Social Cognition and the Unconscious

 

Social Cognition and the Unconscious

 

It is generally recognized in psychology that a good deal of problem solving goes on unconsciously. We can solve problems as we sleep with no expression of this mental activity in consciousness. This can happen with scientific problems, mathematical problems, literary problems, and practical problems of various kinds. Life confronts us with a wide range of problems and the mind has the ability to work on them outside the sphere of consciousness, thus sparing the conscious mind from unnecessary distraction. This makes evolutionary sense and it fits with other conceptions of unconscious mental activity, such as Helmholtz’s “unconscious cerebration” in sense perception and Chomsky’s ideas about language processing. What is called simply “the unconscious” can be seen as a congeries of modular problem solving capacities, each dedicated to a specific subject matter—how to see an object, how to understand an utterance, figuring out the answer to an engineering problem, producing a chemical theory, coming up with a mathematical proof, and so on. We have an unconscious mind so that we can solve problems efficiently and easily. Among these problems are social problems—problems about other people. We are social animals, we live in families, we form groups, we cooperate and compete; and all this social activity presents problems, sometimes knotty problems, frequently emotional problems. So it makes sense to assume that there is an unconscious module devoted to social cognition in addition to our conscious thought about other people. We rack our brains about what do about person X, and we wake up in the morning with the solution in hand (if we are lucky). It can be assumed that the “theory of mind” plays a role in social cognition, because we will often have to think about other people’s motivations and beliefs, and no doubt much other knowledge will be relevant. Of course we also need to think about our own actions and wishes in relation to other people—what we want from them, what we can expect to receive, etc. So the social cognition module will contain a lot of information about psychological processes, social roles, family dynamics, and suchlike things. At different times of life certain types of social problem will be salient depending upon the prevailing social conditions; in childhood, say, social cognition will be focused on immediate family relations—parents and siblings mainly. Family problems will then occupy the attention of the unconscious social cognition module: problems concerning the distribution of parental resources, sibling rivalry, maternal deprivation, difficult fathers, suffocating mothers, love and hate, all the stuff of daily family life. Such problems are presumably not alien to our biological kin: we can suppose that at least the apes have to deal with a similar set of family issues—that is just the nature of the biological family. So it may be supposed that unconscious social cognition is quite commonplace among the more sophisticated social species (I don’t know about ants and bees). And all this will no doubt be affect-driven, sometimes a matter of life and death, and always of pressing concern. This particular module will have to bear a lot of human weight.

            I am saying all this in order to build up to the following point: the approach to the unconscious just sketched might provide a way to rehabilitate some aspects of the Freudian unconscious. At least Freud was right about the existence of a family-oriented unconscious mind, even if he was not right about its content. But for a moment let’s take seriously one of his distinctive and controversial claims, specifically the prevalence of the Oedipal complex. Suppose you are confronted by the following problem: you are in love with your mother and want to have sex with her, but your father stands in your way—what to do? Well, patricide might be an option worth considering; that way you can have your mother all to yourself. But then you reflect that castration might be inflicted on you, so you have to take that into account if you plan to do away with your father. Hmmm. I’m not saying any of this is true (in fact I don’t believe it for a second), but it is possible to cast the whole story as an exercise in problem solving: ifthese were your real desires, then your unconscious might come up with the solution suggested. More realistically, if you are greedy for your mother’s affection and think your father is getting too much of it, you might wonder how to improve matters, coming up with a plan to kiss your mother every night before bedtime (I am thinking of Proust’s maternally obsessive Marcel who meticulously plots his mother’s bedtime kiss every single day). Or, to borrow from Alfred Adler, you might be confronted with the problem of the elder sibling—you know, the one that gives you an inferiority complex because of his or her superior abilities. Ruminating on this problem, you might come up with a plan to learn from your sibling, or deviously cripple him, or just learn to play the piano while he cannot. That is, we can accept the idea of an affect-driven, emotionally fraught, family-centered unconscious, but not necessarily accept what Freud postulated to occur in it (based on his “clinical findings”). So we need not put repressed sexual desire at the heart of the unconscious (surely a reflection of the Victorian age in which Freud lived); instead we can suppose that the unconscious social cognition module occupies itself with whatever family matters it deems important—as it might be, parental attention, sibling rivalry, conflict resolution, permission to go out with your friends at night, etc. This material is not unconscious because it is intolerable to the ego and superego and must therefore be repressed, but simply because of capacity considerations—better to do this work unconsciously than have it absorb your every conscious moment. On this way of looking at things, Freud had a genuine insight, namely that there is an unconscious mental system inside us designed to deal with issues arising from family and other social relations, and which may be supposed to come online early in human life and leave its mark on later development. It is dynamic and fraught, and it may lead to psychological difficulties in later life if it fails to solve the problems confronted during childhood (problems arising from feelings of inferiority would be a good example). Freud was right about the form but wrong about the content: the social unconscious is a real entity but it is not much focused (if at all) on sexual matters, being much more concerned with questions of security, success, and approval.[1]

            This view of the “Freudian” unconscious could also be joined to other Freudian themes: not just the link to later-life neurosis but also liaisons with dreams, jokes, slips of the tongue, art, and adult motivation. Maybe the revised view of the contents of the social unconscious can lead to a new appraisal of the links to other mental phenomena: we dream about social insecurity, rivalries, betrayals, moral lapses, and the Anxiety of the Other; we make jokes about what troubles us socially (three men walk into a bar, etc.); we stumble over words that induce social vertigo in us; we produce art that dwells on family dynamics, thwarted romance, crime, and the tribulations of friendship; and we never quite leave behind the anxieties and ambitions of our early social years, which continue to motivate us in ways both helpful and harmful. So the Freudian psychic architecture can be transposed into another key by updating the conception of the contents of the unconscious that he took for granted.[2] We don’t have to throw out the cognitive baby with the sexual bathwater: there is an unconscious mind concerned with interpersonal matters, often emotionally laden, active during childhood, and linked to other aspects of the psyche; but it isn’t preoccupied with incestuous sex, patricide, and castration anxiety (still less “penis envy”). The old “quack” (as Nabokov always called Freud) might be reformed into a genuine scientist by adopting a more solidly grounded picture of the nature and function of the unconscious. And isn’t it true that when we read Freud we find ourselves quite taken by his overall picture of the structure of the psyche but turned off by the particular attributes he ascribes to the unconscious? All that doesn’t seem remotely plausible, but the idea of an unconscious mind dedicated to personal relations strikes us as eminently reasonable. In a nutshell: we replace Freud by Adler (whose books strike the reader as perfectly easy to believe). But Freud wasn’t completely wrong and he laid the groundwork: the Freudian unconscious lives and breathes, but now with different tenants occupying it. Psychoanalysis can thus survive the eviction of those troublesome tenants, with their tedious obsessions and questionable moral practices. Unconsciously we are hardworking interpersonal problem-solvers not enraged and ashamed sexual deviants subject to harsh repression. We are more like Archimedes than Oedipus.

[1] I don’t think Freud ever claimed that other species experience the Oedipal complex with accompanying psychological formations, but it would be very reasonable to suppose that other animals experience feelings of abandonment, rivalry, filial affection, and survival anxiety. It is surprising that Freud promoted a theory so contrary to biological principles: what value is there in a tendency to develop an Oedipal complex? Why would a desire to have sex with one’s mother at an age at which sex is impossible be favored by natural selection? Where is the genetic payoff? Freud was a Darwinian, but his theory of child psychology is quite contrary to Darwinian principles.  

[2] One important aspect of the Freudian unconscious is that its activities can lead to actions that the conscious subject cannot understand. The person’s reasons for action are opaque to her, because unconscious. This idea too can be preserved under the new dispensation: for example, unresolved sibling conflicts left over from childhood might lead to adult actions that the person fails to understand, because the motivating reasons remain unconscious. Freud’s specific theory of the unconscious is not the only one that is consistent with such effects.  

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