How Unconscious Forces Control Our Actions

June 4, 2021

Subliminal messaging and nudge psychology lead us to believe that we can be influenced without us realising, but just how powerful is our unconscious mind?

Sometimes when I ask myself why I’ve made a certain choice, I realise I don’t actually know. To what extent we are ruled by things we aren’t conscious of? – Paul, 43, London

Why did you buy your car? Why did you fall in love with your partner? When we start to examine the basis of our life choices, whether they are important or fairly simple ones, we might come to the realisation that we don’t have much of a clue. We might even wonder whether we really know our own mind, and what goes on in it outside of our conscious awareness.

Luckily, psychological science gives us important and perhaps surprising insights. One of the most important findings comes from psychologist Benjamin Libet in the 1980s. He devised an experiment which was deceptively simple, but has created an enormous amount of debate ever since.

Participants were asked to sit in a relaxed manner in front of an adapted clock. On the clock face was a small light revolving around it. All those taking part had to do was to flex their finger whenever they felt the urge, and remember the position of the light on the clock face when they experienced the initial urge to move their finger. At the same time as that was all happening, the participants had their brain activity recorded via an electroencephalogram (EEG), which detects levels of electrical activity in the brain.

What Libet was able to show was that timings really matter, and they provide an important clue as to whether or not the unconscious plays a significant role in what we do. He showed that that the electrical activity in the brain built up well before people consciously intended to flex their finger, and then went on to do it.

In other words, unconscious mechanisms, through the preparation of neural activity, set us up for any action we decide to take. But this all happens before we consciously experience intending to do something. Our unconscious appears to rule all actions we ever take.

But, as science progresses, we are able to revise and improve on what we know. We now know that there are several fundamental problems with the experimental set-up that suggest the claims that our unconscious fundamentally rules our behaviour are significantly exaggerated. For example, when correcting for biases in subjective estimates of conscious intention, the gap between conscious intentions and brain activity reduces. However, the original findings are still compelling even if they can’t be used to claim our unconscious completely rules our behaviour.

Another way of approaching the idea of whether we are ultimately ruled by our unconscious is to look at instances where we might expect unconscious manipulation to occur. In fact, in my research I asked people what those were.

The most common example was marketing and advertising. This may not be a surprise given that we often come across terms such as “subliminal advertising”, which implies that we are guided towards making consumer choices in ways that we don’t have any control over consciously.

ames Vicary, who was a marketer and psychologist in the 1950s, brought the concept to fame. He convinced a cinema owner to use his device to flash messages during a film screening. Messages such as “Drink Coca-Cola” flashed up for a 3,000th of a second. He claimed that sales of the drink shot up after the film ended. After the significant furore around the ethics of this finding, Vicary came clean and admitted the whole thing was a hoax – he had made up the data.

In fact, it is notoriously difficult to show in laboratory experiments that the flashing of words below the conscious threshold can prime us to even press buttons on a keyboard that are associated with those stimuli, let alone manipulate us into actually changing our choices in the real world.

Unconscious processes, such as intuition, function in ways that automatically and rapidly synthesise a range of complex information

The more interesting aspect around this controversy is that people still believe, as has been shown in recent studies, that methods such as subliminal advertising are in use, when in fact there is legislation protecting us from it.

But do we make decisions without consciously thinking? To find out, researchers have investigated three areas: the extent to which our choices are based on unconscious processes, whether those unconscious processes are fundamentally biased (for example, sexist or racist), and what, if anything, can be done to improve our biased, unconscious decision-making.

To the first point, a pivotal study examined whether the best choices made in consumer settings were based on active thinking or not. The startling findings were that people made better choices when not thinking at all, especially in complex consumer settings.

The researchers argued that this is because our unconscious processes are less constrained than conscious processes, which make huge demands on our cognitive system. Unconscious processes, such as intuition, function in ways that automatically and rapidly synthesise a range of complex information, and this gives an advantage over thinking deliberately.

As with the Libet study, this research motivated intense interest. Unfortunately, efforts to replicate such impressive findings were extremely difficult, not only in the original consumer contexts, but beyond into areas where unconscious processes are thought to be rife such as in unconscious lie detection, medical decision-making, and romantically motivated risky decision-making.

That said, there are of course things that can influence our decisions and steer our thinking that we don’t always pay close attention to, such as emotions, moods, tiredness, hunger, stress and prior beliefs. But that doesn’t mean we are ruled by our unconscious – it is possible to be conscious of these factors. We can sometimes even counteract them by putting the right systems in place, or accept that they contribute to our behaviour.

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