“We ask ourselves or our friends questions like ‘Why do you drive that car?’ or ‘Why do you like that guy?’ or ‘Why did you laugh at that joke?’ Research suggests that we think we know the answers to such questions but really we often don’t.”

Subliminal, page 7

You are not your whole brain. That is to say, the “you” that is your conscious mind, whose workings you can directly access, makes up only part of your mental processes. The other part, or “unconscious mind” makes (or at least affects) many of your decisions, leaving you only able to guess about how or why.

It’s worth noting that the model of unconscious being presented is from the field of social neuroscience, rather than the poorly defined “subconscious” which originated in Freudian psychology. That is, this is not about weird effects your childhood might have had on you, but about the effect that everyday subliminal (i.e. below the threshold of consciousness) messages (from advertisements, but also factors as simple as body language) have on your unconscious mind and therefore your conscious thoughts and decisions as well.

Golden Egg

Motivated Reasoning

“The ‘causal arrow’ in human thought processes consistently tends to point from belief to evidence, not vice versa.”  (Click to Tweet!)

Subliminal, page 201

The most valuable part of this book is at the very end: the topic of Motivated Reasoning. Humans may self-conceive as being rational agents, but we were not optimized to be objective or logical about things. What most people think they do is use evidence to come to a conclusion; to decide what to do or what to believe by considering the facts. What we actually do most of the time is we have an opinion or belief and then we make the “facts” to support it. This is an excellent strategy for lawyers, but it’s something to be aware of if you’re actually attempting to approach something impassionedly.

There are many reasons that people use motivated reasoning. One is to feel good. There are many ways motivated reasoning does this: One obvious case is favouring positive evidence about our own abilities—94% of people believe they’re an above-average driver (i.e. better than half of other drivers). It’s hard to simply decide to be realistic in one’s self-assessment. Similarly for sports teams, or courts of law, or simply assessing the methodologies of studies: we will, without intending to, favour information that favours our pre-existing beliefs.

The best way to combat that is to attempt to separate evidence from conclusion. Read the methodology of a scientific study and decide how much you support it before you look too deeply into the conclusion. If testing yourself on a number of skills or traits, decide which you value most before you find out your personal scores. This isn’t always easy or even possible, but it’s the only way to thwart this kind of motivated reasoning. Otherwise it’s too late.

Also, on a more abstract/meta level: motivated reasoning provides a mechanism to avoid being wrong in general, but since most people are uncomfortable with being wrong, motivated reasoning also causes itself. Action: be grateful for when you’re wrong. Pat yourself on the back. Admitting you used to be wrong is an important part of being right.

GEM #1

Visual Dominance Ratio

“As in other primate societies, gaze direction and stare are important signals of dominance in human society.”  (Click to Tweet!)

Subliminal, page 120

How is eye-contact related to social dominance? Take a guess right now. (You’re much more likely to remember what I tell you if you attempt your own answer first.)

First, the average amount of eye-contact made varies per person and appears to not be notably related to social dominance. Instead, what matters is the ratio of looking-at-the-other-person-while-speaking and looking-at-the-other-person-while-listening, called the visual dominance ratio. (Feel free to change your hypothesis right now if this point makes it irrelevant.)

What scientists have concluded is that dominant people (and other primates) look at their conversational partner more while speaking than listening. They have a visual dominance ratio around 1.0 or higher. If your visual dominance ratio is instead more like 0.6, you are probably feeling subordinate in some way. This is where the parent-child admonishment, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” comes from. That instruction is an assertion of the parent’s dominance in the social hierarchy.

Knowing this is valuable, because it allows you to shift your implicit place in the social hierarchy. Note that in some situations it may be advantageous to show submission: if you don’t want to appear too competitive to your boss; or if you want to reduce someone else’s feelings of insecurity, or put them at ease.

GEM #2

Group Norm Reminders

“Remember! Binge drinking is prevalent on campus!”  (Click to Tweet!)

Subliminal, page 171

People tend to behave the way other people behave. We’re social creatures. However, we sometimes have conflicting messages about what group norms are, which can lead to unintended consequences for anyone trying to influence behaviour of others. Consider this case mentioned in Subliminal:

Researchers created a sign condemning the fact that many visitors steal the wood from Petrified Forest National Park. They placed the sign on a well-used pathway […] They found that in the absence of a sign, souvenir hunters stole about 3% of the wood pieces in just a ten-hour period. But with the warning sign, that number almost tripled, to 8 percent.

What sociologists and neuroscientists have found is that in many cases, public service announcements designed to prevent a behaviour end up increasing its incidence rate by drawing attention to the fact that many other people are doing it. This causes others to behave the same way because it establishes a norm for the group. This is a valuable point for anyone in marketing or advertising: it’s much more effective to promote the behaviours you do want.


Subliminal is a very comprehensive introduction to the world of the unconscious mind. Most of the book isn’t particularly actionable, but valuable for demonstrating how much of human thought occurs for reasons other than the ones we think.

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Malcolm Ocean

ABOUT Malcolm Ocean

Malcolm Ocean is a jack-of-all-trades engineering student, singer-songwriter, and software developer/designer. He also has a huge passion for dance, and enjoys collaborating with people who make things...
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