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Review of "Strangers to Ourselves"

By Timothy D. Wilson
Belknap Press, 2002
Review by Paul A. Wagner Ph.D. on Aug 15th 2003
Strangers to Ourselves

With the inevitable waning of behavioral psychology beginning in the 1950's, psychology desperately floundered about looking for an acceptable empirical approach such as one might find in the more respected physical sciences. This was not unlike the situation in the 1920's when behaviorism emerged as the research paradigm of choice for psychology. 

Today, cognitive science and neuropsychology have both surfaced as competing research paradigms within the cutting edge community of research psychologists. The first offers extraordinary formal rigor in its modeling while the latter reflects long overdue attention to the stuff brains are made of.  However, just as Gestalt psychology haunted behaviorism for thirty years or more with penetrating and irresolvable questions, so now social psychology haunts the new paradigms of psychology with a set of penetrating questions, revealing anomalous observations and insightful hypotheses. Social psychologists more than any other group, have saved the other competing research paradigms of psychology from developing conceptual arthritis. Social psychologists have staved off the onset of conceptual arthritis by detailing aspects of lived experience that must somehow be accounted for in any comprehensive theory or model of human mental life.

The best research of cognitive science and neurophilosophy often speaks little to the lived human experience that constitutes most of the ordinary person's sense of the world.  For an understanding of life as lived, spectators of psychology are often left with little more than "pop" psychology of the likes of "Dr. Phil" and other advice giving clinicians.  At best, this sort of advice giving is an echo of Stoic or Epicurean pronouncements originating in Greek antiquity.  Such advice can be quite meaningful to people having trouble navigating the trials and tribulations of daily experience but it seldom offers little more scientific support for its pronouncements than did the pronouncements of their predecessors in times of antiquity.

Scholarly social psychologists like Timothy Wilson and Robert Nisbet are a breed all to themselves.  They are not advice-giving clinicians any more than they are model builders such as cognitivists tend to be or reductivists as neuroscientists tend to be. Nevertheless, in Strangers to Ourselves, Wilson shows a formidable grasp of cognitive psychology and an appreciation for efforts in neuropsychology.  But more than anything else, what he makes vividly clear is that there are many ways to access lived experience empirically and subsequent findings create something of a tapestry featuring commonalities of humans' shared phenomenology. To account for human experience psychologists must account for its phenomenology as much as it must account for the effects of synaptic firings and the robustness of neural networks.

In many ways, Wilson writes in the tradition of Jerome Bruner's Acts of Meaning, Wilson's work however is far more extensively documented than the pioneering work of Bruner.  Moreover, Wilson's initial venture into this undertaking shows that a variety of heuristics create our unconscious responsiveness to the world.  Moreover, as Wilson's own empirical research shows, as well as much of the research to which he refers, the distinction between conscious and the unconscious are often so intimately entangled with one another that to insist on such distinctions matters to neither the astute researcher or the actor. For example, when discussing allostasis as a process reflective of psychological processes as well as the physical (pp147 - 149), Wilson notes that, "It is to people's advantage [in an evolutionary sense] to react emotionally to their environments, such that emotions vary from moment to moment (p.147)." Disruptions in our ordinary desired tranquility are frequent. To survive such frequent encounters with physical and psychological turbulence, the brain/mind/body must act as one system restoring equilibrium throughout. For example, psychological stressors create biochemical changes. Biochemical changes prompt other biochemical changes and these in turn prompt psychological consequences in turn. At the level of the social psychologist Wilson describes this sort of phenomenon in terms of opponent theory. He notes the psychological implications of such a theory for what we see people do and what we sense ourselves doing from time to time. But, man perhaps more profoundly, he notes that opponent theory is already well established as a physiological theory. There is nothing exotic about it. For example it has long been established that an imbalance of sodium ions in a region around a neuron will cause it to respond releasing calcium until a state of equilibrium is again achieved. This sort of physiological action/reaction accounts for much that we observe within the physiological system and so it should not strike us as odd that it should account for much that we see at the phenomenological as well. Wilson by no means encourages a bottom up approach in quest of a grand theory of human behavior but he does argue that analogous explanations of events can be quite useful and that the analogies that are so obvious ought to make us more comfortable with their intellectual compellingness and heuristical value. An unexpected bounty for readers in grasping a role for say, opponent theory both physiologically and psychologically is that, as Wilson remarks, "…if people know that they have to concentrate on something such as working on a task, they purposefully avoid putting themselves in too good a mood. (P.150)" In other words, awareness of the heuristical value of opponent theory can lead us to be more productive in our daily endeavors.

The value of Wilson's social psychological traditions, richly informed by congnitivist concerns, is that it casts an extensive net capturing far more of the phenomenology of lived experience than most other research approaches.  Wilson doesn't tell us so how much how hidden mental processes contribute to our thinking, saying and doing, rather, and more profoundly, he illuminates a network of mental processes both conscious and otherwise that make lived experience what it is for most of us. Wilson has not given the reader that long awaited grand theory of the mind/body but, he gives good reason for keeping the door open to all kinds of experiences before attempting closure on such a theory. Wilson concludes his discussion on narrative theory by declaring, "There is no direct pipeline to the adaptive unconscious... (P.219)"

Finally, Wilson's book is intended to be descriptive of lived experience but he doesn't shy away from noting normative prescriptions that may follow if his insights into the working of the mind are indeed accurate.

For example, he notes that much of the prescriptive element in his summary is best captured in the Aristotelian maxim to do brave acts if you want to become brave (p.215. Wilson dubs it the 'Do good, be good principle.').  Actually, this maxim is too simplistic a summary of both Aristotle and even of Wilson's work itself.  In The Politics, Aristotle explains, "To become just one must do just acts but, to be just acts one must do just acts as a just person."  Wilson has done a commendable job of showing just what it means, "to be."  Unlike the behaviorists of long ago, Wilson is not at all afraid to tackle questions of what it means to be…. brave, just, timid, compassionate or what have you.  Wilson, like Aristotle, does acknowledge that, to quote again from Aristotle's The Politics, " It makes no small difference what habits we develop.  Rather, it makes all the difference."  Wilson's paraphrase, attributing a bit too much to psychology, rather than Aristotle, says the " To do good be good" principle is one of the most important lessons psychology has to offer." (p. 215) The habits we have, rustle up a constellation of mental processes that make lived experience what it is for each of us moment by moment. 

Lived experience is never reducible to mere current stimuli and past habit according to Wilson.  But, lived experience would never be what it is without the constellation of mental processes excited by such causative agents. For Wilson, each person is as neurologically responsive as he or she is phenomenologically and socially responsive. Each person is a tapestry of such responses and each person can only be understood by grasping further the interweaving of threads such responses produce.

Wilson's book is surely a must read for social theorists of all stripes.  For example, political scientists and economists in particular, have as much to gain from Wilson, as, do his fellow psychologists and philosophers of psychology. Wilson's book shows the classical model of man as rational and self-interested just doesn't wash. Each person is a constellation of constrained social forces, neurology and physical environment. This constellation always leads to a narrative for the active organism. The organism's behavior itself can never be fully understood with reference to its evolving self-narrative. Milton Friedman and David Ricardo could never understand the actions of Mother Theresa but that doesn't mean Mother Theresa lived a life that was irrational or in any other way beyond the realm of a normal array of human desires, expectations and motivations.



© 2003 Paul A Wagner


Paul A. Wagner Ph.D., Director, Institute for Logic and Cognitive Studies, University of Houston-Clear Lake