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Mindless in America

Ellen Langer and the social psychology of mindlessness

by Carrie McLaren | Issue #16

wake. shower. drive. work. dinner. television. shower. sleep. repeat. As someone prone to leaving her groceries at the store and zoning out while bike riding through Manhattan traffic, I can relate to what Ellen Langer calls "mindlessness." For over a decade, Langer, a social psychologist at Harvard, has researched and written about mindlessness and its counterpart, "mindfulness."

Mindlessness, appropriately enough, is the easiest to grasp: it’s the human tendency to operate on autopilot, whether by stereotyping; performing mechanically, by rote; or simply not paying attention. Although exceedingly common, few people (unless they’re practicing Buddhists, perhaps) realize the extent to which they live mindlessly.

Mindlessness often results from categorical thinking. (In fact, categorical thinking is the first of three categories of mindlessness!) For instance, say a rich-looking man rings your doorbell late one night, says he’s on scavenger hunt and desperately needs to find a 3' x 7' piece of wood. He’ll give you $10,000 to help him find one. You think of a lumber yard, although you have no clue where one is and figure that nothing would be open at this hour, anyway. So you turn him down. It doesn’t occur to you that the door you just opened is a 3' x 7' piece of wood, because you think of it as a category called "door," not "wood."

Everyone experiences the world by creating categories. Langer’s observations are nothing new on this count. As Walter Lippmann put it in 1922, "A diffusive blur and an indiscriminantly shifting suction characterize what we do not understand."

All foreigners look alike.

Lippmann: "We do not first see and then define, we define first and then see."

Lippmann cites an incident at a psychology conference to illustrate the point–a fight (involving a clown) that, unbeknownst to attendees, had been set-up. Afterward, the witnesses were asked to immediately write a report. Of the 40 reports, only one made less than 20 percent mistakes in regard to the principal facts; thirteen more than 50 percent. In 24 accounts, 10 percent of the details were pure inventions. As Lippmann writes, "Out of forty trained observers writing a responsible account of a scene that just happened before their eyes, more than a majority saw a scene that had not taken place. What then did they see? . . . their stereotype of such a brawl."

The second source of mindlessness is "acting from a single perspective," blindly going with the flow rather than thinking "out of the box." We are what psychologists refer to as "cognitive misers," saving mental energy for when we need it. For example, if the single perspective we are operating from is HATE SHOPPING, we may find it easier to go into a coma at the 24-hour Kroger, grabbing only familiar products, rather than carefully considering which deodorant is best. Mindlessness, in this case, is the path of least resistance.

mindlessness in traffic

The third type of mindlessness is related to repetitive tasks or habit. Psychologists picked up on this in 1896 when Gertrude Stein (!) and Leon Solomons demonstrated that both writing and reading could be done automatically. With much practice, subjects could write words while reading, take dictation while reading, and read aloud while listening to a story being read to them. Solomons and Stein concluded that many actions considered intelligent can be automatically performed.

Once actions become automatic, thinking can actually get in the way. Langer and a colleague conducted an experiment at an employment line in Boston, where for a supposed "linguistic study of voice quality," they asked people to talk into a tape recorder. Half were asked to speak about why it was difficult to find a job in Boston, the other half to speak about finding a job in Alaska–presumably an issue which they had not given much thought. Half of each group were asked to think about their given topic first. The results were clear. People were much more fluent when discussing a novel issue after being given time to think about it first or when they spoke about a familiar topic with no time to think about it. Thinking about a familiar topic disrupted their performance.

You can see this in action: ever gone to use a different ATM and realized you don’t know your password when the numbers are set up differently?

Langer writes clearly and compellingly in two books, Mindfulness and the somewhat mushier The Power of Mindful Learning. Unfortunately, her work shares some limitations of other pop psychologists–and, for that matter, social science in general–in that it is not only ahistorical but largely anecdotal, focused on varieties of mindlessness and individual strategies to cope. The topic raises lots of big questions but Langer doesn’t broach them: How do social and cultural environments affect mindlessness? How do technology and media use contribute to mindlessness? Are people more mindless than they used to be?

Take categorical thinking: Since the time when thinkers such as Lippmann and William James recognized this quirk of humanity, electronic mass media has entered the picture. Electronic media, I think, can be said to increase categorical thinking in at least one of two ways–the oft-remarked-upon use of stereotyped characters, places, and ideas in its content; and through the medium itself.

A medium is, by definition, something mitigating between one’s senses and the world. Our brains make sense of experiences by attempting to integrate sensory input–audio, verbal, olfactory, tactile, etc. To borrow a textbook example, if all a person knows is the spoken word "cat," a vague picture of a feline is brought to mind. If the person hears the word "cat" and can hear the animal purr or meow, she gets a more complete idea of the animal. A picture would contribute still more information . . . but to really understand what a cat is, she’d need to touch its fur, smell the litter box, etc.

When an object is perceived that is lacking in some sensory area, past experience from similar objects fills in. Therein lies media’s potential to increase categorical thinking, for these memories serve as stereotypes.

Media offer limited sensory information. Newspapers provide verbal and pictoral info; radio–aural; television–verbal pictoral, and aural; and so on. What a medium lacks, we provide. Compared to in-person encounters, mediated environments require more "filling in" of sensory information. And the more acclimated one becomes to using media, the more automatic this process seems to become; "filling in" becomes an unconscious reflex. For instance, despite one’s rational understanding of the inability to communicate intent, tone, and emotion through email, mere words on a screen can conjure up deeply personal, bodily reactions. You know you can’t determine intent, tone, and emotion, yet try anyway.

None of this interests Langer. And I suppose there’s no reason to expect it would. She is largely concerned with inculcating mindfulness, which, by her definition, is somewhat akin to creative thinking . . . or, to borrow a Zen metaphor (despite Langer’s peculiar insistence that her mindfulness has no relation to Eastern concepts of mindfulness) you could also think of it as "beginner’s mind"–the ability to always see things as new and open. Little kids don’t have to be taught mindfulness; they’re naturally that way, ever in-the-moment and able to amuse themselves by playing with cardboard boxes.

Underlying mindfulness is the continual and active quest for novelty. "The problem is that people think of novelty as a stimulus," Langer said in a phone interview.

In other words, novelty doesn’t reside in rapid-fire film edits or better video game graphics. "The trick is to teach people that they are what make things interesting. One could read the same book many times, or could see the same television program over and over, and bring to it something different each time."

Essentially, a mindful approach is like "play;" a mindless one, "work." Work is what one does to reach a particular goal; play is focusing on the process–the end is beside the point. To borrow Langer’s example, take golf (please). Someone who enjoys golf putters around, tries out new techniques, talks to people, plays. But say someone invents a miracle method for knocking their handicap in half. The golfer learns this and cuts their handicap. Then maybe they start using a miracle club for cutting it down half again. Then there’s another discovery and so on until there’s no game. By focusing on the end result, the golfer loses sight of the process and there’s no more game. (This happened to me in seventh grade, incidentally, after I read that Rubik’s Cube book about solving it in three minutes.)

As a personal psychological approach, there is much to recommend the mindful strategies of keeping your brain on, staying in the moment, and focusing on the process, not the goal. Naturally, individual effort is crucial. But individuals do not operate in a vacuum; social circumstances limit the options. Disregarding the goal, for instance, is bad advice for someone who needs to stay employed. And it is largely at odds with a culture centered on maximizing efficiency; one where ostensibly labor-saving technologies such as computers, fax machines, internet connections, and cell phones have an odd way of making more work, not less. Who can afford to stay in the moment or pay attention to the surroundings when there are three papers due Wednesday, a kitchen to clean, mouths to feed, an angry landlord to pay, and 20 calls to answer in one hour?

anger suggests that her work is particularly suited to creating a more humane workplace. But the premises of mindlessness have long been exploited in the workplace to make people more mindless, not less. The social science that underlies mindlessness has helped heighten the perception–and not the reality–that workplaces accommodate mindful thinking. Decades ago, industrial psychologists found that workers are more compliant, more productive, and less likely to join unions when they feel like their thoughts count–regardless of whether they actually do. Unsurprisingly, management generally responded to psychologists’ research by hiring "human resources" counselors and "team leaders" to listen to workers, and then doing what they wanted to, anyway. Several management trends have, over the years, used various names for the same idea: human engineering, "progressive" management, etc.

The conscious application of such techniques are by no means exclusive to the workplace. The mindless state of which Langer writes is exactly what advertisers, marketers, and power brokers of all sorts hope to take advantage of. In fact, I first came across Langer’s work in Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, blurbed by the Journal of Marketing Research as "the most important books in the last ten years" for marketers. Cialdini cites case after case of mindlessness in action–and how to take advantage of it.

Entire industries depend on mindlessness: impulse purchases account for a great deal of grocery and drugstore sales. Because shoppers tend to mindlesslessly select products for irrelevant attributes (perceiving, say, a detergent brand as more effective when boxed in a certain shade of blue) packaging researchers meticulously test and scrutinize font styles, tool lines, color gradations, textures, and other seemingly irrelevant details that increase sales. Then there are cell phones–so that people don’t have to waste a moment of brain time paying attention to such mundane activities as eating, walking, or driving. And don’t get me started on the fax machines, internet connections, and other highly disturbing accessories designed for use in your car.

One could even argue (although that one will not be me) that the economy itself depends on mindlessness. At any rate, the relentless drive toward economic growth is as good example as any of abandoning the process for the goal.

All of which is to say that someone aspiring to "mindfulness" would do well to acknowledge the outside world. At the root of mindfulness is a radical focus on the power of perception, the understanding that mindsets dictate our reality. As Langer writes, because people believe, rightly or wrongly, that nursing homes are grim, nursing homes are grim. When we expect them to be horrible, they live up to expectations. A mindful person sees the stereotype for what it is–a mindset–and can then see it from a new perspective.

But what about when outside circumstances do matter? Very often, there are reasons nursing homes are perceived as grim, as anyone who has ever waited 36 hours to have their bedpan changed could attest. A truly mindful approach must reckon with the point where thinking needs to change verses the environment itself. It is to ask the question: Once we acknowledge our own mindlessness, what shall we be mindful about?

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Interview with Ellen Langer on mindfulness and music performance; from the Lincoln Center website