Coming to terms with unconscious processes that influence our conscious mind

This post concludes an ongoing series looking at the level of conscious control humans have over their political thoughts and decisions.

Over the course of the last two weeks, I’ve run a series of posts with the following question in mind: How much of our political thought process, and therefore behavior, do we have conscious control over?

So far, the answer has been “less than we may have initially thought.”

To recap:

The question remains, how much room is left for our conscious minds to influence our behavior? As it turns out, still quit a bit. As I wrote for the Kenyon Observer last year, there’s a handy game you can play to determine if a thought process is conscious or not:

Person 1 must hold the number 9,345,231 in their head while Person 2 lists a series of nouns, some neutral (car, cloud, dog, etc.) and some that are socially-charged (Mexican, gay, woman, etc.). Person 1 must word-associate these nouns as quickly as they can while keeping the large number in their head. Then, the exercise is repeated while Person 1 thinks of the number three, a much smaller number.

…If it takes the same amount of time for the person to respond regardless of how large their “cognitive load” is (9,345,231 is a lot harder to remember than three), that means the association requires no conscious deliberation and is therefore automatic. If, on the other hand, it takes more time to respond when thinking of a big number, that means that the thoughts in question have a conscious component to them.

This game is hard; in my experience, most people find themselves taking longer to word-associate the socially-charged nouns than the neutral nouns.

Subconscious via Shutterstock

Subconscious via Shutterstock

The game shows us that if we are thinking past our gut feelings our thoughts are, at least in part, consciously-driven. A visceral, immediate reaction to the word “taxes” cannot be considered very conscious. On the other hand, when we find ourselves taking more than a split second to think about what we’re hearing (if we “check our gut”), that thought process can be said to be more than a squirrel-like response to a stimulus.

Naturally, it’s a lot easier to check your gut if you acknowledge that your gut exists. Because of this, acknowledging that we do not have complete control over our political attitudes and behaviors is the first step towards consciously overriding many of our unconscious processes.

As I wrote in the first post of this series, the prefrontal cortex of our brain is, in evolutionary terms, a new structure. Since evolution is a tinkerer, not a builder, that means that the prefrontal cortex evolved to augment and improve upon, not replace, the cognitive structures that were already there.

While, in many cases, our conscious mind serves as a lawyer for the unconscious, rationalizing the last slice of pizza or bias against “different” people, catching ourselves in these rationalizations can allow us to use our conscious minds as a check on our unconscious.

Over the course of this series, I’ve done my best to draw upon recent and relevant academic literature from the fields of psychology, political science, economics, biology and neuroscience. While each of these fields treat the relationship between the conscious and unconscious minds differently, they increasingly point toward a significant role for unconscious processes in our political attitudes and behaviors. Increased dialogue between psychologists, biologists, neuroscientists and political scientists could yield fascinating discoveries; we have only scratched the surface of our political consciousness.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • hollywoodstein


  • hollywoodstein

    And scene.

  • In other words, our lizard hind-brain — the emotional parts of our cortex — influence much of our thinking and opinions, meaning that people are not usually swayed at their most fundamental levels by rational argument or objective facts.

  • perljammer

    LOL, condew — it looks as if you need to come to terms with unconscious processes that influence your conscious mind.

  • condew

    Only if you’re a Democrat; if you’re GOP TP you don’t need no stink’n facts.

  • mirror

    Those sound like stories that would require objectively verifiable facts.

  • perljammer

    Well, it’s early yet (on the West coast, anyway). Plus, the article’s headline doesn’t quite have the drawing power of “TSA Performs Live Vivisection on 80 Year Old Cancer Patient” or “GOPers Roast and Eat Children At Gun Rally”.

  • henry wallace

    No one has commented yet…temporary unconscience

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