“Predictably Irrational” (2008) was not only the title of Dan Ariely’s book on the topic of behavioral economics (Kahneman, 2003; 2012) but it’s also an accurate description of the workings of the human mind, especially the part that seems to produce irrational behavior. Prior to his, my own book “Free Your Mind,” (2005) pointed to our least understood form of information processing, that of the perceptual, as an unknown and over looked source of intelligence. Though we all are well trained in the use of concepts, rational-cognitive understanding, and logic to come to some conclusion, most are unaware that we more frequently use perceptual processing to make judgments and take actions.
Both of the books described above either directly or indirectly describe the influence perceptual processing has on our judgments and decision-making. These can be as wide-ranging as those about our physical health (e.g., status, exercise, choice of treatments), mental well-being (e.g., anxiety, selfishness), work activities (e.g., hiring, balance sheets, acquisitions), finances (e.g., budgets, retirement planning), and social and community relationships (e.g., preferred role, activism level). Reliance on prior strategies, opinions based on outdated information, and rigid views are among the worst aspects of our go-to processing system, the rational-cognitive. Helpfully, perceptual processing counteracts these by allowing new information into the mix. It does so exactly because it does not use concepts, those fixed constructions attempting to mold ever-changing situations. This is the promise behavioral economics offers through its use of dual information processing theory, that percepts are processed as information in addition to the concepts we all hold so dearly. Describing the hidden powerfulness of perceptual processing, I recently wrote (Pashko, 2016),
“In an example of complex knowing without thinking, researchers had human participants press one of four electronic buttons (Lewicki, Hill, & Bizot, 1988). In doing so, they were to predict in which quadrant of a computer screen the letter “X” would next appear. The results showed that their performance steadily improved as they non-consciously absorbed the complex, computerized rules underlying where the “X” would appear.”
We only newly know of the existence of perceptual processing. Epstein suggests (2014, p. 12) that whereas the rational-cognitive information processing system utilizes concepts, cause-and-effect relationships, memory, language and symbols, and an analytic view, the markedly different features of the experiential (perceptual) processing system are:
- Use of percepts and imagery,
- The making of associative, but not causal, connections, and
Our use of perceptual processing is only newly known because in order to understand something it needs to be in the form of a concept, such as word. We cannot understand what we cannot put into words. Yet, percepts are sources of information that exist prior to words. In the example above, a research subject did not have the time to construct and complete a mathematical equation about where the “X” would next appear. They looked, perceived and chose. Percepts cannot be “understood” in the way we normally use this term. For example, you cannot say anything about the scent of a rose, except to give its label (i.e., rose scent). Rose scent can be “known,” and so compared to other smells, but it cannot be understood. The sense perceptions of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing (and often thought itself), are the origins the intelligence contained within perceptual (i.e., experiential) processing. Getting out of our heads full of thought by returning to these basic underpinnings of perceptual processing is the challenge taken on voluntarily by those who practice mindfulness.
At first introduction to mindfulness practice, a few techniques are presented. Sometimes people are asked to chew a raisin. At other times they are asked to scan the muscles of their body to notice any warmth, tightness, etc. or to “follow the breath” by paying attention to the up and down movement of the chest, the air moving through the nostrils, the felt sense of full or empty lungs, etc. All these practices require just one thing, our attention’s extraction from concepts (thoughts in the mind) and its intentional placement on perception. We perceive warmth, chest movement, and the need to breathe back in. Perceiving de-activates thinking (conceptualizing). Done correctly for some period of time, practitioners learn to more easily shift out of their heads full of thought to perceive exactly what’s going on before them. Access to information previously held at bay is regained and made available for decision-making. Further, flexibility to incorporate this new information into our decision-making is reclaimed.
Oh, and as a side note, mindfulness reduces stress, worry and, likely pain, (Pashko, 2014) for two reasons that may or may not be obvious from the above. First, it gets us out of our head that’s full of stress and worry-filled thoughts by requiring our attentional focus on perceptual experience. This ability increases with the persistent practice of mindfulness (i.e., re-engagement with the perceptual (non-mental) world). Without practicing in this way, thoughts cling to the mind. Secondly, thought constructions can only be stale and rigid reflections of what fluidly exists. I have argued (Pashko, 2016) that the origin of stress is caused by the difference between the thought construction (conceptualization) and the perception of the situation that exists before us. Presumably it’s our ignorance of the existence and capabilities of perceptual processing that keep us using a misrepresentation of reality as a foundation for our substandard decision-making.
As I have published (Pashko, 2016), insights and creativity, the basis for excellence in decision-making, appear to come from the realm of the perceptual. Here’s where engagement in mindfulness practice is so helpful because it’s the gateway into this type of intelligence. With concepts being more fixed structures than percepts, which flex every moment, they naturally resist change. Alternatively, percepts are fully informative, novel and ever-changing. Though we cannot know how perceptual processing works, because it does not involve concepts, we can benefit from it’s output—insights—useful information that comes to us surprisingly because we didn’t use concepts to “think” it. To encourage creative and insightful decision-making and resulting actions, the undertaking of mindfulness practice may be the best way to achieve these desired aims. The side benefits of mindfulness, the reduction of stress through increased disinterest in ruminative thought and the clear-seeing of perceptual reality, should facilitate our undertaking of this effort.
Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably Irrational. NY: Harper Collins.
Epstein, S. (2014). Cognitive-experiential theory. New York, NY: Oxford.
Kahneman, D. (2003). Maps of bounded rationality: Psychology for behavioral economics. The American Economic Review, 93, 1449–1475.
Kahneman, D. (2012). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Lewicki, P., Hill, T., & Bizot, E. (1988). Acquisition of procedural knowledge about a pattern of stimuli that cannot be articulated. Cognitive Psychology, 20, 24 –37.
Pashko, S. (2005) Free Your Mind. North Wales, PA: Fluidity.
Pashko, S. (2014). Conceptual versus perceptual information processing: Implications for subjective reporting. Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics, 7(4), 219–226.
Pashko, S. (2016). Implication of the differences between our perceptual and conceptual views. Psychology & Neuroscience, 9(2), 267-281.
Steven Pashko is a research clinician who studies treatment effectiveness and the value of health and healthcare. With a background in psychology and pharmacology, he conducts behavioral, clinical and economic research and, further, speaks about well-being. Notably, using behavioral economics theory, he submitted for a patent for way to identify people who respond to placebos.
Copyright Steven Pashko, PhD (2016).