HOW DOES YOUR SUBCONSCIOUS RULE YOUR BEHAVIOR? Previously, I read the book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant, a professor of Organizational Psychology, and wrote an article about biases for you. ( Today, we will touch on the subject of “bias” again, but this time in terms of unconscious behaviour… Our book is Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal, that is, the Subconscious. US physicist and author Leonard Mlodinow (born in 1954), also known for his work on quantum mechanics, is a screenwriter on top of being a published author, and a researcher. He also worked on the book Grand Design with Stephen Hawking from 2008 to 2010. Mlodinow begins by quoting Carl Jung: “There are certain events that we are not consciously aware of; they are called subliminal (below the threshold of consciousness).”

The book is about the subliminal effects that expand our perception, our unconscious mental processes, and how these processes affect us. To fully understand human life, we also need to understand our conscious and unconscious behaviours. The book contains a lot of research and scientific findings of which I will only mention a few. It is difficult, but it would be better to read the entire book because the topic is not so easy to understand, with the science around it being just recently developed. The methods used by Jung, Freud, and others over the past century regarding the unconscious dimension of human behaviour (introspection, observing overt behaviour, studying people with brain damage, implanting electrodes in the brains of animals, etc.) could provide only vague and indirect information. However, the true origins of human behaviour remained unknown. Now, complex technologies allow us to understand the activities of our brain beneath our conscious (subliminal) mind. In the article I mentioned above, I had written, “As for me, I admitted I was prejudiced and also aware of my ignorance. In fact, I always go back and ask what I did wrong in my evaluations. I demand feedforward from young people, I am enlightened. I am not neglecting my education either. However, it is mostly indirectly in meetings and speeches and sometimes directly upon my request. Let’s see what kind of ending awaits us in this article 😀…

Today’s article deals with Leonard Mlodinow’s book called Subliminal -How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (*).

The methods used by Jung, Freud, and others over the past century regarding the unconscious dimension of human behaviour (introspection, observing overt behaviour, studying people with brain deficits, implanting electrodes in the brains of animals, etc.) could only provide vague and indirect information. However, the true origins of human behaviour remained unknown. Now, complex technologies allow us to understand the activities (subliminal) in our brains beneath our conscious minds.

Thus, for the first time, it is now possible to examine the subconscious with scientific methods. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) produces a three-dimensional picture of the inside and outside of the brain, up to a one-millimeter-resolution map of brain activity.

People believe that their behaviour is conscious, and we even humanize the behaviour of animals, especially of our pets. For example, the dog climbs on our suitcase because he doesn’t want us to go on a trip, or has a good reason to hate the postman… We do accommodate a conscious and an unconscious mind in our brains indeed. It is difficult to tell how much of our emotions, judgments, and behaviours originate from which. It is possible that the more complex and essential behaviours that we think about thoroughly and rationally that are likely to have a great impact on our lives may also be automatic.

Today, scholars can detect changes in the brain resulting from traumatic early experiences (childhood/youth) and understand how such experiences cause physical changes in stress-sensitive areas of the brain. Based on such studies, the modern concept of the unconscious is called the “new unconscious.”

Human behaviour is the product of a continuous flow of perception, emotion, and thought at the conscious and unconscious levels. Conscious thought can be beneficial when designing a car, but when it comes to eliminating a danger, like a snake bite, only our unconscious can protect us. While living in the physical and social world, many processes, such as perception, memory, attention, learning, and judgment, are evaluated unconsciously.

Scholars have identified an area of the brain for bias, called the ‘dorsal striatum’. So, there’s proof that prejudice has its place in the brain. Studies show that people have a general tendency to act with “low talent and high self-confidence.” For example, in one study, when subjects were allowed to choose a flavour/pot combination in a movie theatre, people decided what to eat based on the size of the bowl. This supports the view that advertisers unconsciously influence us through “environmental” factors such as package design, portion size, and menu descriptions. What is surprising is the extent of this influence and the resistance people have to believe they could be manipulated. Even when we acknowledge that those factors can affect others, we often believe we are exceptional.

Environmental factors also have a very powerful unconscious influence on how food tastes. For example, pretentious terms on the menus of fancy restaurants encourage people to order these options, making them believe that the food tastes better. Research shows that information written in hard-to-read fonts, that is, difficult to understand, positively affects our judgments about the subject.

Scientific studies investigating the new unconscious reveal that the quirks in our judgment and perception are caused by errors in the way our brain automatically processes relevant information. Unlike computers, our brain consists of modules that work in parallel with each other and in complex interactions, most of which work unconsciously.

These studies show that people are somehow influenced by irrelevant factors, i.e., desires and motives that traditional economists are unaware of. Moreover, when the subjects are questioned about their decisions, it seems they are not at all aware that they were influenced by these factors. We make judgments on products based on their boxes, books by their covers, and even annual reports of institutions based on their glossy papers. For example, even when making money decisions, we do not make logical and conscious decisions as classical economics has predicted. Researchers show that investors in the stock market are more attracted to companies whose names are easy to pronounce. Also, it seems that sunny and cloudy weather affects stock prices; we do all this unknowingly!

For centuries, scientists have debated the nature of “reality” and whether the world we live in is real or an illusion. But modern neuroscience teaches us that all our perceptions are, in a way, illusions. Our unconscious not only interprets sensory data, but it also modifies them to make them better than they are. This is because the data sent by our senses can be of poor quality and incomplete and thus, in need of correction to enable processing. These processes occur unconsciously and allow us to see images as smoothly and clearly as if they were recorded by a camera. Our sense of hearing works similarly. We also unconsciously fill the gaps in auditory data. Since phonemic enhancement depends on the meaning of the sentence we just started hearing, what we think we heard at the beginning can impact the word at the end of the sentence. For example, the brain can complete the word by adding the appropriate consonants.

In summary, each person’s mind is a scientist creating a model of the world around us, of the everyday life that our brain detects through our senses. The world we perceive is an artificially constructed environment, the result of our unconscious mental operations, insofar as it is the product of real data in terms of character and properties. This leads us to the question of how we judge the people we meet on various factors, from images to memories. Let’s say you met someone new. You had a short conversation and made an assessment based on the person’s appearance, clothing style, ethnic group, accent, and gestures. Fine. But how can you be sure that the picture you have created, that is, your judgment, is correct?

How much can we trust our recollections in our own daily lives? In fact, instead of the ability to remember perfectly, we are equipped with the ability to process and handle enormous amounts of information. The problem the mind faces, and the unconscious resolves, is to sift through the aggregate of incoming data and preserve the parts that matter to you. When you have to recount a memory years later, you remember the details as they were added by your unconscious mind.

When we look at a scene (any stimulus from our point of view), we think we see a clear, well-defined picture that looks like a photograph, but we see only a small part of the picture clearly, and our subliminal brain adds the missing part to complete it. Our brain uses the same trick for memory. Any memory we surely believe that we remember correctly can be wrong.

People are social. Scholars are discovering that social pain is also linked to the “anterior cingulate cortex” of the brain. This structure also emerges in the emotional component of physical pain. Social rejection not only causes emotional pain but also affects our physical being. Some scientists believe that the need for social interaction is the driving force behind human giftedness. We band together to form groups and call it coordinated movement during complex activities. One of the qualities that distinguishes us from animals may be our social intelligence. In particular, with the “Theory of Mind,” which seems to be unique to us humans and refers to the ability to understand what others are thinking and feeling, we have a significant power to feel and predict other people’s behaviour, taking into account their current and future conditions. For example, in the last World Cup, I observed firsthand that Messi accurately predicted where the ball would end up, as well as his opponent’s behaviour. I wrote about this too ( ).

Our basic theory of mind is formed in the first year, and by the age of four, almost all children are capable of assessing the mental states of others. When the theory of mind deteriorates (as in autism), it gets challenging for the individual to function properly in society.

One of the criteria of the theory of mind is called intentionality, referring to the extent to which moods are mirrored. An organism capable of reflecting its beliefs and desires is described as having “first-order intention“: I want a plate of my mother’s roast. But knowing another person highly differs from the ability to know oneself, and a ‘half-intentioned’ organism can form a belief about someone else’s mood: I believe my son wants to take a bite out of my roast. In “Third Degree Intention,” one can make judgments about what a second person is thinking. I believe my mom thought she wanted to have a bite of her son’s roast beef. This is how it goes. For example, literature requires quaternary intentionality because writers make judgments about their personal experiences with quaternary intentionality: I think the clues in this scene will make the reader think that Horace thought Mary was intent on abandoning him. Primates show first- and second-order intentionality, whereas humans engage in third- and fourth-order intentionality and are said to be capable of sixth-order intentionality. I wonder to what extent successful leaders and politicians can read intent…

Today’s neuroscientists offer scholars the opportunity to study how different structures of the brain contribute to thoughts, emotions, and behaviours based on the brain’s functions, physiology, and evolutionary development. With the help of fMRI, social psychology, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience merge, and social neuroscience is born.

In addition to speaking, people also maintain a parallel nonverbal communication, and the messages given in this way can reveal much more than carefully chosen words and sometimes even contradict them. Much of nonverbal cue reading is automatic, outside of both our conscious awareness and control. Through nonverbal cues, we unknowingly give a lot of information about ourselves and our moods. The gestures we make, the posture of our body, the expressions on our faces, and the nonverbal qualities of our speech affect how others see us. When communicating with our family, friends, employers, and even surveyed marketing focus groups, we consciously or unintentionally reveal our expectations, and they often respond to us in a way that justifies those expectations. Our ability to form and recognize facial expressions begins at birth. Young babies make the same facial muscle movements as adults to express their emotions. Our facial expressions are like standard equipment. All humans are born with this ability, and since it is largely part of our nature and an unconscious part of our existence, the transmission of our emotions happens naturally, whereas it takes a lot of effort to hide them, to have a poker face, so to speak. Social dominance achieved through a nonverbal form of communication is based on admiration rather than fear and is gained through social success. In many ways, nonverbal communication constitutes a social language and understanding that is richer and more rooted than our words. Our perception of nonverbal cues, body language, and accompanying movements is enough to activate the ability to accurately perceive the emotion of the other person.

Today’s social psychologists categorize nonverbal communication into three basic types: One category is related to body movements (facial expressions, posture, eye movements); another is called translingual (which includes the quality of our speech and pitch of our voice, the number and duration of our pauses, and the laryngeal clearing); lastly, the distance we leave between us and the person we are talking to, that is, the use of personal space. In summary, it can be said that we are like a repository of information about nonverbal cues, even if we do not consciously understand them.

Another example is the voice. We receive a wide variety of signals from the tone, quality, and harmony of one’s voice. In one study, high-pitched voices were perceived as less sincere, less empathetic, less powerful, and more tense than low-pitched ones. Speeding up your speaking pace a little bit can make you look smarter and more persuasive.

Researchers find that their subjects are more successful when they have physical contact with each other than when they don’t. Touching boosts the number of those who agree to sign a petition, or those who choose to purchase the food product they tasted at the market, etc. A study conducted on basketball at the University of Berkeley in 2010 revealed that the teams with the highest rate of “touching” (fist punches, high fives, team hugs) among teammates were the teams that cooperated and won the most. Touch seems to be a very important tool in increasing social cooperation and commitment. In summary, most of the judgments we make about people are based on superficial qualities, such as voice, face, facial expression, posture, and other nonverbal aspects.

Research suggests that we could think of classification as a tactic our brain uses to process information more effectively. We simply lack the mental capacity to observe and evaluate every detail of everything and everyone around us. Instead, we use a few features we observe that will allow us to categorize that object and then make our evaluations of the object in terms of the category to which it belongs rather than the object itself. In this way, we speed up our reaction. The fact that we divide objects into groups can also affect our judgments about those objects themselves. The unconscious mind transforms ambiguous diversities and subtle nuances into easily understandable differences. The purpose of the unconscious mind is to preserve the information that matters while eliminating irrelevant details. When this is done successfully, we simplify our environment, making it easier and faster to navigate. However, when we do it inappropriately, we distort our perceptions, sometimes in a way that harms others. For example, we can fall into the trap of misperception, thinking that people, for example, the members of a certain race or ethnic group, or the fans of a certain sports club, are much more similar than they are. We generalize.

Until the mid-1980s, many psychologists thought that discrimination was not usually caused by some inevitable cognitive processes related to the brain’s vital tendency to categorize but rather by conscious and deliberate behaviour. However, an article published by Washington University in 1998 contains concrete evidence concerning unconscious classification. In summary, although your evaluation of another person may seem logical and conscious to you, it is predominantly the product of automatic, unconscious processes. The question here is not how to stop categorizing but how we become aware of what we do when we categorize people in a way that prevents us from seeing each individual as who they are.

Today, it is considered inappropriate to use an encouraged character trait that is considered to belong to a category as an opportunity. But we are just beginning to understand what unconscious bias is all about. People who claim to have been discriminated against on the grounds of race, colour, religion, or gender in the US have to prove that they were not only treated differently but also that the treatment was intentional. The issue that is difficult to detect is that the cause of all these has to do with unconscious discrimination and prejudices that are hidden even from the individual and hard to notice. So we need to make an effort to overcome our unconscious biases. Our repeated contact with members of a category can act as an antidote to the negative traits that society ascribes to the members of that category.

Once we feel that we belong to a group, the opinions of others in that group infiltrate our thoughts, affecting the way we perceive the world. Psychologists call these “group norms.” Considering ourselves members of a group causes us to separate all people into one of two categories: “us” or “them.” This shared identity leads us to see the achievements and failures of the group as our own. We tend to favour our group members in our social and business-related interactions. Our group-based social identities become so strong that we discriminate against them. Many companies find advertising effective in creating a group identity among their customers. Thanks to this commercial communication, we treat classifications, such as being an Apple or BMW customer, as if they are meaningful within a more comprehensive range than the one they belong to.

So, we all have multiple personalities. During the day, we become other people depending on the circumstances, our social environment, and our hormone levels. Our character is not indelibly stamped on us but rather dynamic and changeable; We are influenced by our subconscious and the surrounding environment.

So how accurately do we perceive ourselves? Psychologists describe our tendency of inflated self-evaluation as the “better-than-average response.” In one study, doctors who diagnosed their patients with pneumonia reported an average confidence rate of 88% in the accuracy of their diagnosis, but it turns out that they only made the correct diagnosis in 20% of the cases. Such bloating also applies to the business world. Many executives think their company is more likely to succeed because they run it themselves, and CEOs may be overconfident. The irony is that people can sense such inflated self-evaluation and overconfidence can be a problem, but only when it comes to others!

Believing our desires are true and then seeking evidence to justify them, what psychologists refer to as “motivated reasoning,” helps us to believe in our well-being and efficacy, to feel in control, and to have an overly positive evaluation of ourselves overall. Because motivated reasoning is unconscious, we may sincerely claim we are not influenced by prejudices or our interests, even when making decisions that are in our own best interests. Current neuroimaging research shows that our brain automatically takes our wishes, dreams, and desires into account when evaluating data about our emotions. Changing our criteria to accept evidence in favour of our preferred outcome is just one of the subliminal mind’s motivated reasoning tools, reminding me of an ex-politician who lost every election and then said, “We are the true winners.” Among the ways we have found to support our view of the world, including self-evaluation, there is the task of adjusting the importance we attach to the various pieces of evidence as it suits us, and sometimes completely ignoring the evidence against them. For example, after winning a football game, the fans brag about their team’s play but after an accidental defeat, they blame bad luck and the referees. Research shows that our estimates of how long it will take to finish a job are directly dependent on how soon we want it to be completed. This must be an engineering error, too!

But when faced with big problems, the natural optimism of the human mind before challenging events and incidents, such as losing a job, starting chemotherapy, or overcoming the devastation of a major disaster, etc.,  is the greatest gift we have.

I ask myself, “Is there a COMMON MIND – COMMON CONSCIOUSNESS?”

Think about it; many inventions, such as the radio and the telephone, were invented by many people across different continents at almost the same time. In other words, Graham Bell is not the person who finds the phone but the person who says “Hello” to the first incoming call and registers it. Likewise, while all means of communication were banned for decades during the Cold War, scientific developments, such as nuclear weapons and space travel were achieved by the scholars of both poles. Today, even Pakistan, India, Israel, and Iran possess nuclear power.

As an example of COMMON CONSCIOUSNESS, examining the historical development of Western philosophy and thought dialectically, can we say that the thesis/antithesis led the world first to Hot War (fascism), then to Cold War (communism), and now to deglobalization (stakeholder capitalism-democracy) resulting from increased communication?


As if this is one of our social sins… Because we always repeat it. “They were shown what they did well, and they became more and more fierce. This led to their destruction,” the Qur’an explains when discussing past tribes. Again, while describing the past tribes, it says that they had become an extremely selfish individualistic society with their firm beliefs, prejudices, and self-conceited, unaware/unappreciated attitudes. So, what is the situation today?

Keeping prejudices apart, wouldn’t it be so hard to live happily if we didn’t forget, compare, or even have some biases!?!

(*) Mlodinow L. (2013). Sübliminal: Bilinçdışınız Davranışlarınızı Nasıl Yönetir?, Okuyan Us Yayınları, p.328.

In my readings, I have come to perceive confusion regarding the use of such terms as subconscious, unconscious, and subliminal in English books. Through discussions, I understood this is because there is a difference between perceiving a certain stimulus consciously and unconsciously, that is, storing it in our brain, even to the extent that if the stimulus remains below our sensory threshold impacts its storage. Generally, consciously perceiving and storing the stimulus in the brain (whether purposefully or involuntarily) is termed as subconscious or unconscious, and perceiving the stimulus (if any) without awareness and making a record of it is called subliminal. In this book, the author uses these terms interchangeably without distinction.

Note: This open-source article can be quoted by citing the author. No copyright is required.