This article/essay was written by Matthew Sabatine
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein represent only the author of this article and not everyone at Common Issues.
For years I have been fascinated by the nature and topography of the human unconscious, as it always seems to have a mysterious, even mystical, lure and flavor to it. Although, that could be my imagination as science seems to reveal no mystical basis. We are creatures bound by proclivities and habits, but in ways puzzlingly different from other creatures we see across the globe.
In his book titled Subliminal—How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, author Leonard Mlodinow states: “We are not like computers that crunch data in a relatively straightforward manner and calculate results. Instead, our brains are made up of a collection of many modules that work in parallel, with complex reactions, most of which operate outside of our consciousness. As a consequence, the real reasons behind our judgments, feelings, and behavior can surprise us.”
Comparing the Human Brain to the Computer
A computer has nothing to hide from itself. It does nothing outside of its awareness. A computer does not have hidden layers that cause it to misapprehend the motives, mechanisms, and nature of other things. This enviable kind of high-level competency is one we can’t stop fantasizing about. To anything that demonstrates some level of sophistication and superiority, we always must ask: “How are we similar to this? Why is this unhindered by the things that hinder me?” Perhaps it is the unconscious that always wants to know, and it foists this question upon you.
Despite the unconscious’ evolutionary advantages, Mlodinow begins chapter 1 with focusing on a disadvantage demonstrated by his anecdote about his feeble mother who anthropomorphized a tortoise which she kept in a pen that was festooned with shrubs, chicken wire, rocks, and wood. When the tortoise would regularly climb the pen and look for a hole, she liked to assume it was undertaking a heroic escape and that it could understand her and respond to her.
She made an anthropomorphic mistake that computers don’t make.
Finding Human Agency and Free Will Where They Don’t Belong
We are often too inclined to believe that conscious free-will is the basis for every observable action. Habit and instinct can often be indistinguishable from deliberation and acute awareness of motivation. We may like to think that animals understand human language. We may like to think they utilize thoughtfulness and intentionality. Although, that is a matter of finding human characteristics in places where they don’t belong. It is said that the brain region responsible for thinking about human behavior is similar to the brain region responsible for thinking about nonhuman behavior. Imputing human characteristics to nonhuman entities helps us assign moral worthiness and care to those things. Anthropomorphism makes us believe that nonhuman entities have responsibility for their own actions in ways that justify punishments and rewards. 
Observing roundworm prey on bacteria in a petri dish can exhibit appearances of free-will, the kind of free-will that humans believe is involved with consciously choosing to abstain from an unsavory food or calorie-laden dessert. But a roundworm is not conscious of its results of preying on one specific bacteria versus preying on a different one. It chases the nutrient for which it has been predisposed to chase. This is unlike humans who worry about the chase after another human. For example, we worry about the quality and symbolic meaning of a sexual relationship with another human whereas fruit-flies can’t morally care. When a male fruit-fly plays a courtship song for a female fruit-fly to encourage copulation, he is performing a function hardwired into him that acts as just a means to an end.  It is no wonder that we humans see ourselves relegated to a lower level when we sexually exploit another human as a means to an end. These are examples of automatic, unconscious brain processes at work.
Separating Us From The Creatures of the Earth
But fruit flies and tortoises are at the bottom of the totem pole concerning cerebral and cortical sophistication. Our cerebral and cortical functions have allowed us to invent the wheel, build the pyramids, and land on the moon. Fruit flies and tortoises don’t have such flexibility in intelligence, voluntary movement, coordination of sensory information, learning and memory, and the expression of individuality to make empire-building conquests. Unlike our primitive reptilian systems that push us forward to always develop new devices of ingenuity for navigating the most confusing complexities of life, the fruit fly will never build a jousting weapon to fight off the human fly-swatter nor will the tortoise ever make a burrow or refuge adequate for protecting itself against any human that wants to displace it.
We have a lot of feelings, judgments, and behaviors that fluctuate between our conscious and unconscious parts, thereby making it hard for us to understand ourselves. But this lack of understanding doesn’t stop us from strategically navigating the world around us, because our unconscious reflexes can often act on our behalf when we are lost, especially when it comes to survival. Take for instance how you will react upon seeing a snake suddenly appear in your path. You are going to shrink back at lightning-speed without thinking. That is your unconscious acting on your behalf.
It is easy for us to accept the simple behaviors and choices that the unconscious mind speaks into existence, such as making all the correct turns that take you to your workplace every day. We don’t need to question those unconscious impacts on our decisions and behaviors as much as we need to question other influences such as: what is influencing me to buy this car? What is influencing me to buy these cigarettes? Why do I believe this person is fit for taking care of my disabled parent? Why does this person’s sense of taste and physiognomy make me feel they are worthy of my romantic love?
Our technological revolution has enabled us to use instruments to inspect the regions of the brain responsible for certain feelings and emotions. We can inspect the electrical currents of neuronal activity. We can inspect the underlying mechanisms that produce the final output: thoughts and experiences.
Psychology About the Human Unconscious Since the 1900s
Things have changed since the 1970s when it was widely taken for granted that acute awareness accompanied our social perceptions, judgments, and behaviors. Even in a professional setting, disparagement was heaped on any ideas suggesting an unconscious reality. Apparently, they had not read enough about what we had learned in the past.
We might be inclined to think that Sigmund Freud was the great discoverer of the unconscious. Instead, he was just the great popularizer of the unconscious. The ancient Greeks were able to distinguish between the unconscious and the conscious, though they did not have the science to delineate it entirely. It was Wilhelm Wundt, William Benjamin Carpenter, Joseph Jastrow, and William James that pioneered the modern scientific methodology for inspecting the unconscious. It is unclear to me how much we should accredit Freud for the unconscious. Preposterously and notoriously, he was wrong about the innate forces that drive the unconscious. Perhaps it is obvious to modern folk that most sons and daughters don’t have sexual lusts for their parents, minus those that practice incest. The idea is so fantastical that some would say it has a “supernatural flavor.”
The many undetectable parts of your brain can be attributed to its complex structure and is not attributable to any unhealthiness. Such un-detectability is completely normal. We know today that the unconscious’ role involves more than mere protection against painful memories and sexual desires for parental figures. It was afforded to us by the force of evolution as a survival mechanism.
It is the unconscious parts of yourself (attention, memory, judgment, learning, perception etc.) that are suddenly actuated when needing to circumvent furious, hissing snakes or other injurious obstacles in your path. These are not the parts involved with solving a jigsaw puzzle nor translating a foreign language, which belong to the conscious self.
Sometimes, we can have warrantable confidence as to how we know the motives of our behaviors. Nevertheless, the fact that influential forces occur beyond our awareness typifies that we don’t know ourselves as much as we like to think. I can think of no better example than the dating realm. You may swear you are dating someone for their intelligence or bubbly personality when you are really dating them for their voluptuous body. No matter how sensible our conscious answers may seem, we can often be found mortifyingly wrong.
You Don’t Know Yourself as Much as You Think
What if you unwittingly married someone because of their appealing last name? Mlodinow addresses this in his book that people will marry each other because of matching names. Smith is a very common surname, and of the three southeastern states of America (Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama), Smiths are said to marry others with the same surname “three to five times as often as they marry” other commonplace surnames such as Johnson, Williams, Jones, and Brown. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology issued a 2004 report saying that empirical results have shown that people have affinities for whomever shares characteristics with them because characteristics-sharing provides positive self-affirmation. 
Therefore, if implicit egotism is cherishable here, does this mean we are naturally born to be self-interested by always choosing things that match us in peculiar ways? Perhaps. Maybe the unconscious thinks it is divine fate that is coupling you with someone of the same surname. But would you choose a specific occupation merely because it corresponds with your last name? Will you become a baker if your last name is Baker or a courtroom judge if your last name is Judge? If you value a job for its quality, meaning, and contributory effect on the world, it would be superficial and obtuse of you to pick it just for the title. Although, nominative determinism would speak contrary to this. Isn’t that strange?
The fundamental need to feel good about oneself is evinced by the natural gravitation toward things that share traits with us. The dorsal striatum is connected to this bias-making. Perhaps we stick by those things as they give us some sense of normalcy, stability, familiarity, and comfortableness. Perhaps they are relative to our goals and rewards if 2007 research suggests that “the dorsal striatum mediates important aspects of decision-making, particularly those related to encoding specific action–outcome associations in goal-directed action and the selection of actions on the basis of their currently expected reward value.”  And to achieve our goals and rewards, a lot of self-doubt becomes highly disadvantageous, as Mlodinow states: “Most of us are satisfied with our theories about ourselves and accept them with confidence, but we rarely see those theories tested. Scientists, however, are now able to test those theories in the laboratory, and they have proven astonishingly inaccurate.” 
Scientific Experiments On The Unconscious
Two PhD holders, Brian Wansink and Junyoung Kim, performed a scientific test with 158 Philadelphia movie theater attendees who were given either a medium or large box of either fresh or stale popcorn. Scientists wanted to question whether taste or portion size would determine how much people tend to eat. When given large containers, people ate 45.3% more fresh popcorn than they did when given medium-sized containers. Surprisingly, box size has humongous unconscious influence on how much you eat. The test results indicate that unpalatable foods will not curtail overeating. You may over-consume in correspondence with whatever amount you perceive to be normal for over-consuming. Bigger bowls can gracefully tempt you to think that taking more is acceptable. And this is all facilitated by not knowing how much you have already eaten or how much is left. Over-consumption cues are probably provided more easily in distracting and captivating situations, such as parties, sporting events, and with bottomless and refillable bowls. Researchers have wondered if this could be used as a mental trick to get ourselves to eat less preferable foods, like raw vegetables, more often. 
We often erroneously believe that we can’t be influenced by the same factors that can influence others. Environmental factors can influence how we taste the food. 140 customers participated in a six-week cafeteria experiment involving florid menu titles, and it was determined that such floridness not only helps people to feel more tempted to buy but to also feel that the food tastes better than the identical foods given generic names. 
Studies of this kind go back to the 1940s when the U.S. Committee on Food Habits experimented on American consumers, who, during a World War II shortage of beef and pork, were served organ meats such as brains, kidneys, tongue and liver as replacements. Consumers were receptive to the organ meats if they were unaware of what exactly they were eating but felt repulsed once they knew. Apparently, since then, restaurants and businesses have done a lot to upgrade their warning labels, health labels, and nutritional labels to impact us on that level. Flowery, vivid labels are said to augment sales of those items by 27%. 
There is something much more alluring and mentally picturesque about Belgian Black Forest Double Chocolate Cake versus just Chocolate Cake. The former may make you feel more informed than the latter. Though labels can impact your sensory expectations, advertisers and food-makers realize that this little mental trick will not guarantee satisfaction. On a post-consumption level, labels can either have a positive effect, no effect, or even be disappointing if the food is not as succulent as the label evokes. 
Here is something that might be more realizable for the average observer: the fluency effect. In his book, Mlodinow discusses the fact that a study has been done on how font influences people’s anticipation toward the difficulty for preparing food. Participants who were given an exotically written recipe for a Japanese food reported they were less likely to make the meal at home. The results were replicated when study participants were given an exercise routine written exotically. The mental sweat and exertion involved with information assimilation determines how we view the quality of that information.
Many reports and experiments have been done on this, dating backs to the 1990s. The willingness to do a task, and even to believe it is feasible, increases as required effort lessens. It is believed that previous experiences in addition to task type will determine how you gauge the level of difficulty for an endeavor. It is possible that most people surmise about the task’s difficulty level based on how they envision themselves doing it and what would occur during task-engagement. The feeling of fluency and ease during self-scrutiny impacts how you calculate whether the amount of expected effort is worth your doing. 
Behavioral economist, Antonio Rangel, has performed laboratory studies on student volunteers after undergoing morning-long fasts and unveiled that people are 40 to 61% more inclined to purchase a food item when the item is accessible to touch as opposed to just seeing it in text or image display. Scientists have also questioned if packaging colors, in-store background music, and pleasant scents have any influence on buying-decisions. Studies have shown that these things are consequential. These things speak to the unconscious, though participants could not report on any awareness of such influential factors. 
Rangel performed a wine-tasting study on people with fMRI-based brain scans and it was found that wine prices boosted activity in the orbito-frontal cortex located behind the eyes, a region associated with pleasure inducement. One wine bottle was priced $90 whereas the other was priced $10. Both wines were the same. The only difference was the numbers. Still, the participants’ palates and enjoyments differed between the two wines. This has helped to validate the premise that you not only taste chemical constituents, but you also taste price. 
Does this also apply in the Pepsi-Coke rivalry where Pepsi routinely defeats Coke in a blind taste test, but people prefer Coke when they know what they are drinking? Does the Pepsi paradox exist?
Neighbored to the orbito-frontal cortex is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex which is said to be “the seat of warm, fuzzy feelings such as those we experience when we contemplate a familiar brand-name product.” The VMPC is said to be the “brain-appreciation” unit. Two groups, one with healthy VMPC regions and those with damaged VMPC regions, were involved in a study. Those with healthy brains switched preferences and those with unhealthy brains did not switch preferences once they knew what they were drinking.  Mlodinow concludes with what has been proven scientifically: “Without the ability to unconsciously experience a warm and fuzzy feeling toward a brand name, there is no Pepsi paradox.”
These things not only apply to how we experience beverages and brands. They apply to everything else in life, explicit and implicit, that conspire with what we perceive, what we remember, how we judge, and how we act with underlying factors that evade our awareness.
About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, the psychology of religion, and the history of religion. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclosure statement: I am not a licensed therapist nor doctor. My intention is to not pretend to be either. The information contained in this article is not meant to be accepted instead of a doctor or licensed therapist’s advice. All information contained herein is based on my interpretation of the books and articles I read. My hope and desire is that any troubled person reading this would feel encouraged to get help from a licensed practitioner.
 Subliminal—How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, Leonard Mlodinow, Copyright 2012