The other morning as I was driving to work I needed to make a phone call. I had stayed up too late the night before, so I was feeling tired. And I was a bit worried about the content of the phone call. And I was driving. So my mind wasn't at its sharpest.
After a few rings I heard a beep and a recorded message, "Please state your name, and Google Voice will connect you," then another beep.
Like a dummy, instead of stating my name, I started talking as if I was recording a voicemail. "Hi, it's me, I wanted to talk with you about..." But after only two seconds, there was another beep, and I realized the recording had stopped. Then I realized what I had done. Instead of recording my name, which the instructions had clearly told me to do, I had started trying to record a voicemail with a message.
What happened there? Well, my conscious mind was distracted, and my ability to connect with my "executive function" was hindered due to physical tiredness. So the unconscious, or semi-conscious mind took over. Somewhere along the way, due to repeated exposure to the stimulus of a recorded voice and a beep, I have been programmed to associate this stimulus with the response of recording a voicemail. The sudden change of expectation, to record my name instead, did not register fully onto my conscious mind, due to it being in a weakened and distracted state. Thus, what was pre-programmed took over like auto-pilot.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent book a long time ago called "Blink," that explored some of these ideas. I highly recommend it.
This reminds me of the concept of "Freudian slips." Occasionally during speaking we will accidentally say the wrong word, but it will betray what we are "really" thinking, or at least what we are unconsciously thinking. For example, a presenter accidentally introducing Prince William as the "Douche of Cambridge," then quickly correcting it to "Duke of Cambridge," COULD, according to Freudian theory, be construed as the presenter secretly thinking the Prince is a pretty shitty person, and accidentally betraying his true feelings. (Of course, it's an easy mistake to make, considering the presenter was introducing "The Duke and Duchess..." That one word uses a hard -k-, and the other a soft -ch- sound, makes it easy to flip them around, completely innocently. But it's still a funny example, whether it was a betrayal of real feeling or not.)
So, what does something like this reveal about a person? Which level of consciousness should be considered the "real" person? The incident that happened to me this morning was fairly innocuous; it just betrays that I have left a lot of voicemails in my lifetime (and, OK, all the privilege that implies...) But what about when someone's guard is down for whatever reason and the things that come out on autopilot are racist, misogynist, ablist, violent, or some other kind of undesirable trait? What does this mean? Is the person "really" a terrible person at heart, or are these things simply artifacts of poor programming? Sometimes these values and traits are imprinted on us by our culture, even against our wishes. With education and effort, we learn to identify ourselves with nobler values, but sometimes the old ways creep through when we are unguarded. Can someone be held responsible for the contents of their unconscious mind, or is it only the conscious level that counts, (at least as far as moral responsibility)?