Skepchick Book Club: Subliminal

Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club! Join in the thread to discuss this month’s book, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow.

We all like to think that we’re in control of our memories and thoughts, but as the author of this book showed, there is a lot going on that you don’t know about. Overall, I liked the book because it covered a lot of psychological material without being too dry. It was fun to read but now I’m totally analyzing everything that I do or think. Did I like the book because I agreed with it and therefore my brain is not poking holes in the evidence presented, or was it actually just a well-researched book? I’ll never truly know, but I have confidence in my opinions as a well-informed skeptic and so I will fight to say that I liked this book for rational reasons only, totally unrelated to my unconscious biases.

One of my favorite excerpts from the book is about Stephen Hawking. Even though he can communicate with only an eye muscle, he still manages to convey a lot (emphasis mine):

And yet, even when he could not form words to express his ideas about the wave function of the universe, I had little trouble detecting when his attention shifted from the cosmos to thoughts of calling it quits and moving on to a nice curry dinner. I always knew when he was content, tired, excited, or displeased, just from a glance at his eyes. His personal assistant had this same ability. When I asked her about it, she described a catalog of expressions she’d learned to recognize over the years.  My favorite was the “steely-faced glint of glee” he displayed when composing a potent rejoinder to someone with whom he strongly disagreed.

Ouch. Someone call up the hospital, we have one to admit to the burn ward.

Below, learn the top ten lessons from the book, see the video of the babies judging good versus bad shapes, find out this month’s themed recipe, and see what book we’ve picked for next month! Also, join in the discussion. Let me know if I missed your favorite study or if you’ve ever been supremely burned by Stephen Hawking (which would actually be cool to witness).

Here are the ten lessons I learned from each chapter of the book:

  1. People will eat bad food if it’s free
  2. If you wear glasses that turn your view upside down, your brain will compensate for that and turn your view right side up again
  3. People are good at remembering the gist of a situation, but not the details (especially eyewitnesses)
  4. Physical and emotional pain affect the same location in your brain, so painkillers can help with your heartache
  5. The nonverbal cues that we give to others can influence their behavior (e.g. Clever Hans)
  6. People prefer men with lower voices
  7. We like to categorize, which makes us awesome at enforcing stereotypes
  8. Scientists of the 1950’s could get away with making a sham camp for boys (Robber’s Cove, how cool is that) to observe group dynamics
  9. Doctors of the 1950’s performed sham heart surgeries on patients to test the placebo effect
  10. Our team plays by the rules, but the other team never does and they’re totally obvious about it

The book mentioned a study with infants that were shown a video where a circle was trying to get up a hill and was either helped by a triangle or impeded by a square. Then the babies were given a choice of shapes to play with, and they pretty much universally shunned the evil square. Watch the video, and you’ll be on Team Triangle too.

This Month’s Recipe: French Apple Cake

Miam-miam! (source)

This cake is firm like a custard at the bottom and crumbly like a cake at the top, with tart Granny Smith apples that create a bright flavor. I don’t like apples in general (pies, sauce, steamed, etc.), but I did actually like this cake. I don’t even think I’ve had a bad French dessert before, so enough said. (I used a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated, so if you want it, let me know and I’ll email it to you.)

The way this related to the book was because my husband wanted to make an apple crisp (yuck), but then I got apples stuck in my head so I did a little research and found this dessert (whereas normally I would’ve skipped it due to my apple aversion). Also, this week I bought a baguette and some Camembert cheese for myself, but right before our club meeting I decided to bring that too without realizing that everything I picked was French. Good thing I didn’t break out my beret!

Next Month’s Book & Meeting:

We’re going to be reading Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach (if you haven’t read any of her books, you are missing out). I will post the discussion thread on Sunday, December 8th around 11 am, so join me then. See you next month!


Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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  1. Re points 8 -9

    Scientists of the fifties also got away with stuff like treating acne with radiation. Not good.

    Scientists of the eighties could obtain samples to check normal ranges for new biochemical tests by filling out a form requesting 100 blood bank samples.

    Scientists of the present have to stand by while each and every blood is taken and get a consent form signed for each and every one.

    This is progress! Or is it?

  2. I don’t mind the current paradigm. There are companies that you can order blood samples from and they take care of all the paperwork. I’ve collected fresh samples before, ordering them is much easier. Plus they are pre-tested for viruses, so it’s safer too!

    1. I wish we had a company like that in Oz but I guess we’re too small a pond for them to make the obligatory obscene profit.

      One thing never changes though – the older scientists get to bang the ears of the younger ones with stories of the good old days! (I can hear them now, the sound of knives sharpening!)

      Re the book, it sounds a lot like one I read about 10 years ago, “Emotional Intelligence” ? Lots of stuff about the amygdala and so on. Like you, I sort of wonder whther that was really a good book or whether I just agreed with it.

      Re apples, I am interested in the recipe. My wife makes a kickass Latvian apple cake – it would be interesting to compare. She also did a French pastry course – tastes good but everything is 60% butter!

      Apples, apples – makes me think of Normandy chicken which we had once, great recipe, also Rick Stein had a recipe for Normandy Turbot which sounded great.

      Can’t think of Normandy without Calvados! MUST visit there before I die!!

  3. This book sounds cool! I wonder though, how it looks in the context of all the crazy fraud and integrity violations psych is reeling with right now. I know a lot of these really core precepts about priming are coming into question for misreporting and lack of replication… Those 10 points all sound right to *me*, but what do I know?

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