Every second, we feed our brains 11,000,000 bits of information and are only conscious of 40 of them. The other 10,999,960 bits are handled by our subconscious. So, our brain is constantly making decisions about what to pay attention to, what to discard, and what to remember. I have studied design for most of my life, and as a communicator calling to action is my goal, so the psychology of decisions plays a major part in the success of my work. Our subconscious plays a significant role in making decisions through stimuli, stored information, and intuition.
Before I get into the depths of the subconscious I need to clarify some terms. There is a lot of confusion between the conscious, subconscious and unconscious minds. The best way to understand the difference is to think of the subconscious mind as the bridge between your unconscious and conscious minds. Consciousness is our awareness of ourselves and the environment. The conscious mind is the part that is responsible for logic and reasoning. What is the sum of one and two? When you decide to take a voluntary action like waving your hand at your neighbor, it is done by the conscious mind. The subconscious mind is responsible for all of your involuntary actions like emotions or heart beat. Your subconscious mind is also the storage room of all your beliefs and memories. The unconscious mind lies completely below your awareness handling the most instinctive actions, and what sets it apart from the subconscious is that it never comes into consciousness.
The subconscious influences our decisions through stimuli. Most, if not all, of stimuli falls below our level of awareness, these stimuli are referred to as subliminal messages and influence our actions. Take billboards for example, often we pass these advertisements on our way to work and pay little to no attention to them. Just because we choose not to read them and concentrate on driving does not mean that they were unsuccessful, otherwise we wouldn’t keep making them. Let’s say we pass a billboard for Intel and like my mother, we have never heard of Intel or their competitor AMD and a few weeks later we are in the market for our first computer. We arrive at the store and have the choice of Intel or AMD, chances are you don’t remember the Intel billboard you passed, but while looking at these two brands laid in front of you the Intel has a level of familiarity to it, it sticks out to you for reasons unknown as the trusted and better choice.
Let’s look at this stimuli in relation to more personal choices. A research study at Yale University showed how temperature affects our decisions. Participants were asked to sit down and speak with a job candidate at the university to give their opinions on whether or not they felt he was right for the position. They were escorted by a man who took down their information on the elevator ride up to meet with the job candidate. Before writing down the information, he asked the participants to hold his hot coffee. After meeting the candidate they all agreed that he was a great fit. The next set of participants did exactly as the first, but instead were handed an iced coffee, and all felt that the same candidate was not right for the position. Why is it that several minutes after being exposed to these temperatures they would have such an effect on our opinions about a man they never met. We still can’t answer that question, all we know is that it happens through association. Having a warm feeling about a product or a person will make you more likely to buy or support it.
The subconscious influences our decisions through stored information. All that stimuli we are exposed to is filtered and stored in the subconscious. When you wake up in the morning, the reason it doesn’t take you an hour to find a pair of pants is because early in your life your learned what pants looked like and how they functioned, and that mental image was stored in your subconscious. There is no thought process involved in this type of identification. There are a lot of factors that influence the subconscious, such as environmental, societal, social, and personal influences and our wants, needs, and desires. A previous experience with a retailer will greatly affect your next experience with retailer.
The subconscious influences our decisions through intuition. We have all heard of going with a gut feeling or that our first choice is often the correct one; this is easiest to see in multiple choice and standardized tests. Our intuitions are based off the vast pool of information we access during every action and at a speed much greater than the conscious mind. Studies conducted by the Max Plank Institute have shown that the subconscious can arrive at a decision up to 2000ms before you believe you made the decision all on your own. This means that when I itch my eyebrow, my brain already knew I was going to, and prepared the action for me. This is because the subconscious is a multitasking machine that can handle up to 1000 tasks simultaneously whereas the conscious can only handle up to 5. If it wasn’t for the power of our subconscious, our thoughts would be filled with basic and mundane tasks – breath, exhale, breath, exhale.
In conclusion, we don’t know which of our actions are free and which ones pulled the wool over our eyes. This is because we are blind to the forces that manage us, and assume there is no management at all. This gap in our perception is what we call “free will”. But subconscious activity sets the stage for conscious actions, through stimuli, stored information, and intuition; and neuroscience has spent decades trying to understand what happens during these crucial moments.