We're not Zombies

I really enjoyed “The Zombie Within,” the recent article by Berkeley philosopher Alva Noë over on the NPR blog 13.7. Noë argues that just because a lot of our thought and decision making does not require our active involvement, it doesn’t mean that we’re mindless zombies. To the contrary, it’s because we are able to make so many basic functions automatic that our limited attention is free to do the really interesting stuff.

“”Consider that a novice basketball player needs to think about the mechanics of how to dribble; doing so — concentrating, paying attention to hand, wrist, ball, etc. — improves performance. But not so for the experienced player. It isn't just that that he or she doesn't need to pay attention to ball handling to play well; it's that fluent and skillful performance will be disrupted if she does. This is a general fact about expertise. Pick your favorite example. A chess beginner needs to think about the rules governing how the pieces move in order to play. That layer of thinking recedes into the background for the advanced player, freeing him up to pay attention to the things that matter for winning, such as tactics and strategy.””


Even though we like to think we’re in charge of our minds, it’s certainly not a bad thing that we let the unconscious do a lot of the work for us. If we had to spend all our time dealing with the mundane details of keeping our balance, or parsing grammar, or regulating our blood sugar levels, we’d have very little time for anything else. So our brains take care of most of those things for us, often completely outside our awareness.


There are occasionally downsides to this outsourcing, of course. Sometimes we do some things on autopilot that we wouldn’t have done if we’d really been paying attention. One of my favorite examples of this sort of mindlessness is a 1978 study (PDF) by Ellen Langer. In the study a researcher approached people waiting to use a photocopier at the library at the City University of New York with a simple request to skip ahead of them in line. The request was made in one of three ways.


The first version was the simplest: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine?” Sixty percent of people approached with this request deferred and let the researcher skip ahead of them. In the second version, a reason was added: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages.  May I use the xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” Now compliance rose all the way to 94%. But what’s really interesting here, and tells us about how our unconscious autopilot can sometimes lead us astray, is what happened in the third version, when the request was accompanied by a “placebo” reason: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I have to make copies?” Obviously the reason didn’t add any meaningful information and yet 93% of people complied with the request, almost exactly the same percentage as when the request actually had some substance. We get tricked by the word “because” and assume, without paying much attention, that the reason we’re given is valid. But this mostly happens when we’re not really paying attention – when the request is relatively large (for 20 pages of photocopies instead of just 5) we start to tune in and the trick no longer works.


When we process things at an automatic level we tend to use shortcuts. They make things much more efficient and, although they occasionally misguide us, for the most part, they serve us well. As Noë explains, this doesn’t make us zombies – as he puts it, “sometimes not deliberating is the mark of our intellectual fitness.”