Mlodinow, L. Subliminal: How your Unconscious Mind Rules your Behavior. Pantheon Books, NY: 2012.

Mlodinow, L. Subliminal: How your Unconscious Mind Rules your Behavior. Pantheon Books, NY: 2012.

This category of “thinking otherwise” is devoted to what I would like to have thought and said, but read about instead. Leonard Mlodinow has written a vastly informative review of how our minds are conditioned by our society. Much of what we unconsciously “think” influences our behavior. And, that is a result of what Walter Lippmann’s insight, in Public Opinion describes: “…our social environment has become too big, and we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it.”(p.149)
Mlodinow calls it “implicit stereotyping. We all do it. Why? Because it is necessary (as Lippmann concluded almost a century ago). “The challenge is not how to stop categorizing but how to become aware of it when we do it in ways that prevent us from being able to see individual people for who and what they are.”
Every chapter in this book is highly informative: Part I describes “The Two-Tiered Brain” while Part II addresses “The Social Unconscious.” Control of our unconscious, some call it the subconscious, begins with awareness.
Here is a typical insight. “Whenever we categorize, we polarize.”(p.148). Apply that to politics in the USA today. He explains that once we “join” a “category,” be it conservative, progressive, libertarian, environmentalist, etc., because the media usually explain superficially, we “implicitly stereotype” anyone and anything identified by the “category” used by the media.
To develop a quick insight into this, think of the “categories” above. Who are included in “conservative,” in “progressive,” etc. Perhaps you think you are in one of these categories. If so, do you dislike all the “others” so much that you avoid reading about their views, avoid people who you believe are in them, and have already concluded that they are deluded, foolish, ignorant, uninformed, and unworthy of much respect?
That is where we are today, for a number of reasons that Walter Lippmann, almost a century ago, identified and described. Mlodinow amplifies this, and much, much more.
Part II includes chapters on reading people, judging people by their covers, sorting people and things, in-groups and out-groups, feelings, and self. Based on valid research, he explains what “goes on inside our unconscious” while our senses provide data that desperately needs interpretation.
Unfortunately, our society has few mechanisms to help us. We need to learn almost independently, or with mentors who themselves have the ability to screen the “implicit stereotyping” that is almost always used by our mass media, our fellow citizens, and ourselves.
Mlodinow does not provide suggestions on how to begin screening but there are sources on the internet and in print. The first step is to look at one’s self to see where we are on the scale of “stereotypers.” That, he would suggest, begins with “thinking otherwise” about anything you see or hear in today’s media—mainstream, fringe, underground, or illicit. My own solution is to “know myself well enough to know when I don’t know enough to “accept” without question the “conventional wisdom,” or “everyone knows that’s true,” or “trust me.”

Good luck!


John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

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