The Trouble with Consciousness

The majority of current neuropsychological research on consciousness all point to the same finding: free will, “the belief that our conscious self is unconstrained in deciding our actions and decisions” (Watson, 432), is largely a myth and the mind is fallible. This research proposes that our decisions are predetermined from deeper-rooted, emotional, biological impulses long before our logical, conscious minds kick in.

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Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik’s article “When Free Choice Is an Illusion” describes the experiments run by Lars Hall and Petter Johansson from Lund University in Sweden in which the phenomenon of “choice blindness”– the way in which people are not always aware of their own choices and preferences–is revealed. Their first test involved participants choosing a favorite between two photographs of equally attractive women. Then, both photos were flipped over and the participants were asked to pick up their selection to talk about it in greater detail. Due to some sleight of hand from the researchers, the subjects actually flipped over the card opposite of their choice. However, this swap went largely unnoticed; “Johansson reported that their subjects realized that the photo they picked up was not their actual choice only 26 percent of the time,” (Martinez-Conde and Macknik). Additionally, “When the researchers asked the participants to explain their selection–remember, they chose the other picture–they did not falter,” (Martinez-Conde and Macknik).

Fig. 2. Examples of pairs of pictures used.

Timothy D. Wilson, researcher and professor at the University of Virginia, ran an identical experiment and received the same results, which prompted him to run another similar test. Wilson gave subjects five jams that had previously been ranked by Consumer Reports; one test group was ordered to rank the jams in order of how good they thought the jams were while a second test group had to write out the pros and cons of each jam before ranking them. The people who weren’t forced to explain themselves ranked the jams similarly to Consumer Reports while the people who were asked to introspect, “rated the jams inconsistently and had varying preferences based on their explanations,” (McRaney).

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Both of these experiments indicate the same notion: humans are wired to act first, and think later. Hall and Johansson showed that, “we can use hindsight to determine our own motives–just as we might speculate about what drives someone else’s behavior after the fact,” (Martinez-Conde and Macknik). Rather than pondering their selections and then acting, the subjects acted first and then fabricated justifications to account for their non-choices. In Wilson’s experiment, the subjects who acted according to their instincts rated the jams more consistently and in-line with a reputable rating scale rather than the subjects who were forced to analyze the jams before acting.

These tests may also prove that metacognition, “the ability to consider the contents of one’s own thoughts and cognition,” (Watson 427) is futile, and can actually skew one’s original impulses. This is most likely due to the “hard problem of consciousness”, which refers to the impossibility of communicating one’s qualia, or “purely subjective experiences of perceptions,” (Watson 429). By asking the subjects why they liked or disliked their selections, the researchers were assigning the hopeless task of translating something from a deep, primal part of their psyche into higher, rational thought. To accomplish this, they most likely focused on attributes that were easy to verbalize and sounded like plausible reasons (but may not have been important to their original evaluations). These attributes led to new evaluations and a change in attitude towards the selections as the participants fell into believing their newly constructed narratives; “You look at what you did, or how you felt, and you make up some sort of explanation which you can reasonably believe. If you have to tell others, you make up an explanation they can believe too,” (McRaney).

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While this apparent lack of true control may be daunting to some, I argue that the base lesson to be learned from these studies is slightly more optimistic: too much overthinking can actually be counterintuitive, and in some cases it’s best to trust our gut instincts which have arisen as a survival mechanism from thousands of years of evolution. Also, recognizing how flexible our “wants” actually are, and how they may be easily manipulated, may be useful in moving away from unhealthy ruminations and realizing our own personal potentials for change and growth.



Martinez-Conde, Susana, and Stephen L. Macknik. “When Free Choice Is an Illusion.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 1 Jan. 2017,

McRaney, David. You Are Not so Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself. Gotham Books, 2012.

Watson, Neil V. The Mind’s Machine,  2nd Edition. Sinauer Associates, 20101123. VitalBook file.

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