Connectionist beings and toilet mugs

June 3, 2010 | By | 3 Replies More

Many of us would love to believe that we are completely rational beings in the sense that we are able to navigate a world strictly categorized in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions.  Many of us would also love to believe that with sufficient will power all of us can move beyond unwanted emotions and beyond images and thoughts that “don’t belong.” That description does not comport with reality, of course.

Several psychologists once conducted a hilarious experiment: Students were shown a brand new bed pan. Apple juice was poured into the brand new bedpan out of a commercial bottle of apple juice.   The students were then asked whether they would drink the apple juice out of the bedpan. Only 28% were willing. My source for this experiment is page 216 of Heuristics and Biases, by Thomas Gilovich et al.

You see, we seem to think as connectionist beings and emotional beings, as well as rational beings.  Even though we logically and rationally know that we aren’t drinking urine, the visual stimuli too strongly suggest otherwise, at least to many of us.

Image by Erich Vieth

Image by Erich Vieth

I have written the above as prelude for describing a gift I recently bought for a good friend.  A few months ago, I had described a toilet-shaped mug offered for sale by a well-stocked internet novelty company called PrankPlace.  My friend indicated that he would not be deterred from drinking out of such a mug. I decided to put his confidence to a test.

Today, I handed him his new toilet-mug and he was delighted.  He promptly filled his new mug with coffee, and drank from it.  Though he successful drank his coffee, he admitted that it was a bit off-putting to drink from the toilet-shaped mug, even though he absolutely knew that drinking from it would be nothing like drinking from a toilet.

I think there are serious lessons here.  For instance, when one claims that he is not “racist,” there might yet be images and emotions haunting him, things that he acquired as a child, that no amount of logical and rational thought could purge.  And maybe we viscerally dislike someone because she reminds us of a teacher that we disliked (even though we are certain that she is not that teacher).

We are complex beings that are often not capable of defining and rationalizing our way out of disturbing or disorienting situations.


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Category: Current Events, Humor, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. KennyCelican says:

    I've some personal experience with the opposite of the 'visceral dislike of a teacher', but it took my wife to point it out to me.

    My favorite teacher in High School was my German teacher, for a variety of reasons. Fast forward fifteen years, and my wife finds my High School yearbook. This prompts a discussion of first crushes, and I point out an underclassman I was fond of and begin pointing out how each girl I subsequently dated was similar to her in some way.

    My wife is getting her patented 'you're reaching' look, and I'm realizing as I talk that I am, indeed, reaching to make some of the comparisons. After a brief, awkward silence, she flips open my yearbooks to show the girls I dated, plus one more pic; my German teacher.

    Absolutely floored me. Especially since the one S.O. NOT in the pictures was the one who looked most like my German teacher; my wife.

    I do disagree with your statement just a bit, though. I would posit that the form of racism we need to focus on is deliberate, semi- or fully conscious racism. Having an emotional response to someone or something isn't something we can control, any more than we can control the color of our skins. What we do with those emotions is something we can control, and that's what we need to focus on.

    It's not that I think appearance based gut reactions are entirely harmless; it's that I think focusing on them dilutes the attention we need to focus on more serious problems, like conscious racism.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    We are tugged by subtle and invisible forces. Consider,

    "In a remarkable archival study, Pelham and colleagues (2002: 474) found that “women were about 18% more likely to move to states with names resembling their first names than they should have been based on chance” — 36% more likely for the perfect matches Virginia and Georgia (Pelham et al. 2002: 474). They also found that men named Geoffrey or George were 42% more likely than expected to be geoscientists based on the frequency of names used as controls, such as Daniel and Bennie (Pelham et al. 2002: 480)."

  3. Mindy Carney says:

    I think this is more than a little valuable, Erich. If everyone could understand that their responses – to other people, situations and things – can just as easily be grounded in visceral, emotional memories as they can in rationality – they can use their rational thinking skills to overcome it. Of course we all have those. I was raised, as were most people in my generation – with racist rhetoric and jokes coming from family members, etc. Sometimes my own brain kicks back to that, and I have to consciously remind myself that my "feeling" is not reality. I have to move past it. The fact that we have, slowly, become a less racist society over the past few decades is a sign that this is not only possible but effective.

    My fear now is that the racist minority left in this country has a much broader platform, with the Internet and 24-hr. "news" culture, from which to spew their hatred, inserting it, even insidiously, into the ears and minds of yet another generation.

    My HOPE is that they sound so ugly and ridiculous when they spew it that the residual visceral feeling in the new generation will be knee-jerk disgust to anything racist or hateful.

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