Take a look at the two sentences below.
The cat can be died / I want eat.
The ball can be bounced / I want to eat.
Except for the rare few grammarians, it’s very difficult to explain why the first sentence is painfully grating on the ears while the second sounds correct. We simply know in an instant. As native English speakers, we may know little about the grammar rules governing our language but we have a very clear sense of what’s natural. Paradoxically, an adult newcomer to a language who studies all the grammar points by heart will still greatly struggle to develop a sense of what is natively OK. With every word and for every sentence, our mind has (from childhood) developed years after years of powerful mental associations that fly under the radar of our consciousness. And this holds true for many of our beliefs, likes and dislikes – most of our attitudes are hidden to us.
To uncover these covert mental associations, the implicit association test (IAT) was developed. The results, which focused on attitudes towards race, have since been quite revealing: Even if you believe firmly in racial equality, or strive to be an egalitarian, you are more comfortable joking and talking to people of the same race. The more another race differs from us, the more unconscious distrust we have, and the less likely we are to hire or befriend them. It is no wonder that prior to taking the test, the researchers cautioned that knowing the truth of your hidden attitudes can be quite disturbing. These unfavourable mental associations persist despite participants growing up and working alongside someone of a different race, and can be predictably translated into discriminatory behaviour or worse, a contradictory self-denial we are familiar with – a political racist who spews bigotry and still insists he isn’t racist.
However, the undercurrents of these associations run far deeper than just the issue of race. We have a great deal of mental associations related to what we consider pleasant, hurtful or meaningful. For example, children growing up in healthy families where both positive romantic and parental love are always on display, eventually associate love with sacrifice, mutual well-being and healthy communication. They recognise that playful encouragements and soulful conversations, not barbed criticisms, are key to a healthy relationship. When they grow up, they are likely to seek out these mental templates of love and reinforce them well. The same cannot be said for children who constantly see their parents quarrel or for their mother to storm out of the house. Intimacy becomes difficult for them because they have associated love with contention and prickliness. They hold back on conversations, may lean on spitefulness and often fail to empathise well with their partner.
One might argue that these associations are trivialities, and that movies, books and education can suggest corrective behaviour. Unfortunately, mental associations are not just extremely powerful to the point of being overwhelmingly instinctive, they are also deeply embedded in our personalities. The followup question may well be “Can you overwrite your personality?” and we already know that’s exceedingly difficult. Still, it’s not entirely impossible to consciously develop awareness but the effort must be longstanding and continuous. Sadly, once we transition into our teenage years, a great deal of our mental associations would have been locked down. And unless we are lucky enough to receive tremendous influence to understand and think in different ways, we will forever live within the confines of our minds.
So have you thought about (HYTA) what your hidden mental associations are?