The Iceberg Mind

At many science conferences it is common to see icebergs used a metaphor for the mental life of humans.  The iceberg is designed to illustrate the notion that the vast majority (typically 95% is the percent quoted) of our behaviours are determined by mechanisms of which we are simply not aware, being ‘below the water’.  The small part we can see, in our consciousness, accounts for only a small proportion of our behaviours suggesting they are of little or no real consequence.

The notion of our inner thoughts being only a small part of who we are has a long history.  The writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley proclaimed in 1874 that mental events could be likened to a steam whistle that contributes nothing to the work of a locomotive. William James characterized our inner life as not influencing the brain activity that generates them “any more than a shadow reacts upon the steps of the traveller whom it accompanies”.  More recently Frances Crick suggested that “You., your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviours of a vast number of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

What are we to make of this if we are interested in understanding humans?  Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman at Ogilvy UK is an influential voice in behavioural science who has suggested that our thoughts are of little if any consequence:

“I think the way we think we decide and the way we actually decide don’t have that much in common. The conscious rational brain isn’t the Oval Office; it isn’t there making executive decisions in our minds. It’s actually the press office issuing explanations for actions we’ve already taken.”

To be clear, this ‘iceberg model’ of humans is no side note of history but instead, has become a highly popular to understand ourselves.  This is the implied model of behavioural economists Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler both of who were awarded Nobel prizes for their work.  The view held by these Nobel prize holders is that much of our behaviour is automatic in nature, meaning that we make all sorts of decisions that shape our behaviour, the reasons for which we are blissfully unaware.

Another recent example of this tradition is Professor Nick Chater’s recent book, ‘The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind’.  In his view ‘mental depth’ or the notion that we have an inner life is simply an illusion for which we have fallen ‘hook, line, and sinker’.  His notion of the mind is that it is entirely ‘in-the-moment’ and “almost everything we know about our minds is a hoax, played on us by our brains.”

This surely suggests that we have no real inner life and are unable to give any sensible account of ourselves:

“If you ask me what I did, I will give you a reason, and a reason for that reason, and so on; and I can do this so fluently I have the illusion the chain of reasons was pre-formed inside me. But the reasons are mere rationalisations, invented only when they are required, and not a moment before. In fact, if you ask me the same question in a slightly different way, I will probably give you a different answer.”

This view of the world infers we are indeed icebergs, with no real sense of our inner life, as consciousness is simply an illusion or, at the very least, is simply a by-product of the real action taking place through our neurons.

Does it matter?

Perhaps we can make the case that musing about our inner life is not really all that important.  Indeed, the positions taken on it can often seem inconsistent and perhaps at odds with the logical consequence of the considered positions taken.  But having a clear conversation about this is important as the belief we hold about our inner life is a defining feature of how we see ourselves, not only as individuals, but in terms of what it means to be human.   Whilst freedom of thought is considered an absolute right protected in international law (Article 18 of the UDHR and the ICCPR and Article 9 of the ECHR), if our inner life is simply a by-product of a set of mental processes, then surely we can ultimately identify and measure these mental processes nullifying these laws.

This is the logical consequence of much activity that claims to be able to read our minds.  Elon Musk’s company Neuralink, is developing Bluetooth-enabled brain implants, claiming the devices could enable telepathy and repair motor function in people with injuries.    We can also consider the use of techniques known as “behavioural microtargeting” that establishes a psychological profile with information collected from social media and then uses that profile to design targeted political messaging.  A UK company, Cambridge Analytica was famously identified to be using these techniques through the illegal collection of Facebook data and there are claims it successfully influenced elections around the world including the UK Brexit referendum and the election of Donal Trump.

The beliefs we have about ourselves also have implications for the powers which we imbue the technology in our lives.  Artificial Intelligence involves a close relationship between computer scientists and cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists, often using AI concepts and models to inform questions about human minds.  Given the degree to which AI is rapidly becoming embedded in a wide range of legal, medical, educational, welfare and commercial decisions then the way in which this informs our beliefs about ourselves is key.  If we believe that human thought ultimately more or less mirrors those of a computer, then are more likely to defer to AI derived outcomes.  For example, a UK regional police force, the Avon and Somerset Police are reported to be using software to score around 250,000 known offenders on the likelihood of a person committing a crime such as burglary, stalking and harassment, or serious domestic or sexual violence.

All these activities involve huge billions of dollars of investment; the behavioural microtargeting industry alone is worth billions of dollars.  Police resources are deployed on the basis of algorithmic calculations. It seems that a lot of investment, commercial activity and policy changes hinge on a set of beliefs about the mind.

Challenging the iceberg mind

Given how much is contingent on these beliefs, should we not be challenging ourselves about the degree to which the ‘philosophical plumbing’ is operating correctly.  How sure can we be that the assumptions about the human mind that ultimately underpin these huge decisions are actually correct?

The difficulty is that there is no finality about what consciousness is or in fact even if it exists.  As philosopher Philip Goff wrote, “We can’t prove with 100 percent certainty that we ‘re not in the Matrix being fed a virtual reality by evil computers.”  And as Bertrand Russell pointed out we cannot prove that the world didn’t spontaneously come into existence five minutes ago, including from its start all our memories suggesting a history that never took place

So while empirical analysis on this topic is relevant, it is not sufficient.  Even if we know all that facts possible, we still need a philosophical understanding of consciousness to determine whether our experiences are entirely materialistic and knowable or whether we have an inner mind that is not accessible to others.  The importance of philosophy working alongside science was illustrated by philosopher Gary Gutting when he said, “Even if the best scientific account implied that I was not I pain despite my subjective experience of agony, I could be sure there was something wrong with the account”.

The difficulty with subjective experience and our inner lives generally, is that it is hard to measure and impossible to directly observe.  But then again this is not an issue limited to the topic of our inner lives.  Much of the natural sciences are engaged in researching topics that cannot be directly empirically observed.  So, science cannot directly observe quarks, black holes dinosaurs or the big bang.  But what natural science does is use the limited evidence that it has available and then use this in conjunction with reasoning, conceptual models to build a theoretical understanding of how these phenomena work (or worked).

Which means that scientists surely need to listen to those that have thought about the challenge of our inner lives.  One writer who has an interesting perspective on this is Alva Noe, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. The focus of his work is the theory of perception and consciousness.

He suggests that if we have ‘collaborative mutual involvements’, then the question of whether others have inner lives (and by definition ourselves) cannot arise.  He does make the case that there is a theoretical argument to make that there may be no such thing as an inner life, but we do not and simply are not able to occupy that standpoint, if we want to carry on together in cooperation.  He notes that “intimacy and commitment simply leave no room for theoretical musings.  I cannot both trust and love you and also wonder whether, in fact, you are alive with thought and feeling, just as I cannot dance well if I am counting steps and trying to remember what comes next.  A certain theoretical detachment is incompatible with our joint mutual commitment.”

On this basis, he argues that the question of whether a person is conscious is always a moral question before it is a question of our justification to believe.  If we raise the question of whether a person has a mind, then we call our relation to that person into question.  When we are looking at an electronic reading of a brain’s neuronal activity or a set of data about someone’s behaviour then it is easy to think of the person in an ‘object’ like way.  But if we are personally interacting with others then most of the time, our experience of each other simply rules out the possibility of asking the question.

In summary

Much of the discourse from those involved in the study of human behaviour tends to imply a theory of our inner life but it is often not made explicit.  In a way this is understandable, it is a tricky topic that can occupy huge amounts of deliberation – it is easier to make some working assumptions (such as 95% of our behaviour is non-conscious) and move on.

There certainly is a case to be made that we behave in a way that is not necessarily always driven by conscious thought.  However, to move from this to a position that suggests we have little or even no conscious thought is clearly open to serious question.  And although this paper does not offer any specific answers, there is surely a case for making explicit our assumptions about our inner lives and considering alternative perspectives, not least given the huge investments that hang off this simple yet critically important belief.


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Colin Strong is Head of Behavioural Science at Ipsos. In his role he works with a wide range of brands and public sector organisations to combine market research with behavioural science, creating new and innovative solutions to long standing strategy and policy challenges. His career has been spent largely in market research, with much of it at GfK where he was MD of the UK Technology division. As such he has a focus on consulting on the way in which technology disrupts markets, creating new challenges and opportunities but also how customer data can be used to develop new techniques for consumer insights. Colin is author of Humanizing Big Data which sets out a new agenda for the way in which more value can be leveraged from the rapidly emerging data economy. Colin is a regular speaker and writer on the philosophy and practice of consumer insight.

Categories Consciousness, Psychology, Technology