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So maybe we should update in general towards less of a role for the unconscious mind? After studying learned helplessness, I realized that was what I was feeling: study after study of crazy things, everything depended on your beliefs, the first letter of your name could affect your life outcome, stuff like that. Once again, all I have is a few data points, curated by my own biases.The end result was a lot like in the quote above – nobody has any control over their lives, we’re all at the mercy of vast unconscious forces, society’s hidden assumptions and bases are vital in shaping our future. What if people mostly make decisions based on reasonable factors, succeed or fail based on things like ability or random luck, and social assumptions are relatively powerless beyond a common sense level? Certainly not all of the studies showing creepy unconscious effects have been disproven; probably fewer than 10% of them have.But if I’m right that these are representative examples, then they seem to share a pattern.I’m not sure they all technically qualify as “social priming” (though they might, and that field has already been pointed out as particularly bad) but they all have the same feeling of tiny cues that you don’t think about causing big unconscious changes to behavior.We wouldn’t have to worry about how the wrong character on TV would accidentally bias people toward having certain stereotypes.We wouldn’t have to worry about subconscious racism affecting hiring decisions even among people who are trying hard to be fair and neutral. It’s not exactly about self-fulfilling prophecies, or tiny stimuli having oversized effects on behavior. And a few days ago, a friend posted a quote on Tumblr: There is no sovereign sanctuary within ourseles which represents our real nature. Everything we cherish as our ego, everything we believe in, is just what we have cobbled together out of the accident of our birth and subsequent experiences.This seems to be another category that is faring unusually badly.Implicit association tests probably don’t work (1, 2, 3, 4).

The theory goes that even though witch doctors don’t have real magic, if their victims come from a culture that believes in witchdoctory then they’ll be so scared that they gradually waste away out of fear and die anyway.

Lester gives a relatively sympathetic view of the evidence here, but even he can only find two good cases – one of which involved a patient who died of preexisting asthma, the other of which did not involve voodoo at all. Instead of a witch doctor saying you’ll get worse, and you do, a regular doctor tells you you’ll get better, and you do.

I find this interesting because so much of psychology seems basically voodoo-ish. For a while, people were claiming all sorts of amazing effects for placebo – placebo can activate the immune system to fight infections, placebo can slow the growth of cancer, placebo can make bedridden invalids start dancing jigs.

At the very least, my belief that I can’t swim the English Channel makes me not try to swim the English Channel, and so if that belief is wrong it’s voodoo-ish-ly making me fail at Channel-swimming. This is where you’re positively predisposed to things that sound like your name.

But this is a lot less mysterious than the thing where you repeat “I will do well at school” every day and so do better at school. For example, people named Dennis are more likely to become dentists, people named Bob are more likely to be bakers or butchers or barristers, and people with three letters in their name are more likely to live in Three Forks.

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