competition. Is the person who wants to bet you just someone who has a sporting love for harmless wagers — or does he or she harbor some mean-spirited desire to achieve a victory, howsoever negligible, at your expense? If so, there may be a fear of a loss of face. It is possible to feel bested in a contest, regardless of whether the bet was for a dollar. He or she may feel the person who is saying “I’ll bet you,” in effect is saying, “I dare you.”

It follows, it is hard not to feel challenged and to feel challenged is to want to prevail so as not to lose face. To someone who loses a bet it can often seem that the most valuable thing one has lost is — not money — but prestige. Even if the wager is based entirely on chance — toss of a coin, spin of a roulette wheel — and not skill, it is difficult not to take the loss personally.

This is not to say that Chabris and Simons minimize the importance of trust when it comes to interpersonal transactions. Rather that (not surprisingly) they view it mainly through the cognitive bias of the rational/irrational dichotomy. Thus, in their discussion of what is called the framing issue, they point out: it is irrational for patients to react positively to the doctor who proclaims that 90% of the people who are afflicted with a certain illness will be alive in 5 years, and negatively to the doctor who says 10% of the same people will be dead in 5 years. Why irrational? Because they are the same!

Note here the underlying assumption that it is the statistical, informational content of a statement that matters, and that once the doctor has provided hard, cold facts, his or her job is over. How different that is from the psychodynamic point of view where the doctor/patient relationship is preeminent; where the amount of realistic hope a doctor can instill in his patient can have a considerable and proven placebo effect. From this point of view, it is not only rational, it makes all the sense in the world to wonder why a doctor would ever go out of his or her way to emphasize the death rate of a particular illness? Is the doctor perhaps secretly saying that although the survival rates are the same, the side effects (which can be horrendous) make it not worthwhile to undergo the treatment? Does the doctor somehow suspect that the particular patient may be one of the unlucky 10% who don’t survive? Is the doctor trying to dissuade patients from undergoing the treatment because he or she has had disturbing results with it in the past and therefore is unsure of their ability to manage the disease? We immediately see to frame a prognosis in such an uncharacteristically negative way is to evoke unwanted mental images of a doctor’s emotional relationship to a treatment in which he or she is presumably an objective, neutral practitioner.

Chabris and Simons go on to point out that “people trust doctors more than they should,” as undoubtedly they do. They back this up with well-known psychological experiments repeatedly showing just how persuasive self-confidence — regardless of whether there happens to be any manifest expertise whatsoever behind it — can be. Although they do not explicitly say so, the underlying assumption once again seems to be that this is a surprising revelation into how the human mind works. They write as though the cornerstone psychodynamic and psychoanalytic concept of transference — the process whereby, under certain stressful situations, infantile prototypes reemerge and are experienced with an inappropriate but vivid sense of immediacy (i.e., we treat adults, to whom we are not related, the same way we treated the parents, siblings and authority figures of our childhood) — had not been discovered a century ago by Sigmund Freud. They ignore the psychodynamic concept of transference because to admit it would be to consider just how powerful the drive to express unconscious wishes can be in ordinary human beings. And to admit the full power of the unconscious, including especially the earliest and most primitive strata of emotionality, would be to undermine their preferred model of an optimally, rationally functioning computer that can, however, on occasion go astray.

The authors point to ingenious studies which show that in all kinds of groups it is the person who speaks first who tends to acquire leadership status, and that, to a surprising degree, as noted, dominance in groups is based on confidence not ability. They claim this explains otherwise puzzling studies showing that the best method to guess the number of beans in a jar is — without the benefit of any kind of group discussion — to take a tally of all the individual guesses and then average them.

This, I would suggest, is a little bit less amazing than it seems. Once, that is, one takes into account the psychodynamic factor that there is an incredible difference between counting beans and counting the thoughts, feelings, sentiments and judgments of other people. Overlooked is the fact that in group dynamics factors such as peer pressure, approval seeking, scapegoating, pair bonding, forming of alliances carry special weight. Success in a group, evolutionary psychologists point out, is rooted in our tribal past, where survival depends — not on information or expertise — but on where you stand in the pecking order. Anyone who thinks this kind of relating is or should be outmoded, should be reminded of the democratic system of jurisprudence which is based on the concept of an open group discussion. Would anyone charged with a crime want their fate decided by a secret ballot of a jury, even if supposedly more efficient? Forgotten is that when political or moral decisions are being evaluated, it is the consensus of the group, not the seeking of the truth, that counts. To what extent the truth will emerge from a free and open discussion is an entirely different, often debated, philosophical matter.

We see now why statistics, as a science of quantifying but not explaining phenomena, works so well at determining the common denominator of a large group, and fails so miserably when it comes to assessing the particular qualities of an individual. (In this regard I always think of my graduate school teacher who, after telling us that according to statistics, the average American family has 21/2 children, added, “And, of course, no one has ever had half a child.”)

Having said that, and despite the huge importance of group standing and therefore of social feedback, throughout our lives our best guide (as William James, wearing his pragmatist’s hat, has noted) is our ourselves. Imagine, for example, trying to make your way in the world — not by assessing your own idiomatic level of pain and well-being — but by averaging (using all of your cognitive abilities) the well being of all others in similar situations, before acting. Imagine trying to decide if you like a particular person, are enjoying a particular thing you are doing, are experiencing a certain feeling — am I sad now or happy? — by averaging the remembered responses of all others in analogous circumstances. From the standpoint of evolutionary psychology as well as from a psychodynamic perspective, to rely primarily upon one’s own responses, tempered, of course, with necessary social feedback and corrective reflection, makes perfect survival sense.

In an interesting discussion of the “illusion of knowledge,” the authors point out how the daily feedback accompanying weather forecasting made for great accuracy — while the lack of similar feedback in most areas of our daily lives did not. Hence, we are prone to a surprising susceptibility to overestimate our own knowledge. Subjects, asked to demonstrate their basic understanding of how a bicycle, a flush toilet, a combination lock works — even to draw a recognizable picture of a penny — do poorly. To their credit, the authors (falling back on William James’ all purpose pragmatism) explain that we don’t need to know how to operate a toilet, we just need to know how to use it.

From our standpoint, however, the author writes as though cognitive psychologists are discovering for the first time the fundamental psychodynamic principle of narcissism: the drive to invest disproportionately more love and interest in our lives than in any other (put well by Steven Pinker, “this piece of earth I am standing on is the most important place in the universe”). Once again cognitive psychologists forget that we do not live or prevail by making the most logically correct decisions. Much more important is having the freedom to explore the possibilities of our particular life space and that includes the freedom to make mistakes, faulty choices and thereby learn from them.

The authors debunk the frequent claim that certain people have “a sixth sense.” They cite the experimental finding that “65% of people believe they can feel someone behind their back stare at them,” as yet further proof that we tend to significantly overestimate our knowledge. But there is another, rather different explanation. From the standpoint of evolutionary psychology there is survival value in being hypersensitive to the world of social presences just as there is survival value in being hypersensitive when it comes to attributing conscious intentionality — is it perhaps a human or animal predator? — to perception of unfamiliar sudden movements. Analogously, from the psychodynamic perspective, when we are anxious or needy of social contact, we are that much more prone to project our human feelings on the world around us. Seen that way, it is nearly impossible not to wonder obsessively why is that person who is staring at me, staring at me? It is even more difficult not to become suspicious of the person standing quietly behind us. Is this then irrational? If carried to a paranoid excess, obviously, yes. Otherwise, as the wise old adage advises, “Better safe than sorry.”

Like most cognitive psychologists, Chabris and Simons are skeptical of subliminal perception — a cornerstone of psychodynamic theory — claiming its so-called influence on the conscious mind is, at best, short lived and therefore “minimal.” Focusing on advertising and media-driven manipulation of viewers’ perceptions, they overlook the fact that people are bombarded daily by the subliminal stimuli of every conceivable kind, especially from other people. Their belittlement of the influence of subliminal perception is just part of the widespread contemporary disparagement of the power of the dynamic unconscious. Instead, they wish to replace the dynamic unconscious with a cognitive unconscious (sometimes called “the new unconscious”). Although they do believe in illusions, these tend to be illusions of consciousness. They are mistakes in logic, examples of deficient thinking — a problem to be corrected by education. The irrationality they manifest is caused — not by emotional resistance — but by deficits in thinking. Once again they seem to preempt without attribution a critical psychodynamic concept — the preconscious — and believe they have discovered something new. In their book, they vigorously critique the idea that tiny effects, or even a single cause can have a powerful influence. But ironically they overlook that cognitive psychologists themselves frequently make huge claims for the causal effects of a single variable: i.e., the basis, after all, of The Invisible Gorilla, as the authors repeatedly declare, is that “You don’t see what you don’t expect to see.”

In sum, there is a crucial difference between applying standard statistical methods to an existing social reality — the gold standard when it comes to scientific poll taking — and to make up, in the service of a research experiment, an artificial world that hardly exists. To then act as though a pared down toy replica can then stand in for the real world. To claim, on the basis of a palpable manipulation — an experimental result that is replicable — that one has not only predicted something about the real world, but that one has somehow thereby scientifically proved it.

None of this, I should say one more time, is meant to suggest I know a better way to design the above experiments, which howsoever ingenious I have been at pains to critique. I don’t. I only say, after you are finished, and are endeavoring to interpretively make sense of your results, don’t forget to incorporate the contribution of a psychodynamic and contextual perspective.

To illustrate this one more time, I conclude with a brief but memorable anecdote from Chabris and Simons, involving a social experiment “conducted with the help of virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell.”

The point of the experiment, according to Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten (who won the 2008 Pulitzer Price for Feature Writing for his coverage of this story) was to determine the extent people would appreciate aesthetic beauty. With that in mind, Joshua Bell, his Stradivarius violin case in hand, situated himself “between an entrance and an escalator” at the L’Enfant Plaza subway stop in Washington, DC. He opened his violin case, sprinkled it with some money of his own, to simulate crowd donations, and proceeded to perform several technically demanding classical pieces. Although more than one thousand people passed within a few feet of him in the course of his forty-three minute performance, only seven stopped to listen. And for his work, Bell made a scant $32.17.

To their credit, and unlike Weingarten, Chabris and Simons do not read the dismal results of this experiment as some kind of profound indictment of modern society’s lack of aesthetic sensibility. They correctly point out that in this situation, it is simply unreasonable to expect art appreciation from a stream of random passersby. To their further credit, they cite the importance of context, but the context they are talking about is a purely cognitive one, and the deficiency they see is not of aesthetic sensibility, but of expectations. Not surprisingly, they sum up the Joshua Bell social experiment as an example of “inattentional deafness,” rather than, as already suggested, the much more selective inattention.

So let’s look at Joshua Bell, not just cognitively, but from a psychodynamic point of view. Imagine yourself as one unit in a movable mass of rush hour commuters, hurrying to get to wherever you’re going. It is not just you do not expect to see, you most definitely do not want to see a performance by a virtuoso violinist like Joshua Bell. Not at this hour and certainly not in this venue. Consider for a moment what you would have to do in order for you to not only listen, but to appreciate the power and beauty of what was streaming forth from the violin of Joshua Bell. You would have to put your rush hour commuting plans temporarily on hold. You would have to block out the myriad distractions reminding you this is neither the time nor place to pause for serendipitous aesthetic nourishment. You would have to explain to yourself why someone who could play the violin as gloriously well as Joshua Bell would ever want to perform next to a subway station escalator. Why no one whatsoever was sufficiently impressed to linger and listen? Why someone who was this professionally schooled would need to beg for donations?

With questions such as these immediately suggesting themselves, it would be hard to trust that what one was witnessing was on the up and up, hard to quell the nagging thought that somehow here was just one more street hustle.

In short, there is far more to the human mind than just order, rationality and predictability. There is spontaneous emotion, contingency, novelty and randomness. Imagine for a moment, having to live your life with one stipulation: you can do whatever you choose to do, providing there is experimental proof that whatever you intend to do is rational.

So what is the elephant in the room when it comes to the reductively experimental view of the mind? In a word it is reality, the profound difference between the kind of artificial toy world they are constructing in their laboratories, and the real world it is supposedly modeling.

And what is the elephant in the room when it comes to the typical patient who comes for therapy? Nothing less than the hidden world of the dynamic unconscious.

Gerald Alper,

Author of God And Therapy

What We Believe When No One Is Watching

(The Above is an excerpt from my recent book, The Elephant In the Room, The Denial of the Unconscious Mind).

Author. Psychotherapist. Writing about psychology for all to read. I also interview scientists.