Review: John Bargh’s “Before You Know It”

I have a review of John Bargh’s new book “Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do” in this month’s Psychologist magazine. You can read the review in print (or online here) but the magazine could only fit in 250 words, and I originally wrote closer to 700. I’ll put the full, unedited, review below at the end of this post.

John Bargh is one of the world’s most celebrated social psychologists, and has made his name with creative experiments supposedly demonstrating the nature of our unconscious minds. His work, and style of work, has been directly or implicitly criticised during the so-called replication crisis in psychology (example), so I approached a book length treatment of his ideas with interest, and in anticipation of how he’d respond to his critics.

Full disclosure: I’ve previously argued that Bargh’s definition of ‘unconscious’ is theoretically incoherent, rather than merely empirically unreliable, so my prior expectations for his book are probably best classified as ‘skeptical’. I did get a free copy though, which always puts me in a good mood.

If you like short and sweet, please pay The Psychologist a visit for the short review. If you’ve patience for more of me (and John Bargh), read on….

Review of

Before you know it: The unconscious reasons we do what do do

by John Bargh

Heinemann, 2017

First the good news. John Bargh is a luminary of social psychology, a charming and expert guide to research on the importance of our motivations, goals, habits, history and environment in affecting our everyday behaviours. His enthusiasm for the topic, and track record for conducting experiments with just that bit more flair than most psychology studies, shine through this book, as does some his love of his family, of road trips and of Led Zeppelin.  In “Before you know it”, Bargh walks us through a series of striking demonstrations of how small differences can have big effects on our behaviour, perhaps without our full awareness of their import. These are things such as his famous experiment reporting that students who were asked to do a word unscrambling task containing primes of the concept “elderly” walked slower down the corridor upon leaving the experiment, or the study showing that holding a hot drink influenced people to rate a stranger more warmly. In addition to this tour of social psychology experiments by someone with an unrivaled insider’s knowledge, Bargh presents an account of human behaviour which situates our social lives within what we know about cognition, neuroscience and evolution. Social psychology, in his view, is no isolated discipline, but a part of a broader, multidisciplinary, account of the mind. He draws on Skinner, Freud and Darwin as well as a range of important historical and contemporary psychologists.

So, the bad news. Like all of psychology, much of the literature cited in this book has faced new scrutiny as part of the ‘replication crisis’. A core topic of the book, so called ‘social priming’ has been very staunchly criticised for being based on shifting sands of unreliable, selectively published research. This is not the place to critique the reliability of Bargh‘s research methods, but it is remiss that he doesn’t once offer a rejoinder these criticisms.

Bargh‘s over-inclusive use of the term ‘unconscious’ renders the term meaningless, in my opinion. He applies it to any behaviour of which we do not offer full report of all causes. Difficulties with eliciting reliable self-reports on internal states, twinned with the privileged perspective of experimenters (who know the experiment’s conditions) over participants (who each only know one condition) mean it is simply invalid to infer from a lack of report that a participant is unconscious of a driver of their behaviour in any strong way. Bargh can use the word ‘unconscious’ to mean ‘not often discussed’ if he wants, but it is an unfair trick on the reader, who might assume that the word carried some deeper conceptual importance.

Bargh‘s book doesn’t live up to the promise of any of the components. The real world examples of people whose behaviour has been ‘unconsciously’ influenced that he recruits to motivate his chapters are engagingly told, but the analysis is not deep and could have been more thoroughly woven with the experimental results. The experiments described are fascinating, but – and maybe this is the academic in me – I would have loved to have heard more discussion of possible interpretations and more detail on the exact results. The theoretical account of the mind he is advancing is pleasing syncretic, as I mention above, but the experiments are presented as merely confirming some theoretical idea, it is often unclear what theories they disprove or practical applications they endorse. Finally, while the author’s personal character and story feature frequently in the book, it is in a frustrating lack of depth (in one chapter Bargh describes in a few lines how a chance meeting in a diner led to his future marriage, but we learn almost nothing about his wife-to-be. Please, John, if you’re going to gossip, gossip good!). As such a successful psychologist and pivotal researcher, details of how Bargh lives and works could be interesting in and of themselves, but these details are tantalisingly few – Bargh‘s charms come through, but as with the research, there aren’t enough details to really satisfy.