What is the power of mind?
- Thought = a mental process = a conscious cognitive process
- Power of mind = the causal efficacy of thought = the capacity of mental processes to create changes in the world
Two types of mind power
- Natural causal efficacy. Thoughts indirectly influence the external world through intentional behavior.
- Spiritual causal efficacy. Thoughts directly influence the external world through psychic forces.
The second type of mind power is bullshit because there exists no known mechanism by which thought could directly affect the external world and we have no good reason to believe in any non-natural mechanism like telepathy, psychokinesis, or the law of attraction. Therefore, the rest of this blog post only discusses natural causal efficacy.
Can thoughts cause behavior?
People usually assume that thought leads to action, but this is only one testable hypothesis among many:
- Folk psychology. Thoughts (conscious cognitive processes) cause behavior.1
- Epiphenomenalism. Unconscious cognitive processes cause behavior; thoughts are only secondary by-products (epiphenomena).2
- Will realism. Will causes behavior; thoughts have a causal role as a constituent of will.
Against folk psychology
Some people believe in the existence of “free will” as an obscure “self” or “soul” that has control over the cognitive processes in a nervous system. As this would have to be a non-natural mechanism, it belongs into the bullshit category.3
Others identify with their mental processes and believe that their power of thought controls their behavior. This has been empirically falsified by over a century of psychological and neurobiological research on the role of automaticity, emotion, and unconscious cognition in decision making.4 “We” (our minds) are not as much in control of our behavior as we naively think we are.5
Epiphenomenalism vs. will realism
So human behavior cannot be caused by thoughts alone. Does this mean that the mind is completely irrelevant?
- According to epiphenomenalism, “conscious thought resembles the steam whistle on a train locomotive: It derives from and reveals something about activity inside the engine, but it has no causal impact on moving the train.”6
- According to will realism, conscious thought is a part of the force that moves the train, moves the body, playing a causal role in volition.
Which hypothesis is true?
Science can answer this question with two simple experimental designs:
- Randomly assign participants to two groups. Tell group A to think about X and don’t tell group B to think about X, then measure behavior.
- Randomly assign participants to two groups. Tell group A to think about X and tell group B to think about Y, then measure behavior.
If people in group A behave differently than people in group B, then thought has a causal effect on behavior. Fortunately, we have ample evidence from researchers who have conducted precisely such experiments:7
- Imagination. People who imagine themselves doing something are more likely to do it (e.g., buy cable TV, stay in psychotherapy, study for an exam, vote in an election).
- Mental practice. People who mentally simulate a behavior pattern become better at it (e.g., playing a sport, playing a musical instrument, landing an airplane, performing surgery).
- Visualization. People who visualize success are more likely to succeed (e.g., putting in golf).
- Planning. Making a cue-related plan of the form “If X happens, then I will do Y” increases the rate of goal achievement (e.g., “If my work is done, I go to the gym”).
- Anticipation. Anticipating emotions changes behavior (e.g., anticipated pride increases willpower; anticipated regret promotes information gathering and risk avoidance).
- Self-reflection. Reflecting on experiences affects future behavior (e.g., writing about personal trauma decreases aspirin consumption; reflecting on past performance increases future performance).
- Counterfactuals. Thinking “If only I had…” affects future behavior (e.g., negotiation performance).
- Perspective. First-person thought and third-person thought have different behavioral effects (e.g., people behave less awkwardly after thinking about their own awkwardness from a third- compared to a first-person perspective; third-person self-talk leads to more rational behavior).
- Self-licensing. People who consider their vices or virtues behave better or worse, respectively, afterwards (e.g., people indulge more after imagining themselves volunteering for a good cause).
- Writing. Writing down conscious thoughts influences behavior (e.g., people instructed to write about their current romantic relationship were more likely than those who wrote about daily activities to still be in that relationship three months later).
- Reason. Logical reasoning, which steers behavior towards better long-term outcomes, relies on conscious thought (e.g., subliminally priming the goal of being logical increases accessibility to the idea of logic without improving performance on logical problems suggesting that unconscious processing is not enough for logical reasoning).
- Accountability. Knowledge of being held accountable alters behavior (e.g., people act differently if they know they will have to explain their actions later).
- Excuses. Making excuses changes future behavior (e.g., students told to come up with excuses for a bad grade perform worse on a second test than those who weren’t told to make excuses).
- Attention. Attention affects performance-related behavior (e.g., paying close attention to the process of performance helps novices but hinders experts).
- Rumination. Conscious worry affects behavior (e.g., ruminating about personal concerns impairs social competence and proofreading performance).
- Perspective. Adopting another person’s perspective changes behavior (e.g., people coordinate their behavior with their stereotypes about the person whose perspective they take; perspective taking leads to better negotiation results than empathy).
- Barnum effect. People who receive personality evaluations adapt their behavior to them (e.g., people told they are extroverted behave more like extroverts).
- Self-affirmation. Thinking positively about the self and its core values changes behavior (e.g., self-affirmation has been used to decrease fear, change sexual behavior, overcome addiction, eliminate self-handicap, deal with aggression, and control envy)
- Framing. Consciously framing a goal description alters goal pursuit (e.g., students who adopt the goal of performing well don’t study as much students who adopt the goal of mastering the material).
- Mindset. Different mindsets lead to different behaviors (e.g., a prosocial mindset produces better social outcomes than a proself mindset; a growth mindset produces better personal outcomes than a fixed mindset; people with a positive mindset have better mood than people with a negative mindset; people with an Eastern mindset have more self-control than people with a Western mindset).
- Communication. Verbal communication, which requires conscious thought, is a behavior and affects behavior (e.g., communication improves trust, cooperation, and group performance).
- Reappraisal. Conscious reappraisal of a situation regulates emotions and thus changes behavior (e.g., people act less aggressively after receiving negative feedback when they find out that the evaluation was accidently misread).
All this shows that psychological epiphenomenalism—the idea that thought is irrelevant for behavior—is false. Still, none of the evidence proves that mental processes can directly cause behavior. The examples above demonstrate indirect effects of thought on later behavior, mediated by emotion and unconscious cognition. They do not show that will itself or one’s motivations to act originate in the mind. Instead, mental processes seem to be a constituent of volition. As a part of human will, thoughts can play a causal role in human behavior—in addition to other factors of volition including drives, emotions, values, and unconscious cognition.
The power of mind is real. Psychological research has shown that conscious cognition has natural causal efficacy in the sense that it can contribute to the causation of behavior. Through behavior, mental processes can have a causal impact on the external world. At the same time, thought is only one aspect of volition, so the power of mind is not as great as the power of will.
- Why Positive Thinking Is Bullshit
- How Cultural Beliefs Affect Willpower
- How Our Beliefs Undermine Our Happiness
- The Bayesian Brain: Placebo Effects Explained
- How a Doctor’s Behavior Influences the Placebo Effect
- This is folk psychology in the sense of how people usually talk about mental causation, not how they actually understand it.
- Note that this differs from epiphenomenalism in philosophy of mind because it doesn’t say anything about the causal relevance of consciousness qua subjective experience. My depiction of psychological epiphenomenalism might be a straw man, but it doesn’t really matter because my main argument is positive, not negative.
- Compatibilistically speaking, free will is simply a misnomer, an abuse of words: one can act freely, but not want freely. There is neither a “deep truth” nor an “illusion” here, only a bunch of academics and intellectuals who discuss pseudo-ideas because they fail to recognize different levels of description. Economically speaking, free will is a bubble in the marketplace of ideas.
- This is not to say that it cannot be useful to talk about intention causing action on a higher level of description. In fact, I sometimes write like that myself, and I would even argue that we need folk-psychological descriptions in many social contexts, especially when we talk about things like agency, regret, and responsibility.
- For simple behavior, see Patrick Haggard (2008), Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will; for complex behavior, see John A. Bargh (2006), Social Psychology and the Unconscious.
- Baumeister RF, Masicampo EJ, Vohs KD (2011). Do Conscious Thoughts Cause Behavior? Annual Review of Psychology 62, p. 332.
- The following experimental findings are described in Baumeister RF, Masicampo EJ, Vohs KD (2011), Do Conscious Thoughts Cause Behavior? Annual Review of Psychology 62, pp. 335-351.